Not only does he have a $1 million prize, he’s got a global platform to launch his brand with one of the few retailers that’s come out ahead during the coronavirus, and arrives with a built-in fan base — all at a time when the future of showing and shopping fashion is very much up in the air.
“How weird we’re all in this global pandemic and every designer is struggling and I would be in that same situation except right now I’m having the opportunity of the lifetime?” said Cota, a 15-year veteran of the Los Angeles fashion scene whose niche Goth leather brand Skingraft has been worn by Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Beyoncé.
Cota took top honors in the streamer’s first fashion competition show, starring Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, after a runway showdown against Berlin-based Esther Perbandt, who has a similarly dark, but more elevated and conceptual aesthetic. (For finale judges Klum, Naomi Campbell, Joseph Altuzarra, Chiara Ferragni and Nicole Richie, it came down to which designer had the versatility to become the next global brand; for the record, Klum and Campbell voted for Perbandt.)
Since the show wrapped shooting in September, Cota has been mentored by Christine Beauchamp, president of Amazon Fashion, who appears in the last two episodes of the series, during which designers had to prove their commercial chops by creating their own pop-up shops and presenting her with a business plan.
With guidance from her team on creating assets for the Amazon customer, including clean photography, clear size charts and product bullet points, Cota created the 20-look Jonny Cota Studio collection now available on the U.S. site, and rolling out internationally soon, with prices from $40 to $350. (Perbandt’s brand has been picked up by Amazon’s sister site, Shopbop.com.)
Cota’s clothes are certainly cooler than anything you’d expect to see while shopping for Tide pods and toilet paper. Mostly genderless and in a black-and-white palette, they include a blanket poncho reminiscent of his past work, a cropped motocross-inspired denim jacket, Victorian-inspired poet dress and a leopard wing print scarf. Like Christian Siriano, another designer born of TV, Cota is quick with a quip and he has a story to tell, which should serve him well (as should his pre-show celebrity following). But there are plenty of winners of fashion competition shows, including of “Making the Cut”‘s older sibling “Project Runway,” who have not become global brands. However, they were not backed by Amazon.
The retail behemoth has been slow to the prestige fashion world, even though it sponsored the 2012 Met Gala, and Anna Wintour is friendly with Jeff Bezos, whom she cozied up to at the Tom Ford runway show in L.A. in February.
In a deep dive into Amazon Fashion’s apparel offerings, a January report from Coresight and DataWeave found the bulk of what’s listed are non-branded, or “generic” products, and activewear is the top-selling category. But the online giant’s fashion currency has risen dramatically since the pandemic has left much of the rest of the retail landscape in shambles, with Sears, J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus and other major chains struggling and some nearing bankruptcy. (By contrast, shares of Amazon are at a record high.)
“What will limit Amazon’s potential is the fact it’s becoming clear to brands that it is a predatory partner,” cautions retail futurist Doug Stephens. “The next thing you know, they are private-labeling what you just did, and using your data to do it, and selling to the customers you just acquired.”
Still, sources say Amazon is preparing to expand its prestige fashion footprint further, has been working with the Council of Fashion Designers of America to help designers sell excess inventory, and could even step in with a new framework for a future New York Fashion Week. WWD broke the news in January that Amazon is readying its own digital storefront for luxury fashion, which could also open up a host of opportunities for content and commerce. Beauchamp would not comment on future initiatives.
What those initiatives look like could depend in part on the success of “Making the Cut” and sales of Cota’s collection (by Sunday, it was almost entirely sold out, though it’s not clear how many pieces were produced).
Amazon declined to share viewership numbers, or how much it has invested in launching Cota’s brand versus what he will get to invest in himself from the $1 million pot. But the marriage of content and commerce is a step forward for the platform, which has gradually been improving on its early QVC-like shopping segments with more slickly produced fashion entertainment programming and brand-building around personalities. In July 2019, Amazon exclusively launched Lady Gaga’s Haus Laboratories beauty line with Amazon Live previews and tutorials, and in September, it produced Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty runway show, bringing her lingerie collection to Prime Video members to watch and shop.
Amazon has not revealed plans for a second season of “Making the Cut,” but is still casting as if it will have one.
“I dreamt about what it could look like before the pandemic and I dream about what it could look like in the pandemic and after the pandemic,” said Klum of the show’s prospects, adding that the challenges could explore remote designing, for example.
“The more constraints we have, the more creative we become. There are few things less inspiring than a blank canvas,” said Gunn, along with a pitch for the resiliency of fashion: “We all need clothes.”
COVID-19 has put Amazon in the spotlight more than ever before — for better and for worse, as the retail giant, like its essential retail peers, has had difficulty keeping up with consumer demand and also has faced pushback from workers who have walked out demanding better safety protections in the warehouses where they continue to ship essential and not-so-essential merchandise to the quarantined millions.
