COVID Nearly Ruined ‘Making the Cut.’ But Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum ‘Made It Work.’
Amazon’s “Making the Cut” made a splash traveling the world for each runway. Its stars explain how, when the pandemic made that impossible, they improvised for an emotional season.
In the fashion world, the global pandemic fundamentally altered how the industry thought about art, design, manufacturing, marketing, sales, and aesthetic. Just how drastically did things change? Tim Gunn started wearing sweatpants.
“I was sitting around in my apartment in my stiff upper-lip, stuffed-shirt clothing and then I thought, this is ridiculous. I’m really not very comfortable,” Gunn tells me in a recent Zoom ahead of season 2 of Making the Cut, which debuted this weekend on Amazon. “I segued into wearing my pajamas all day, every day. Then I thought, now I really feel like a slob. I feel like Ralph Kramden.”
When I tell him that people would be shocked to hear that Gunn, the former Project Runway host who may have never been seen in public in a suit with any less than three pieces, was, dare I say, lounging, he laughs and immediately gets defensive.
“I never left my apartment! I will tell you that. I wouldn’t even go down to get the mail.” Eventually it got to the point where he spelunked into the back of his closet to find the t-shirts and sweatpants he would wear to his fencing lessons. (In case you were wondering at which point, bless his heart, Gunn’s story might cease being relatable.)
“I felt so much better,” he says. “I felt better physically, frankly. I felt better psychologically, mentally, and emotionally. And I get it. I understand the comfort trap. Now I have empathy for it. Before the pandemic, I had a real serious disdain for it. I thought, comfort, who cares about comfort? If you want comfort, stay in bed.”
This is all to say that the pandemic changed us all in ways we may never have imagined and may never come back from. If one was to look for a silver lining to all the darkness, the new perspectives and ingenuity that burst through so many industries, especially ones like fashion, are fascinating to parse now that we’re starting to climb out of the cavern of trauma.
Gunn and the entire team who worked on the fashion branding competition series Making the Cut could speak to that firsthand when it comes to how their industry managed to innovate and continue to make a cultural mark when runways, design houses, and manufacturers all came grinding to a halt.
Season two of Making the Cut, which was filmed in a production bubble at the height of the pandemic, is an emotional chronicling of the hardships and toll the circumstances took on creative entrepreneurs. But it also shows how brands and retailers—and, yes, online monoliths like Amazon—pivoted in real time to address a changing world.
Of course, that meant some stressful altering of the very fabric, if you will, of what made Making the Cut such a splash to begin with. “I have to share with you, I was a bit concerned about season two…” Gunn admits.
When it premiered in March 2020—my sincere apologies for triggering you with that date marker—Making the Cut was, inarguably, the most ambitious and grandest-scale fashion competition the reality TV genre had ever seen. Headed by Project Runway partners Heidi Klum and Gunn—“we’ve been married for 17 years...the longest marriage I’ve ever been in,” Klum once joked to me—the series lit a splashier firework with each successive gimmick.
The series’ challenges and runway shows would be shot all over the world, from New York to Paris to Tokyo. Designers would be tasked with producing an “accessible” version of each look for every challenge, with the winning garments made available immediately for purchase on Amazon at a price point of $100 or less. The grand prize: A whopping $1 million to invest in the designer’s brand. Beyond all that, inclusivity would be paramount: that means gender-fluid, body-inclusive, and sustainable designs.
As much as it was fashion, it was cinematic. Season one launched with a runway show in front of the Eiffel Tower that would make even Anna Wintour look up from her sunglasses in astonishment. Klum told me it was so beautiful people might have suspected it was green screen: “It’s almost like I don't think people are going to believe us that this was actually shot in Paris in front of the Eiffel Tower.”
Especially at the time it first aired, with the world trapped at home, the show was a poignant passport, whisking viewers away in an escapist fantasy where travel and glamour was possible again. But beyond that, even a casual reality TV fan familiar with the soundstage format of how these shows are usually filmed was left slack jawed by the Herculean production effort required to pull off the globe-trotting season.
“I thought, well, travel was one of the highlights of season one, and we can't travel anymore,” Gunn says. “What's this going to be? We'll just be doing Groundhog Day, in a manner of speaking, with each of these assignments and fashion shows all looking the same.”
So the entire season—and the crew and contestants’ entire existence on set during the pandemic—became the most heightened application yet of the star’s signature catchphrase. “It was the ultimate exercise in ‘make it work.’”
