Jonny Cota, 35, the Los Angeles designer of the streetwear brand Skingraft, has won Amazon’s Making the Cut. The competition show on Amazon Prime boasts a $1 million prize and perhaps more valuable to an emerging brand, a deep collaboration and placement on Amazon’s online retail platform. You can see the Jonny Cota Studio collection here.
Making the Cut, hosted and executive produced by Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum elevates the fashion competition show by recruiting designers with established businesses. The competition starts out like similar shows but in later episodes tasks contestants with business challenges such as creating digital marketing “campaigns” and pop-up shops—sales from which determined the winning item to be sold on Amazon’s Making the Cut store. The two finalists were then required to write and present their business plans to the president of Amazon Fashion, Christine Beauchamp articulating how they would invest the prize money . Ms. Beauchamp in turn provided perspective to the celebrity judges.
Of the two final collections presented, Cota’s represented a sophistication and maturity that is ready for primetime (pun intended). His lifestyle brand intentions are clear in photo and video styling and in the visual merchandising on the exclusive Amazon store. His approach to non-gendered garment design is refreshing, as many of the items are presented in a “unisex” category on the ecommerce site.
Kudos to the producers of the show for using a variety of sizes and shapes of models, male and female, although a broader view of male sizing would be appreciated.
Throughout the competition, Cota exhibited an openness to feedback without losing his vision—qualities that mark a strong leader. While his aesthetics evolved over the course of ten episodes presenting products that have a broad appeal, his confidence and drive were seemingly unwavering.
I had the opportunity to talk with Cota about his business, where it has been and the potential impact this high-profile exposure could have on his plans.
CP: Tell us about your customers. How do you think Skingraft customers will relate to the new Jonny Cota brand?
JC: I think (Skingraft) customers feel like they found something special that no one else in the world knows about. They celebrate the niche and how secret it is. And there is something valuable and special about that.
Jonny Cota is launching to the world, a much wider audience. My challenge will be, how do I maintain a special feeling for a worldwide following. I want people to feel like they’re part of a family, or they discovered something they want to share with their friends. I used to always value the word exclusive. Now I think I value the word inclusive.
CP: How do you see the relationship between the two brands; Skingraft vs Jonny Cota. Do you see that as a singular voice?
JC: Nope. Nope, I’m thrilled to keep them separate stories. Skingraft will find its own path, the majority of my energy moving forward is going to go into all things Jonny Cota and launching the Jonny Cota Studio collection exclusively with Amazon. Then all (that goes into the) Johnny Cota lifestyle brand; that’s the majority of my energy will go. Skingraft will continue being the goth stepchild we all love.
CP: So, you do have in your mind some architecture and structure around how the brands relate to each other. Jonny Cota Studio is the collection we’re seeing on Amazon right now. And beyond that you’re going to develop Johnny Cota?
JC: It’ll be in the future. Right now I’m focused on Jonny Cota Studio. And to be honest, the traction it’s gotten since the page went live has been huge. So I think it will demand a lot more of my energy this year and I’m happy with that. I mean I’m getting a mentorship with Amazon.
CP: Tell us about your business plan. Has it changed since you initially wrote it? I mean, we have this little global pandemic thing going on. What’s different now?
JC: My business plan is the same. My business plan is to focus on investing in sustainable business practices, investing in a new facility (in Bali) that we can effectively manufactur our merchandise while keeping sustainability in mind.
However, I had aspirations to launch a high-end luxury brand at the end of 2020. I’m going to push that off for a few years. I feel like Making the Cut gave me so much momentum. Johnny Cota Studio collection I’m thrilled about, and the world is struggling economically right now and I feel like it’s kind of a perfect storm for me to focus on accessible price points and safe, accessible silhouettes.
CP: Your mentorship with Amazon started after your win. Tell me a little bit about the mentorship with Amazon Fashion what you’ve gotten out of it so far.
JC: We started as soon as we wrapped filming at the end of the summer. We check in once or twice a week with different people on the Amazon team who are just answering our questions and guiding us to transition from a small niche brand to a global brand. That will give us all the tools we need to excel on Amazon.
