Cobra Kai Costume Designer Frank Helmer Talks Character Evolution

One of the biggest reasons for the success of the Netflix series Cobra Kai is the attention to detail. Everything from the characters, plot, and Easter eggs left behind creatively provides the perfect formula for one kick-ass production. I spoke to costume designer Frank Helmer who's able to extend the characters' stories and demeanor through the clothing their wear. It also helps the inspiration when you get to work on a dream project you never imagined happening growing up.

COBRA KAI (L to R) RALPH MACCHIO as DANIEL LARUSSO and WILLIAM ZABKA as JOHNNY LAWRENCE of COBRA KAI Cr. CURTIS BONDS BAKER/NETFLIX © 2020
Cr. CURTIS BONDS BAKER/NETFLIX © 2020

"I grew up as a fan of the [Karate Kid] films," Helmer said. "I grew up seeing Johnny [Lawrence] (William Zabka) and Daniel [LaRusso] (Ralph Macchio) battle each other out and all the other characters in the subsequent sequels into the series. It was such a part of my youth. When I got the opportunity to be on it, I was like, 'Yes, absolutely! I'd love to do that." Cobra Kai is a sequel series that finds rivals, Daniel and Johnny, back at it again, but as teachers leading their own respective dojos with a new generation with the original actors from the films reprising their roles. The designer broke down two of the younger cast members' in Jacob Bertrand, who plays Eli aka Hawk, and Mary Mouser, who plays Samantha LaRusso, Daniel's daughter:

COBRA KAI (L to R) JACOB BERTRAND as ELI and MARY MOUSER as SAMANTHA LARUSSO of COBRA KAI Cr. TINA ROWDEN/NETFLIX © 2020
Cr. TINA ROWDEN/NETFLIX © 2020

We do a lot of a lot of foreshadowing and Easter egg dropping in the clothing. I use it a lot to reflect the change in the characters. Like, for example, in season one we meet Eli, who then becomes Hawk as the series progresses. [Before] He's a classically nerdy sort of kid who doesn't really care about his clothes and is insecure. When he finds Cobra Kai dojo, he finds the strength in himself and becomes a more confident person. That reflects in his clothes and his hairstyle and his demeanor. So his clothes get a lot cooler. He gets a lot more like a Southern California skater dude feeling. He really adopts the colors of the dojo, which are black, red and gold. We really restrict his palette and his clothes to that.

Another good example of how the clothing helps to reflect where they are emotionally is with Sam (Mary Mouser). When she's in full Miyagi-do affinity, her clothing and color palette is in the cool pinks, blues, and whites…things that are in the Miyagi classic color scheme. As she gets more drawn to Cobra Kai and to Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), who she starts developing feelings for, her colors to sort of blend the purples and things like that to reflect she's floating between worlds. It's something that I do very intentionally with her and with a lot of the other characters. Their clothing reflects where they are emotionally, both in color and style.

Cobra Kai Costume Designer Frank Helmer Talks Character Evolution
Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2020

While some might not pick up on it throughout the series, Helmer broke down how Johnny has changed himself up to season three. "When we meet Johnny, he's down and out, he is wearing these beat-up old jeans, which are kind of dirty, shlumpy, [and he] kind of just doesn't care about what he's wearing," he said. "He's also a character who never progressed in his style beyond how he was in high school. It's sort of like he stopped dressing at the height of his powers. So he's dressing like he's still in high school in a lot of ways. He's obviously a grown man, but he is wearing youthful looks. It wouldn't be out of place if you put it on a younger person and totally appropriate in high school." Helmer broke down how Johnny's growth even allowed him to embrace something he was once ashamed of. "In season three as [Johnny] becomes the head of Eagle Fang," he said. "We make him a little bit cooler. He pays a little bit more attention to his outlook. He's feeling more confident and stronger. His jeans are a little more trendsetting, his colors a little cooler as he's not afraid to wear an iconic red jacket again. I did the same thing with him that I do with all the characters and that is reflected in his clothing."

Cobra Kai Costume Designer Frank Helmer Talks Character Evolution
Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2020

While Helmer couldn't say much about the upcoming fourth season, he offered a tease of what to look forward to. "I think the fans are going to really love what we have in store for them," he said. "We're all very excited about the story of the season. We all love these characters so much. I know all the props, people, production, and everybody has to get a lot of joy out of throwing Easter eggs and throwbacks to the original movies for the fans." Season four of Cobra Kai is slated for late 2021.

About Tom Chang

I'm a follower of pop culture from gaming, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, film, and TV for over 30 years. I grew up reading magazines like Starlog, Mad, and Fangoria. As a writer for over 10 years, Star Wars was the first sci-fi franchise I fell in love with. I'm a nerd-of-all-trades.
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