Alumnus sews up $1 million prize on TV's Making the Cut

Graduate Jonny Cota, competing against international designers, makes a splash on reality-style fashion show produced by model Heidi Klum and fashion consultant Tim Gunn

Jonny Cota (Kresge '05, sociology; journalism minor)
Jonny Cota (Kresge '05, sociology; journalism minor) called competing on Making the Cut "the most challenging, difficult, confronting experience" of his life.
One of Cota's final runway looks from episode 10.
One of Cota's final runway looks from episode 10. 
Cota with Klum and Gunn during an episode (photos by Allie Lee/Amazon Studios)
Cota with Klum and Gunn during an episode (photos by Allie Lee/Amazon Studios)

Eight years ago, fashion designer Jonny Cota started his Skingraft clothing line with $500 and one sewing machine.

Today, the 35-year-old UC Santa Cruz alum has $1 million in the bank and a new namesake fashion line that is now for sale around the globe. The change came thanks to Cota’s big win on the first season of Making the Cut, a reality-style fashion competition produced by model Heidi Klum and fashion consultant and everybody’s favorite uncle, Tim Gunn. 

The L.A.-based Cota (Kresge '05, sociology; journalism minor) bested 11 other international designers to nab the top spot during the 10-episode show, which was aired on Amazon Prime. As part of the win, Cota also will have a one-year mentorship with Amazon’s fashion division, which according to promos, aims to help turn Cota’s designs into a “a global lifestyle brand.”

“It was the most challenging, difficult, confronting experience of my life,” said Cota of the show during a telephone interview Friday. “And, to come out on top made it all so worthwhile. Every single designer on that show was challenged: how to work under pressure, how to defend yourself, how to pitch yourself. It was the fashion Olympics.”

Born into a family of seven kids in Martinez, Calif., Cota graduated with a degree in journalism. But instead of joining a newsroom, Cota took up with an underground performance art troupe as a stilt-walker and fire dancer. 

According to the Skingraft website, Cota fell in love with the circus troupe’s ornate costumes and quickly moved from performing to costume design. He started his Skingraft label with his brother, Christopher Cota, in 2006. The name Skingraft came from his early design days when, without much of a budget, Cota haunted thrift stores for vintage leather jackets, which he deconstructed and turned into costumes for the group. His streetwear was edgy, dark, and urban, a pioneer of the new American avant-garde style, according to the company’s website.

Cota dressed entertainers like Rihanna, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, and P. Diddy. Some of Cota’s designs also were featured in movies and TV shows like The Hunger Games and True Blood. But even with a growing business and the opening of a hip, multi-brand store in L.A., Cota was hardly a household name.

That all changed when he was picked for Making the Cut, which took a dozen designer entrepreneurs from the streets of Paris and Tokyo to New York. Each week, contestants had to design clothes within a set of parameters—streetwear with a Tokyo vibe, a collab with another designer, and, once, using only fabric scraps. One offering in each challenge was supposed to be more avant-garde and the other was to be accessible. On every episode, one or more designers would be eliminated and the winner would have their accessible design instantly put up for sale on Amazon. 

“For the first three episodes, I was just trying to survive,” Cota said. “Then, halfway through I was, ‘Holy sh**, I might win this thing.’”

Cota, who lives part-time in Bali where his clothes are made, said much of his fashion, despite its apparent darkness, is inspired by nature. 

“Maybe it’s the dark side of nature with skeletons and the wing patterns of butterflies, but animal imagery creeps into all of my fashion, which speaks a little to my time in Santa Cruz,” he said.

Cota also strives for sustainability in his clothing lines, using eco-friendly material whenever possible and, because all his clothing (including what is being offered on Amazon) is cut to order, there is little waste. 

“We aren’t making thousands and thousands of pieces that might end up in the landfill,” Cota said. Part of the award money, he said, will go to invest in a new facility in Bali that will put sustainable practices at the forefront of his business.

On the show, Making The Cut judges like Klum, model Naomi Campbell, and luxury ready-to-wear designer Joseph Altuzarra called Cota’s designs “effortlessly cool” and, once, “feminine but rock ‘n’ roll.” 

Of his debut collection, which he dubbed "Metamorphosis,” Cota said, “I peeled back the hard layers to rediscover my tenderness, and celebrate resiliency.” 

His line came, Cota said on the show, “with a strong scream of a voice.”

Ask Cota why fashion matters and his answer might surprise. 

“Fashion doesn’t matter. Expression matters,” said Cota who is married to Hollywood costume designer Frank Helmer, “and fashion is one way to express ourselves. It helps craft identities. It helps celebrate significant moments in our lives. It helps us feel good when we feel down. I love fashion’s power to elevate us, to elevate our moods, to help us create identity.”

And while fashion design was not in the front of his mind while at UC Santa Cruz—although he said the first thing he ever sewed were “patchwork hippie pants” that he sold out of his apartment at Kresge College—his time on campus contributed to his success.

 “I would tell my younger self that all education is worthy education,” he said. “I stumbled between majors and finally ended up with sociology and journalism and then thought, ‘What am I going to do with that?’ But going to school and committing yourself to something, no matter how many years it takes, gives you a strong work ethic and the ability to work toward your goals, and that will launch you in any direction you want.

“My path wasn’t expected, but I use what I learned at UCSC every single day.”

View Cota’s collection.