“Amazon in one way or another has become a hero to a lot of people who are depending on essential goods to be delivered to them,” said Cota, who got a call from the show’s casting director the same day in March 2019 that he closed his Skingraft store in downtown L.A. after the landlord doubled the rent. “I wouldn’t have jumped at the opportunity if it had happened a year, two years, or five years before. It was this moment where I had no idea what tomorrow looked like, no idea where the brand was going. There was no better time to say ‘yes’ to this opportunity.”
A California native, Cota started out making costumes for a San Francisco vaudeville circus troupe (he himself was a stilt walker) before launching his fashion business in 2005 with a collection of leather jackets made from vintage remnants (hence the name, Skingraft). Earning a following for motocross jackets, drop-crotch pants and leather holster bags, he showed his collections, which have a high-end price point from $100 to more than $1,000, at both L.A. and New York fashion weeks. A retail pioneer, in 2009, he became one of the first to sell high-end clothing in downtown L.A. at the first of two storefronts he had before moving to his current space at Row DTLA. He also had a store in New York’s NoLIta in 2013.
“I had a friend who cast ‘Project Runway’ for years, and I always said, nope, not for me,” said Cota, 37. “Specifically, a lot of other shows are heavily reliant on sewing. Even though we had to sew a lot on ‘Making the Cut,’ the fact it was a show about entrepreneurship and being a creative director, that spoke to me and my skill set.”
Like many fashion brands, his has gone through several lives — initially wholesaling to speciality stores such as H. Lorenzo and Opening Ceremony; then taking on investment from venture capital group Innov8 (the partnership ended in 2016); then shifting to a direct-to-consumer model with see-now-buy-now collections of more accessible items, such as hoodies and T-shirts. When he got the casting call, he was at an inflection point.
“I went [on the show] to get exposure for Skingraft, I went in there to help discover the next chapter of our company,” said Cota. “We were switching to an online model as a brand and we needed to reach a global audience. So I thought, get me through three, maybe four episodes. That will be enough exposure to give us a new opportunity.”
Cota earned points on the show for his willingness to listen to judges’ critiques, to soften his aesthetic, incorporate color and print and more accessible shapes, including feminine dresses. He even agreed to change the name of his brand to Jonny Cota. To underscore his journey, he titled his final collection “Metamorphosis.”
“I’m so proud of what I’ve accomplished with Skingraft, but even when I have spoken on social media, it has a tone, the tone is cool and unapproachable. That worked for what it was, but it was definitely an armor to hide behind. When first going on ‘Making the Cut,’ I started giving them Skingraft silhouette after Skingraft silhouette. And the judges could see right through it, that there was more there. Naomi Campbell dragging me through the coals after the couture challenge, and being like, this is derivative, this is boring, show me more. I thought it was the worst day and it turned out to be the best day. I had to do a lot of soul-searching, let go of a part of myself and my aesthetic.”
Funnily enough, since the show started airing in March, Skingraft has seen a halo effect, to the tune of a 500 percent increase in sales from March to April: “Since the judges critiqued the name Skingraft, it’s made our fans come out in full force and it’s our best month in sales of our career.” While Cota initially planned on folding the Skingraft collection into the new Jonny Cota Studio collection, now he plans to keep them both going — and available, as soon as retail reopens, at his L.A. store.
“Niche followings are so unique. Skingraft customers, they really cherish the all-black Goth-y side of Skingraft and they don’t want to let that go. At the same time, you can tell they are so proud of me and of themselves feeling like they were onto something before the rest of the world. We get a lot of messages like, ‘I’ve been going to your store for 10 years in DTLA and finally the world gets to see what I saw.'”
Since the show wrapped, Cota has spent most of his time in Bali overseeing production of the collection (he’s long produced his clothing there). “Skingraft will always be the little Goth-y stepchild doing its thing, but the focus for the rest of the year will be on Jonny Cota and the Jonny Cota for Amazon collection.” (Whether his relationship with Amazon lasts beyond that is uncertain.)
Even with the gloom and doom the pandemic has wrought on the fashion industry, Cota said he never really considered taking the $1 million and cashing out (and chances are, Amazon would have nixed that idea). “I know it will be a well-funded year and I’m going into this without caution and full steam ahead. I’m excited to invest the majority of the prize into the company. But also, Jonny Cota has been underpaid for the last three years. He always pays his team first. It’s time to have an adult salary for a change.”
Someway, somehow, he’s feeling good about the next chapter. “The show launched from this moment of entertaining people at home while they are trying to stay safe…and we’re launching a brand that has never been more accessibly priced for me. The timing is perfect — let us entertain you, let us make you feel optimistic, offer you a piece of us at the most reasonable price we can, let’s get through this together and move forward together.”