Exclusive Interview: Designer Jonny Cota Talks About Being a Contestant on ‘Making the Cut,’ What’s Next For Him, and Much More

Jonny Cota in Ep. 4 of Amazon’s ‘Making the Cut’ (Photo Credit: Amazon Studios)

On the Amazon original series, Making the Cut, a group of 12 talented designers/ entrepreneurs compete for the grand prize of $1,000,000 to invest in their brand and the opportunity to create a collection to be sold exclusively on Amazon.  During the course of the show’s 10 episode run, the designers face challenges that test not only their design skills but also their capacity in all business aspects.  Those who do not “make the cut” are eliminated.

SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE THAT HAVE NOT WATCHED EPISODES 5 AND 6 THIS WEEK AHEAD!

With seven contestants left, the designers headed to Tokyo, Japan.  One of the designers in the top seven is Jonny Cota, co-founder of the streetwear brand, SKINGRAFT. Founded in Los Angeles in 2006 by Jonny and his brother, Christopher, SKINGRAFT has been credited by GQ Magazine as pioneering the new American avant-garde with its collections influenced by performance art fashion with celebrities like Beyonce, Justin Bieber, and Rihanna wearing the brand on and off stage.

After winning the challenge in Episode 4, Cota’s winning look sold out on the Amazon Making the Cut shop in less than 24 hours.  Cota’s continued to receive rave critiques from the judges in episodes 5 and 6. 

In an interview with me, Cota talked about his childhood in a suburb outside of San Francisco, who he became fast friends with on the show, what to expect in the remaining four episodes and much more.

 

Gerald Biggerstaff: What was it like for you growing up in the Bay Area (San Francisco)?

Jonny Cota:  Well, technically it was awesome.  I mean, I grew up in the suburbs.  You know, like 40 minutes outside San Francisco, so it was kind of like a conservative little town that I always felt I needed to get away from even though I loved it but being close to the city (San Francisco), close to metropolitan modern interesting people of culture was totally a privilege.  It was great.  

GB:  In Episode 6, you talked about when you were younger using black to express you were gay and it represented a deep depression you never knew you had.  What brought you out of that depression?

JC:  I had a really loving family, but I was raised very religious.  Once you start realizing you’re gay and different and not seeing a place for you in the world if you don’t have examples of strong gay leaders around you.  So that kind of got me into a dark space wearing a lot of black and got very into subcultures, and that actually awesome and kind of saved my life.  But actually, after I grew up and became a young adult, I became more in touch and more proud of being gay, more secure in my convictions and my confidence.  It just took me years of starting to appreciate my own power and realizing that my gayness was a total gift and I was unique, and it was leading me down a path of total creative lifestyle.

GB: You married your husband, Frank Helmer, in 2014.  How did you meet him?

JC: (Laughs) Um, I met him on a casual date with my ex-boyfriend who was my current boyfriend at the time and then after that casual date, I started dating Frank.

GB: Was it hard to be away from him while filming Making the Cut?

JC: I travel a lot for work.  My design studio is in Bali, so I’m there half a year.  He’s a costume designer so he’s always filming movies and TV shows on location.  We’re used to being apart, so it wasn’t that difficult to be apart, but the show was so challenging and so emotional.  It was hard to do that alone and to not have a shoulder to lean on every day.

 

GB: Who did you bond with instantly on the show?

JC: As soon as I landed, Ester (Perbandt) just stood out to me as like ‘Wow! What an incredible person!’  She and I bonded right away.  And then also I got really close to Sander (Bos) and Rinat (Broadach).  They were just like this loud, bitchy, queenie force and the three of us just became total troublemakers (laughs) on and off set.

GB: What was it like being up there with Rinat in Ep. 5 getting high praise from the judges?

JC: It was a high point for both of us to be praised but it was the total struggle to be essentially pitted against one of your best friends on the show, and to have to fight for the win against someone else you really love.  So, it was complicated, and in the end, I’m so thrilled that she won.  She did a great job.

GB: You looked like you were having the time of your life during the inspiration part in Tokyo on Ep. 5.  Had you been to Tokyo before?

JC: I had never been to Tokyo.  It has always been number one on my list.  I was so thrilled to be there.  I was jumping out of my skin.   And on our inspiration trip running around Harajuku, I thought I would see all these really cool and inspiring kids, but there weren’t that many that day.  I just couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I just grabbed an ice cream, hung out, high fives on the street and just kind of like immersed myself.  Instead of looking for fashion inspiration, I just wanted to ground myself in Japan and Tokyo.

GB: How different was your creative process on Making the Cut compared to your creative process for your Skingraft collections?

JC: When I do collections, I start off of a concept.  Is it a time period?  Is it a region? Am I borrowing images from a tribal culture over here and meshing it with British punk rock? You find these inspirations to push together and then you research intently and very quickly.  On the show, you have one day, maybe two, and as much as I hated the pressure, I think it was totally the advantage was I had zero time to reconsider my ideas or second guess myself.  I just had to pick an idea and go with it and never second guess.