It’s everything from guidance on how we can expand our sizing, how we can give more specific product descriptions, how their customers respond best to photos and clean imagery. I will tell you that I have learned so much from the Amazon mentorship that I have taken these practices to the Skingraft website and I’m scratching my head thinking I was missing out on sales for 10 years because our size ranges, the site wasn’t fast enough and our descriptions were just a few bullet points. We learned to give the customer everything they need to be excited about purchasing. We’ve learned a ton.
CP: I’ve been watching Amazon’s attempts at being more relevant in the fashion space, not just apparel but fashion. The quality of the production and the collaboration with Heidi and Tim fits squarely in that idea. Do you see Johnny Cota Studio contributing to that effort?
JC: I was watching the finale and I turned to my husband and I said, “Can you believe that two dark, edgy designers are vying for the grand prize on Amazon”? It was almost unexpected.
Amazon is providing so many tools to succeed. What I’m giving back to Amazon is a new fresh perspective that I think is going to attract a different audience and is going to help inspire more designers—fashion that is a little more edgy.
I’ll speak to one thing specifically. We offer a lot of unisex silhouettes and we’ve been working with the (Amazon) team about how these product listings (work) on the Amazon platform. We figured it out for the launch, but the takeaway from the team was, “Okay, we might be able to change a little bit of our system, because we want to champion unisex products. But the way that we’ve created our site infrastructure, it doesn’t allow for those listings to be prominent”. It’s a give and take, I feel like they’re also learning from our collection.
CP: Your winning boiler suit from episode 107 in the Making the Cut store site only was shown on a woman, and offered in women’s sizes. I know it was intended to be unisex. That issue is a legacy of retail and general practices in merchandising, so it’s not just you and it’s not just Amazon. It represents a whole new way of thinking about sizing and how garments feel and fit.
Unisex sizing and styling is becoming more accepted by a wider audience because it is more inclusive and loose when it comes to those traditional restrictions. So in your Skingraft business over the past 15 years when did you see that becoming important to your brand and to your customers?
JC: Day one. Day one we were sending any body types down the runway with any gendered clothes. It’s never really been an issue for us. In episode 108, I sent a boy down (the runway) in the pleated silk chiffon dress. I didn’t make some big argument about it, it didn’t have to be this groundbreaking argument about gender; it’s just this boy who looks incredible in this dress. It’s just been so integral with how we’ve always approached it. We’ve just launched the Jonny Cota Studio collection on Amazon and half the products are shot on a boy and a girl. It doesn’t scream unisex. If you look at men’s sizing, this is the size; if you look at women’s sizing this the size.
CP: Have you gotten any feedback from your traditional customer base as to their perception of how you’ve evolved and what they’re seeing online now?
JC: I was worried that our loyal customers would feel left behind.
But on the contrary, the messages I get constantly are that they are so excited for me and it’s so exciting for the brand. They feel like they bet on this winning racehorse 10 years ago and the whole world is experiencing it now. I’ve gotten so much positive feedback from customers.
CP: There’s room for all those things—Skingraft, Jonny Cota Studio and Jonny Cota. Given your position in the marketplace prior to Making the Cut, I’m sure you’ve been approached or you have thought about participating in other fashion competition programs. How did you perceive Making the Cut differently than the others?
JC: I’ve been approached by a number of competition shows, and none of them excited me or I also knew that I had no chance to excel in a lot of the other competition shows. When I heard about the idea for Making the Cut, focusing on entrepreneurship and being a creative director and running a brand, I was like, that’s me, I can do that! And I’m so happy I made it far enough in the competition to where I could really flex my muscles and show that—for example the digital campaign and the pop up shop. I mean, if this was a different competition with the same cast someone else may have won. There were incredible designers, incredible sewers, incredible tailors on that show, but I think I shined most when I had the opportunity to show all the other demands and all the other skills that are required of a creative director and the leader of a brand.
CP: Jonny, thank you and congratulations. And just a bit of a reminder, there are a lot of big guys out there. I’m a 54 regular suit so keep me in mind too, man.
JC: You know, we’ve been thinking a lot about this. This is one of the biggest lessons we learned; we need to produce sizes for a much broader audience so this is our top priority; with every collection we’re going to get farther and farther.