This story discusses the winner and results of Making the Cut.
“It’s nothing groundbreaking, but I love it,” Naomi Campbell said of Jonny Cota’s pop-up store, which looked just like a high-end clothing store you’d find on, say, the Magnificent Mile in Chicago.
That could sum up my feelings about the show, too. While it attempted to be new and break free from Tim Gunn, Heidi Klum, and producer Sara Rea’s earlier show, it ended up like Project Runway with an unlimited budget: a strong cast of talented designers who faced some predictable reality TV challenges as they traveled the world.
Campbell ended up voting for Esther Perbandt to win, but by a 3-2 vote, the judges gave the $1 million win to Cota, who both he and Perbandt agree was the more commercial of the two. Sander Bos was cut after the pop-up store challenge.
After just a month to work on both a collection and a pop-up store’s worth of concept, clothes, and accessories, the designers returned to New York and set up their pop-up shops.
Tim Gunn almost tearfully told the three that one of them would be cut. Just before the judges eliminated Sander—with Heidi’s lifeless and increasingly irritating “Did you change your mind?” polling of the panel—Heidi told the three, “We did not want to make this decision.”
So why do that? Why not let Sander present the collection he created? The answer, of course, is because reality TV needs an elimination, and some drama.
Heidi Klum said Lifetime “didn’t wanna change,” and that implied that Making the Cut would somehow break free of the same trappings that a cable reality show has. It didn’t. It lost its nerve, and leaves the rebooted Project Runway as still the best fashion competition.
What Amazon’s show did do was spend money—or, at least, it used its budget incredibly well. In episode one, it flew the cast to New York City only to fly them immediately to Paris, and in the finale the show created personalized workspaces for the final three for just two final challenges. (Amazon Fashion should have spent more money producing the garments from the show, since they all sold out almost immediately.)
Making the Cut was glossy and often gorgeous, and its runway locations offered some great backdrops to its challenges. It was far more watchable and better cast than Netflix’s flat and uninspired Next in Fashion.
Naomi Campbell and Nicole Richie were breakout judges, with their sharp, differing critiques. It’s just a shame Nicole disappeared for the Tokyo episodes.
As a panel, the judges didn’t really know what their mission was other than to say “brand” a lot, and were hampered by a needlessly coy elimination ceremony. It’s like the producers wanted to pretend that this wasn’t a typical reality TV elimination, with top and bottom designers, even though that’s exactly what it was.
Tim and Heidi’s segments were initially charming but quickly grew tiresome, in part because they felt so entirely disconnected to everything else. I’d rather see them exploring a fashion district or meeting with someone well-known in the fashion world. The final one, during which we watched them pack for their trip home, felt the most staged of all, though it was still pretty funny, at least until the joke was run into the ground.
What kept me coming back was the cast—incidentally, its supervising casting director was Amazing Race and former Survivor casting director Lynne Spiegel Spillman—who were just a joy to watch. They were further along in their careers and more assured as designers, but also great characters.
The editing was a little lopsided, as it seemed to focus most on the final three, though, plus Ji Won. Perhaps that’s just because they kept winning. Megan was eliminated fourth, and that was no surprise considering how little attention the edit gave her.
I interviewed the final two designers—Esther and Jonny—about their experiences and the finale, and they shared their candid thoughts.
Jonny Cota: “I didn’t want to be constantly compared to Esther”
When I interviewed Jonny Cota after his win in episode four, he said, “I went into the competition with quite a bit of confidence, and got beat down over and over and over.”
The win “lit this fire in me,” he told me this week, but then he got beat down again: He “really struggled” in episode eight, saying, “I was kind of crumbling; things weren’t lining up.” But he told himself, “Be confident, but be humble and remember that you have to fight every single day for this, and it took me a minute to regain my confidence after that.”
Jonny spent part of his month in Bali—which was a surprise to the producers.
“As soon as I landed back in LA, I knew I had a budget and a timeline, and I was like, I don’t have a network or team here. I didn’t even think about it: I bought a flight to Bali the next day,” he told me. “It wasn’t until a week later where production caught up with me, and they’re like, Wait, you’re in Bali?”
The final two episodes asked a lot of the designers, and Jonny said “it was all very overwhelming. I knew with my budget and my timeline. I couldn’t make items that were just for the pop-up store, because the items in the store also needed to be graded to fit all body types—we had to do many different sizes. I knew that everything I put my energy into for that pop-up store also need to make it to the runway because I didn’t have time to do both.”
I asked Cota about Naomi Campbell’s comment that his pop-up store was “nothing groundbreaking, but I love it,” and he said, “Naomi has a specific way of showing her tough love.” He laughed. “I still take it as a compliment.”
“The fact that I could create something that felt like a permanent shop with the same budget that the other designers created something that felt temporary, I think, is a testament to my ability to create under pressure, and to create long-lasting brick and mortar aesthetics,” he added.
Jonny told me that Esther was his primary competition from day one, and he adjusted the way he designed to address that.
“The very first day we walked into the workroom, and I saw her designs, I knew she was the designer that uses black. I’m a designer that uses black. I need to find a way to be less compared to her other judges, and that was also inspiring and drove me to use print, use more color,” he said. “I didn’t want to be constantly compared to Esther, because at the beginning Esther was winning, winning, winning, winning. So I really pushed myself to branch out.”