He admits to underestimating the prowess of the production team. The Making the Cut crew created a “fashion bubble” at an event venue in Malibu typically set up for weddings and transformed different areas of the properties.
There was a workroom set, of course. The first episode’s outdoor fashion show strung oversized crystal chandeliers between towering trees that lined the catwalk, as if Cinderella’s ball took place in a Malibu canyon. For the avant-garde challenge, an over-the-top carnival was erected, equal parts whimsical and menacing, as if dreamed up by Ryan Murphy himself. The modern wedding episode’s runway created the appearance of models walking down the aisle in a ceremony in a fairytale Japanese garden.
“When I came to sit down for the first episode and saw all the gorgeous chandeliers and that runway at night, I mean, I was floored,” says designer Jeremy Scott. “I was like, well, holy smokes, this is amazing and gorgeous and rich.”
If the show’s production design remained unparalleled, making it seem as if we were traveling the world from one filming location, there are some noticeable differences to Making the Cut season two. Chief among them are new judges Scott and model Winnie Harlow. Unlike last season, which saw the likes of Naomi Campbell, Nicole Richie, Carine Roitfeld, and Joseph Altuzarra rotate in different episodes around the world, because of pandemic protocols, Scott and Harlow judged the entire season—an opportunity they relished.
“I’m blessed to be able to wear beautiful pieces by designers and brands but not always part of the design process, so it truly was inspiring to see this,” says Harlow, remembering thinking the premise of the show seemed “so futuristic” to her when she heard about it last year.
Scott remembers being blown away by the different elements: the globe-hopping, the Amazon tie-in, the massive prize. “When you ask me to go back and think about it, it's like this is a Rubik's cube of pieces put together.”
Thinking about Making the Cut as this big fashion experiment, Gunn is quick to point out the success, even when you consider the impact COVID might have had on the springboard opportunities the show provided contestants. All of the shoppable looks sold out in 48 hours on Amazon, so the company is doing a larger scale of production this season.
In fact, of all the bells and whistles behind Making the Cut, that’s the element that Scott is most blown away by. “It's almost like you're grabbing the clothes out of your screen,” he says. “It's so futuristic, really. I wish I could show my fashion so people could just do the same thing and take the clothes that they want. How rad would that be?”
At a time, especially, when the contestants’ businesses have been impacted by COVID, that’s a powerful force. While it’s not a constant topic of conversation, the realities of the pandemic and the hefty emotional weight the designers carry because of it are present throughout the season.
Unlike season one, when the contestants were surprised to learn what the show was—they had no idea about the travel, the $1 million, or the Amazon element—this year’s crop watched and learned from what that group had done. More, they knew what it could mean for their brands at such a difficult time in the business. The stakes are practically on Mount Everest.
“I think the times we are in have impacted the way we dress and the way that we live our lives,” Harlow says. “I think it was really great to step away from what we’ve been dealing with to film this show because it was a moment for these designers to really get out of this headspace and into a more creative headspace and come up with some fresh ideas for when we finally get out of these funks.”
The emotionality of the pandemic sparks an interesting conversation with Gunn. Sometimes, rightly or wrongly, people think of fashion as escapism, or a privilege, or even slight and silly. But this season of the show engages with issues like the pandemic, inclusivity, and the realities of the world in ways that people who dismiss fashion might not recognize.
“When I was teaching, I would draw a line of distinction between clothing and fashion,” he says. “We need clothes. We don't need fashion. We want it. We have a fervor for it. But we don't need it. And the main differentiation for me is that with fashion, it's a barometric gauge of our society and culture. It's historic. It's cultural and societal and it’s economic. So real fashion has to reflect what's happening.”
When he and Klum started doing Project Runway in 2004, it was a seminal experience in that, for the first time, they were showing how fashion designers create their work. When the pair left, it was because they had a vision for what an evolution of that experience should be, one that wasn’t possible under the constraints of the Project Runway model: A show, he says, “that was relevant to the current fashion industry, which can't just be about a pretty dress.”
“It really has to be about the whole package of marketing and merchandising, business, retail, advertising...all of it. If you're going to be a successful designer, you need to have a brand.”
The pandemic forced a reconsideration of both fashion and clothing on all those terms. Now, with Making the Cut and its focus on branding and marketability—the marriage between high-fashion and accessibility—we may be seeing the first fruits of what’s been born out of that reflection.
Say, for example, Tim Gunn wearing sweatpants.