GB: The judges had high praise for your collection in ep. 5.  Did your kimono look in that episode inspire the design of your kimonos you designed for Skingraft?

JC: Yeah, I’ve always been inspired by Japanese culture.  I’ve always done a lot of kimono type silhouettes.  I was excited to bring that to my first challenge in Japan, but I wanted to tread lightly about being a white boy in Japan making kimonos.  So, I knew if I did reference Japanese culture, it had to be delicately, and it had to be with respect.  

Sleeveless Lien Kimono in Black by SKINGRAFT (Photo courtesy of SKINGRAFT)

 

GB: How did participating in MTC help you grow as a designer?

JC: Going on the show, I had no idea we would have to constantly argue for our designs and explain who we are as designers and as brands.  I thought we would just make pretty things, send them down the runway, you’re in or you’re out.  And I can do that! (laughs) But, to have to stand in front of Naomi Campbell, Heidi Klum, all these incredible judges and constantly be put on the spot, to be well spoken, articulate, and be able to put your vision into words was something that caught me off guard.  Once I kind of harnessed that energy, it made me so much clearer in my vision as a designer and to put it in a more powerful voice.

 

GB: Speaking of the judges, you said it was intimidating being in front of them.  Which judge was the most intimidating for you?

JC: Oh!  Naomi fucking Campbell!! (laughs). Naomi is a force.  She walks in the room and you can feel her energy right away.  She gave me a really hard time.  I’ll say she gave me some tough love at the beginning.  I was always looking for redemption and validation from her.  So, she’s the one that would make my knees shake.  She’s the one that I would be most excited and nervous to impress.

Naomi Campbell judges the designers’ streetwear collection in Tokyo on episode 5 of ‘Making the Cut’ (Photo Credit: Amazon Studios)

GB: Without giving too away, what can viewers expect from you in the remaining four episodes?

JC: You can see now in episodes 4, 5, and 6 that I’m taking the judges’ critiques to heart.  I’m using them to craft a better version of me, and for as long as I stay in the competition, you (the viewer) will see that continue to evolve.  Continuing to push myself past my comfort zone.

GB: How did it feel to see your dress from Episode 4 be the winning look sold on the Making the Cut store on Amazon?

JC: I’ve been selling online for ten years so I did not think seeing the dress on Amazon would be that exciting as it was, but to wake up and to see it on the Amazon platform and to see that it was practically sold out hours after the episode came out, it was so mind-blowing.  It felt like a whole new level in my career.

 

GB: You have a version of that dress on your Skingraft website, correct?

JC: So, in my head a few months ago, that episode was going to air. It was going to be hot and sunny in L.A. and Coachella was going to be right around the corner. (laughs) And I thought that that dress would sell out.  So, I thought let me chop it shorter, make it sexy.  Let me change it up for the L.A. girl and prepare it for right after that episode.  Well, we’re all locked in our houses.  It’s cold and rainy.  Coachella’s cancelled, but the dress is still there, and it sold great and I’m thrilled.

 

GB: I saw a post on your Facebook page of Heidi (Klum) wearing your dress.  That must have been thrilling.

It was!! I didn’t even know about it.  (I) started getting text messages: ‘Oh my god! Heidi Klum’s online right now wearing your dress!’ I mean, to see that, it was another moment.  I’ve dressed a lot of celebrities but to see Heidi in my dress twirling around her living room, smiling, feeling and looking amazing in it was like made my month.

Omfg Heidi is in my dress live on Instagram 😱

Posted by Jonny Cota on Thursday, April 9, 2020

 

GB: I saw an old video of a conversation between you and Adam Lambert on your YouTube account. You were talking about how music inspires your work. What kind of music do always go to when you are doing your work?

JC: Well. I listen to really moody music like FKA Twigs or Bjork to get me into the emotion of creative design, but when it’s time to bang it out, when it’s time to spell it or sketch it or really get it going, I love techno.  The hard kind of techno music with lots of energy. (laughs) And you know, one crazy thing was as long as I’ve been a designer, I constantly listen to music while I work and to be on the show, there’s no music.  There’s no headphones.  There’s no speakers.  You’re just there working in a quiet workroom with cameras and your own conversation, and that was really difficult to get used to.

 

GB: What’s next for Jonny Cota and Skingraft?

JC: For Jonny Cota and Skingraft, we are riding the wave of Making the Cut.  We are maximizing every day from all the new followers we’re getting, all the new attention, and I think that the biggest takeaway from being on a platform like Making the Cut is bringing myself and the brand to a wider audience.  So, as we move forward with collections, designs, shows, parties and events, there will be a new focus on being available and excitable to a wider audience.

 

Amazon’s Making the Cut is available on their Prime Video streaming service with two episodes every Friday culminating in the epic finale on April 24, 2020.  For more on Jonny Cota, you can follow him on Instagram and Twitter and his designs are sold on SKINGRAFT’s website.

 

Source: SKINGRAFT, Amazon Studios

 

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