Costume designer Frank Helmer is the man behind the women of D.E.B.S. – Amy, Janet, Max and Dominique. D.E.B.S., which opens March 25, are crime fighting hotties recruited by the U.S. government for their unique ability to lie, cheat and fight, and to save the world and keep their lipstick perfectly applied while doing so. And Frank Helmer created a tighter, shorter, sexier version of the classic schoolgirl look for the world's sexiest secret agents, the ladies of D.E.B.S.
What exactly does a costume designer do?
The costume designer is in charge of clothing for all of the actors in a movie. We interface with the director and production designer to create "the closets," if you will, of all the talent.
How did you get started as a costume designer?
I started in fashion about 12-15 years ago in Seattle working on a small line of independently produced clothing. I also hung out and volunteered at the Seattle International Film Festival, where I met indie producers, directors and writers. Eventually, one of them said, "Come down to L.A. and do this student film." I thought that sounded like fun, so I came to L.A., made this student film, stayed here, apprenticed, assisted, and made my way through.
Tell us what inspired the D.E.B.S. look.
Several things inspired D.E.B.S., the most obvious being the classic schoolgirl look, adapted for young women. There's a comic book aesthetic where things are slightly exaggerated as far [character] silhouettes, and obviously the skirts are short and sexy, not [the usual] full-cut, schoolgirl plainness. [D.E.B.S.] was really inspired by a certain aesthetic that [director] Angela [Robinson] and I talked a lot about with the production designer, making it real but popping it out a little bit, but not making it too Technicolor. We wanted to have a Pop aesthetic without appearing stupid.
Though all four characters wear the same uniform, each character wears something uniquely there own. Janet loves sweaters, Amy likes knee socks, Dominique is into stilettos, and Max loves those combat boots. Tell us how you arrived at making these costume choices in constructing the characters.
Each character is an archetype. Each character has their forte in the storyline. Amy is the perfect score, Janet the prim and proper one. And Dominique is the French foreign exchange student. They each had their own individual aesthetic, so the idea was to dress them to suit their character. Max is the leader, she's the alpha-dog, if you will, and so she's a got a certain toughness, but she's also really sexy, so she wears a butch tank top and boots, but she's got a body to die for, so you know, it was really fun to create each character's look that was individual, given the limitations that they're all wearing a uniform. [The challenge is] how do we adapt that to each character? Amy always has knee socks, and Janet almost always has a sweater because she's the prissy one and she's almost always covered up, and Dominique's skirt is so short because she has legs for days. We almost took [the costumes] to the point where they had character underwear, in case we should get a flash of something. So, Dominique was wearing lacy French underwear, and Max was wearing boy briefs, and Janet had prissy little underwear, and Amy had a thong. So it was like, you know, we just took it to that extreme, because that was all a part of the characters, it was who those girls were. It's what they would wear.
Tell us where Lucy Diamond's look came from.
Lucy needed to be a strong sexy woman. We wanted her to be perceived as evil, even though, as you see in the movie, she's not as evil as everyone makes her out to be. But we wanted to give a very severe look, but also sexy and feminine. And Jordana [Brewster] is beautiful, so it was really easy, because she can soften a very harsh look, which on another actor might overwhelm her. She could carry off the clean, black lines and the deeply plunging necklines and really pull it off. And again, it was a certain archetypical comic book character where the villains always wear black.
Did any of the actresses have special requests when you were putting their costumes together?
They all got into the character ideas they were presented with. A lot of it was getting the right shoes, matching heights as best we could, making sure the shoes were comfortable because they were in them a lot and doing a lot of action sequences. The biggest things we worried about were the fight scenes! Dominique is in stilettos, and they all wear heels of some sort, so [we had to get shoes] that work with the stunts was a big challenge. Again, the character underwear came into play because of the stunts, because we needed to have coverage that was appropriate, so we're not flashing some white granny panties.
How closely did you try to match the actresses' costumes to their real personalities?
Not so much their personalities as much as their body types predicated how a lot of the costumes turned out. For example, Devon [Aoki] is a supermodel and she has legs for days so she could have a much shorter skirt. Meagan [Goode] is well endowed and so the tank tops kept getting shorter and tighter to show off her attributes. A lot of what a costume designer does is works with the actresses' bodies as well as the character, to find the right place.
How closely did you work with the director, Angela Robinson, in creating the D.E.B.S. look?
I love working with Angela. We have a similar sense of humor. We really click as far as what we wanted to do. She got where I wanted to go and I got where she wanted to go, so we worked very closely, especially in the first few weeks of prep, determining which particular plaid, how short should we go, how sexy do we want certain things to be, seeing how far can we push the limits. It was really great.
Plaid, the new black?
Well of course! Plaid is the new black, the old black and the current black.
What advice would you give to the ladies to give themselves that D.E.B.S. look?
Follow the mantra of D.E.B.S.: shorter and tighter.