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If ever there were a hero whose costume was the outward expression of his inner badass, it's Cobra Kai's Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). Of course, Johnny's badass fashion choices go way back to his Daniel LaRusso-kicking Karate Kid days, when he first donned a perfectly fitted headband and the most vinyl of red Michael-Jackson-wannabe jackets to such badass heights. Granted, his fashion sense may have stagnated in 1984, but when you've perfected badass chic, why move on?
While Johnny himself may not have moved on, and probably doesn't have to put too much thought into looking so rad, the person who currently dresses him, Cobra Kai costume designer Frank Helmer, does. So of course when we got the chance to chat while he took a break from shooting the just-wrapped Season 4 of the hit Netflix series, we couldn't help but ask: How do you get Johnny to look like such a total badass?
"Well, there's a few ways, one is just like… um… well I mean, Johnny's a badass. He's a really easy character to dress that way, because he embodies that. Billy Zabka is just so good at that character," Helmer tells SYFY WIRE. "We're also finely tuned into what makes Johnny Johnny, and what makes Daniel Daniel, and what makes all the characters who they are. The costumes is one part for them that really helps exemplify that."
Of course, that doesn't just happen. The amount of shopping around for such perfect style is no easy task, but badassery takes some sweat (and sweatbands). And we all reap the rewards on screen.
"When we're in the fitting room and we're going over… whether it's a vintage band T-shirt, or a new baseball shirt, or the perfect plaid shirt and the perfectly distressed pair of Levis... when we see the character as something that pops into life in front of us, we're like, 'Yes, that's it!' Every time. And it's really satisfying still to do that with them," Helmer says.
Admittedly, Johnny's been rocking the perfect plaid since his West Valley High School days. And that's something that factored into Helmer's costuming ever since his initial conversations with Zabka about dressing Johnny for Season 1.
"We feel like Johnny Lawrence stopped changing the way he dressed or changing his style at the height of his powers, which was in high school," Helmer says. Thus the band tees, the baseball tees, and the things that are "maybe slightly age inappropriate."
Helmer imagines that Johnny just never had any real reason to buy anything different than what he was wearing in high school. However, fashion finds a way.
"So he's kind of like trapped in amber, style-wise. What's really cool about it is that he had great style then, and the style's come back around, so he's looking even more stylish today."
They don't call it "costume design" for nothing, though, as Helmer says that's all been part of the design for Johnny's look all along.
"It's partly by design, actually a lot of it is by design because when we first meet him in Season 1, he's this down on his luck, schlub handyman, right? His jeans are dirty and baggy, his clothes are ill-fitting, he wears really drab colors. And as he comes more into himself, with reclaiming Cobra Kai, with becoming the sensei of Eagle Fang, his clothes get a little bit more stylish, but they're still within the realm of: you could have worn this in '87."
"His jeans get a little bit tighter and a little bit better fitting, his colors get a little bit brighter, he brings out that iconic red jacket again, and we brought in some more band tees of his favorite '80s rock bands," Helmer says, while noting that he actually found that jacket (shown above) during Season 1, but held on to it for just the right moment. "So we engineer it so that he gets a little bit more stylish as he goes, but he's never going to move much far beyond that overall aesthetic."
But it's not just Johnny's clothes that didn't quite make it out of the '80s, his taste in tunes seems to have plateaued early on as well. As we saw in Season 3, he sneaks Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) into a Dee Snider show and calls him "the most badass rocker ever." So Johnny is very much still a Twister Sister fan. Which is pretty much on beat for his musical tastes today, which is naturally reflected in his garb.
"We've had him in Metallica, we've had him in AC/DC, and Poison, I think I've had him in Ratt, and I've had him in Scorpions, and I've had him in a Styx T-shirt, that was a really good find. And I had him in Red Hot Chili Peppers, which is almost too cool, but they're so California, that I feel like he would have been really drawn to that California band vibe, I think they would have really resonated with him," Helmer says, while noting that all the band tee's on the show are original vintage one-offs, which means you'll likely never see him fighting in one.
Granted, not every '80s band is the right fit.
"Billy did pitch to me in a fitting that he should have a Loverboy T-shirt on. And I'm like, 'I don't know about that, man. You are a loverboy, but I'm not sure about it."
Ironically, Loverboy was one of the better headband bands of their day. But it's a special head that can don a headband just as perfectly in the golden days of youth as in the epsom salted nights of middle age. And Johnny Lawrence has that special head.
"He just knows how to wear it. He's got the right hair. We spend a lot of time getting the right looks down, and it had to relay back to the headband in the original movie, but you know, we're all older and bigger in different ways, and we scaled it so it's just the right size for him today, which probably would have been too big on him when he was a teenager," he says.
But when pushed as to why the headband look had been so elusive for at least one middle-aged, glory days-recalling geek news writer, Helmer offered this advice: "I would say it has to do with the scale of the headband, I would try smaller or bigger, keep trying till you get it right."
Words to live by.
Alas, while Helmer had plenty to say on Johnny's badass past, his lips remain mostly sealed as for Johnny's fashion journey moving forward into Season 4. "It's a really fun season, we're having a blast, I think it's going to be a really, really good one," he says. "There's going to be a lot of satisfying things for everybody."
We'll soon see what that looks like, as Season 4 of Cobra Kai drops on Netflix later this year.