Despite that competition and comparison, “we became very close friends,” Jonny said. “There was no one I would rather be next to in the top two, but my aesthetic veered more and more accessible and more and more commercial.”
The finale taped late in the summer of 2019, and Jonny said that “the [Amazon Fashion] mentorship started right after the finale. They’ve kind of guided us from me being a small brand with a one brick-and-mortar to be prepared to launch on a global global retail destination like Amazon.”
Jonny Cota Studio launched today on Amazon, with clothing available in collections labeled as men, women, and unisex. He said it’s “a version of my winning collection. I kind of diffused some of it; I’ve brought in more accessible fits, more accessible fabrics, and made it, I think, a perfect balance between runway and accessible.”
“My whole life I’ve wanted to launch my namesake label. And what better way to do that, then with worldwide recognition on a fantastic television show, and a million dollars,” he told me.
The money, Jonny said, is “going to allow us to build are moving to a more exciting facility where we can explore even deeper versions of sustainable manufacturing, and we can be more transparent about our process and just have room to create the way we want to create.”
Like so many reality TV show contestants, Jonny has been criticized on social media, but he takes issue with one critique in particular.
“I’ve seen a lot on Twitter of people kind of dogging me for asking for help in two of the episodes. I feel so strongly that in this industry, and almost all industries, if you want to be a successful business person, you need to be prepared to ask for help, and to build a team around you to accomplish your goals,” he said. “Asking for help and building support systems is crucial for being a successful business person.”
Esther: “it was the best decision in my life to do it”
While Jonny and Esther ended up winning the same number of times, I was still expecting her to win. Her designs just seemed more fashion-forward, to use a phrase from early Project Runway.
Esther said that she has “no regrets at all” and that “only positive outcomes” came from the show, though “I think it would have been really cool if, if a woman would have won, actually,” she said. “That would have been good sign, for the whole [fashion] business also.”
At the end, Esther said the judges were saying, “If it’s really coming to creativity, then Esther should win. And if this is about more commercial aspects, then it’s Jonny,” she said. She added that she completely understands that argument: “It’s about business, you know, it’s not a fairy tale. It’s about business and Amazon wants to make money. … They know they would probably reach a much wider target with his work then and maybe they would with mine.”
However, Esther added, “it would have been interesting to, to see, you know, how, what, what it would look like if someone like me wins, and then to twist it in a commercial way.”
One of my frustrations with Making the Cut was its judges constant discussion of knowing one’s brand, while also trying to get Esther to change her aesthetic.
At the beginning of her final fashion show, Esther addressed that, inviting the audience into “my mainly black universe” and added: “But let me promise you one thing: No matter how dark my designs are, they possess a light and a shine that will never be dimmed.”
I asked her if she felt like the judges were trying to change who she was as a designer.
“I think they really tried. I was expecting that. When I knew that I will be one of the participants, I knew this would be a big issue, my black. I tried really hard and that was really tiring for me in each session with the judges to fight again for my universe,” Esther said. “But I’m actually really grateful for that because that made me so strong, and by standing there again and again and fighting for it, made it so much stronger—stronger, I think, than it was before.
“I was forced to always find the right words and really ask myself, Why am I doing it? What is really the reason? … It was really good school, and yeah I’m thankful for all their really hard critiques.”
At the beginning of the competition, Esther said she and the other designers were wondering “if something like this is good for our brands or not,” she said. “We’re really dropping our pants—I hope you understand what I mean, we say it in German—to make yourself really naked in front of millions of people, showing all our emotion.”
“I would not do it a second time,” Esther said. “I didn’t know what to expect from it. If I would have known what I have to do, how much I have to work, how much I would have to suffer and sweat, I would have not decided to start it, maybe because I would have been afraid if I can really do all that.”
But that doesn’t mean Making the Cut was a bad experience, nor does Esther have regrets. The opposite is true, actually.
“Being really naive and believing that this will be a completely different show made me participate—and I’m so so happy about it, really, honestly. I think it was the best decision in my life to do it. I learned so much. I think I really I grew as a designer during all these weeks. And I especially grew as a businesswoman,” she said.
During the finale, Esther presented to Amazon and mentioned that she’d previously faced challenges when she took out a bank loan just before the 2008 financial crisis. And now here she is on a TV show that launched during another global crisis.
“I feel like I am a lucky person in an unlucky situation,” Esther told me. “That’s also a very German saying.”
“Without the show, I would have not spent the last eight months like I did. Once I came back from from filming last year, I did not do anything creative at all. I didn’t do any collections, no new pieces. I was just concentrating for almost eight months to prepare myself to the start of the series.”
“I created a new website, a new web shop, the whole thing about SEO, the concept for Instagram, more accessible products—the product range on my website that I’m able to ship worldwide. This was much work, and I would have never put that amount of time and also money into that. It’s so funny that the moment when it started to air actually … everybody was forced to concentrate on the digital universe, and I was there, and I was prepared. Thank you, universe!”
Esther said that, on her web site, “80% of my of the traffic and my orders are coming from USA now.”
“I feel really lucky and this is the future, and again, this was the reason why I participated,” she told me. “I knew that I wanted to do this brand when I was 18 years old, but I needed to change some things. The market is changing, the world is changing; if I don’t change myself and my brand, I will have to close one day.”
“That was the reason why I participated: to discover this digital universe and learn from the biggest company in the world, and this is Amazon,” Esther added. “I really learned a lot, and I translated it in my own language.”