‘Making the Cut’ Finale Shock: Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn Defend the Surprise Million-Dollar Winner
Heidi Klum, Tim Gunn, and judges Nicole Richie and Joseph Altuzarra explain their shocking finale decision. Plus, we talk to the winner. Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!
“A million dollars still is not tangible,” the winner of the first season of Making the Cut laughs.
We’re connecting on the phone the afternoon before the finale of the first season of Amazon’s globe-trotting fashion competition series was made available for streaming and the winner’s 20-piece collection was made available for purchase on Amazon Fashion.
“I mean, a million dollars, you can really do something with that,” says Heidi Klum, in a separate call with her Making the Cut co-host and former Project Runway partner, Tim Gunn, says. “That’s real. You can make some real business with that.”
Gunn admits to getting goosebumps when it was revealed as a surprise in the premiere episode of Making the Cut that the grand prize would be $1 million to invest in the winner’s fashion brand.
“When you consider a million dollars, plus the Amazon mentorship, which we can now say began last September, and then having a 20-piece collection on Amazon Fashion, it’s really phenomenal,” he says. “I mean, if you can’t make it with these circumstances, you can’t make it.”
It’s long enough into this story that we feel safe in revealing who made the cut. But as due diligence, here’s a final SPOILER ALERT for those who don’t want to know.
You’ve been warned.
As revealed Friday in the Making the Cut finale, Los Angeles-based designer Jonny Cota prevailed in a nearly split vote after a solid runway showing of his Metamorphosis collection and impressing the head of Amazon Fashion with his brand business proposal.
Berlin’s black-loving Esther Perbandt, the early favorite, was the runner-up finalist. Belgian 24-year-old wunderkind Sanders Bos was sent home after the penultimate pop-up store challenge.
The final vote tally from the five judges was three to two in Cota’s favor, with Klum and Naomi Campbell endorsing Perbandt and Joseph Altuzarra, Nicole Richie, and Chiara Ferragni throwing it for Cota.
“I just think that she is creating such unusual and unique pieces,” Klum says of her support for Perbandt, qualifying that Cota was always one of her favorites in the competition, too. “Being eclectic or being a little bit more unusual with my own personal dressing, I’m always gravitating more towards that maybe.”
While heading into the finale, Perbandt had won more challenges than any other designer throughout the season, her static success in all-black hinted at a more limited market potential than what the other judges saw for Cota’s collection, especially after hearing the feedback from Amazon.
“He really started out with this super rocker, much more masculine kind of tough leather, aesthetic,” says Altuzarra, head of his own Altuzarra fashion brand. “Through the course of each assignment, I think he started finding himself and embracing his femininity. When you kind of compared them next to each other, his brand ended up feeling multi-textured, very inclusive, very emotional. There was a lot of depth.”
That everyone involved with Making the Cut can’t stop saying the word “brand,” both in the show and in interviews, is the point.
The series naturally begged comparisons to Project Runway, especially given that Klum and Gunn left the long-running fashion competition to launch the Amazon show. From a production standpoint, traveling from New York to Paris and Tokyo to stage runway shows at landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and Sensō-ji Temple elevated Making the Cut above the standard episode of Project Runway—and that’s not to mention the million-dollar grand prize.
But it’s the idea that the series was searching for the next fashion brand, not designer, that, at a conceptual level, made the show unique. Contestants, for example, weren’t even expected to sew their own garments, with seamstresses brought in to do the work for them.
“What stands out about this show is that we’re not finding the next good designer,” Richie, the actress and founder of the brand House of Harlow, says. “These people are already amazing designers, in order to even be a contestant on this show.”
Judging each challenge, Altuzarra says, meant thinking not just about “is this look pretty,” but “is this going to sell,” “how are we going to market this,” and “will this look good online?” That was reflected in one of the show’s signature gimmicks. Each challenge required the designers to create one accessible commercial look to complement their fashion-forward runway piece, which was sold on Amazon the day each episode aired.
Cota admits that he had considered auditioning for Project Runway over the years, but felt that he wouldn’t excel on the show because he’s not good at sewing. The appeal of Making the Cut was its focus on the skills he actually does have: entrepreneurship, being a creative director, and leading a brand.
“What I think is the coolest thing about Making the Cut is it shows all the hard work that goes into being a brand, and it’s so much more than sewing,” he says. “You gather that from a lot of the designers’ interviews on the show, that we spend most of our days doing paperwork and payroll and sales reports and shipping.”
When it comes to branding, the resounding talking point of the season was the thing that defined the brand of eventual runner-up, Perbandt: Black.
Perbandt’s brand is all-black clothes. Each challenge, the judges would vacillate between praising her for having mastered her brand and defending its integrity, and pleading for her to diversify it with more color. Of chief concern, especially in the last episodes when Amazon Fashion executives were brought in to consult with the designers, was the fact that an all-black collection makes for a hard sell online, where bright colors and prints pop for consumers.
“Maybe Esther blew it a tiny bit by sticking to her black universe,” Klum says bluntly. “We all loved it, but I think that was a little bit of her dilemma. Or maybe not so much understanding what Amazon also would have liked to have seen.”
Gunn chimes in to stress the point: “Though her black universe is certainly superb.”
The fact that the judges knew the collection would debut in the spring also forced Perbandt’s all-black aesthetic into deliberations, Richie says.
“I think her strength can sometimes also be a weakness,” Altuzarra explains. “Being really rigid about what you love and about your universe is amazing, because, yeah, you really create a very strong brand. But I drew from my own personal experience of selling black online, and it looks like we're going to be moving more and more towards online as the main platform for shopping. Black is just a harder sell.”
As for Perbandt and the all-black elephant in the room, Cota says, “I told this to her face, so I’ll tell you: Esther is doing exactly what she should be doing. She’s an all-black designer in Berlin. People love her for that. If she grew past that too much, her customers and followers would not follow with her into her next chapter.”
A next chapter, on the other hand, is exactly what Cota won the season for charting.
The turning point came in the fourth episode, when he sent a billowy black-and-white striped dress down the runway, an aesthetic far softer and girlier than he had shown by that point in the competition. He won that episode’s challenge, and the dress sold out immediately when it was made available on Amazon. Naomi Campbell herself gilded the transformation: “Johnny, I’m very proud of you.”
“The main thing I remember from this entire season was Naomi Campbell finally told me she was proud,” Cota laughs.
But like most artists, most everything else he remembered were the bad reviews.
“So I remembered all the negatives they said about the leather being boring, the leather market being saturated, the pieces not being special, being derivative, like what’s new,” he says. “I am fueled by wanting to prove myself and to show them that I’m worthy of being there. So them quickly being unimpressed by my hard, leather aesthetic quickly shifted my whole view of my design and my strategy for show.”
Six episodes later, that new view and new strategy made the cut—a million-dollar cut.