Being successful in fashion isn’t just about having a great eye for style, creative ideas or even the actual skill for making clothing. Ultimately, it’s about the hustle. L.A.’s Jonny Cota has been hustling hard to make his mark in the industry for over a decade now, and he’s managed to achieve a lot of success, dressing rock and pop stars and running a popular DTLA boutique. Still, getting to the next level required something bigger and bolder: putting himself on the chopping block via Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn’s new Amazon fashion competition Making The Cut, a move that paid off to the tune of $1 million.
But chatting with the designer after his win, it’s clear the experience was about more than money or even the exposure. It was about taking the opportunity to refocus and reinvent himself and his brand. Jonny and his brother Christopher Cota have made a name for themselves with SKINGRAFT, a fashion company known for punky, dark, severe and sexy looks; think lots of leather, buckles, zippers, harnessing, cinched waists, lacing, cut-outs, and pretty much all black, all the time. If you followed the fashion scene in L.A. at all the past decade, you heard of the label, even if you couldn’t quite afford their most coveted jackets, coats or couture pieces.
Now, with his new, more affordable line, Jonny Cota Studio, selling on Amazon thanks to his win (which also includes a yearlong mentorship with Amazon’s fashion division), his work is more accessible to a wider audience, and to more varied tastes in terms of color, fabrics and silhouettes. Though he stretched himself and expanded his methods and materials on Making the Cut, he never lost his gloomy/glammy essence. The judges on the show — which included Nicole Richie and a sometimes brutal Naomi Campbell — encouraged him to lose the SKINGRAFT name and re-brand under his own; but as he moves forward, he’s intent on maintaining not one but two brands, holding onto the original inspirations that won him a loyal fan base while experimenting with new ideas and influences. If anyone can manage both, it’s Cota.
“I entered Making the Cut as the designer of SKINGRAFT because ‘Jonny Cota’ was only a pipe dream,” he tells us via a Zoom interview from his home a couple weeks after his win. “But after getting critique after critique from the judges, it kind of started peeling back some of my layers, so it was the perfect opportunity. I mean I got to launch my namesake brand on a global television show and then get a million-dollar prize. There is no better way to launch your brand, [but] SKINGRAFT will always be my baby.”
Cota was already on a new path since he and his brother closed their first store after 10 years due to rent increases in downtown. They had just opened up their new store, under the name Cota, at The Row DTLA when Jonny got the call to be on the first season of Cut, which saw Klum and Gunn joining forces with Amazon after leaving Project Runway in 2018. Thanks to a bigger budget and more freedom to change things up, Making the Cut took things to a new level, with more travel (Cota competed on runways in Paris, Tokyo and New York) and an emphasis on branding versus sewing, with each contestant getting help from a seamstress, just as designers do in the real world.
“In my early days of SKINGRAFT we would stay up late at night sewing our samples watching Project Runway, so I’ve always been a fan of that and it’s always inspired me to watch how other designers operate,” Cota recalls. “But I knew I could never do Project Runway because my sewing skills are slow and my pattern-making skills are not that strong. I’ve run a successful company for 15 years, I’ve opened stores, I’ve done Fashion Week, but I’m not sitting there and sewing every dress. So when Making the Cut came up and the idea that they were looking for a director of a global brand and not just someone to sew and design each garment, I thought, ‘OK, this sounds like me.’ I was ready to kind of get back to the real core of what I love and what my aesthetic was.”
His brother also saw the opportunity to evolve the brand. “SKINGRAFT has lived nine lives over the course of the last 12 years, and in each of those lives it’s taken another step forward,” Christopher says. “Our customer has gotten older along with us, and therefore our communication with them is more mature/refined than it once was. Our clothes, while still very progressive, are more likely to be worn daily now whereas in the early days they were more often worn for events, or at night. Internally, we work a lot smarter than we used to, and I think that comes through in the way the brand operates within the market.”
Of course, now that SKINGRAFT’s sales have “skyrocketed 500 percent,” from Cota’s appearance on the show, there’s a lot more to operate. The coronavirus and closure of stores throughout Los Angeles has been devastating for retail outlets and the fashion industry, but for the Cotas it’s also been a moment to step back, take a breath, and focus on every aspect of their business. “All of my energy right now is going into launching Jonny Cota on Amazon and beyond,” Jonny admits during our interview.
But later when we chat again for L.A. Weekly’s podcast, he has clearly done more thinking in terms of the retail experience he wants to present when things open up. Though still in planning stages, he shares that The Row space will include innovative displays that highlight his garments and brand new lifestyle products while adhering to social distancing guidelines, and most likely provides masks for shoppers. (SKINGRAFT has in fact been making travel masks as an accessory even before COVID-19 hit, and they just did a collaboration with Tom of Finland which included donations to the LA LGBT Center.)
Emerging from San Francisco and Los Angeles’ nightlife scenes and circus-themed performance art worlds, Jonny Cota was inspired by the theatrical garb and freaky embellished looks worn on stage by troupes he performed with as a stilt-walker and DJ, including El Circo and Lucent Dossier. Both performed at festivals, raves and in stage productions like Cirque Berzerk, Mutaytor, the Do-Lab at Coachella and Lightning in a Bottle, to name a few, back in the early ’90s, and the aesthetic — a hodgepodge of vaudeville, gypsy and steampunk getups heavy on feathers, glitter and old timey costumes — inspired the early incarnation of SKINGRAFT, which Jonny first formed with designer Cassidy Haley in 1995. When Haley left to pursue other endeavors, Jonny and his brother moved forward reinventing the brand and their vision for a sophisticated and streamlined take on gothic and dystopian chic.
Presentations at events such as Bondage Ball and in various underground environments for L.A. Fashion Week and clubs soon built them a cult following which expanded when they opened their store downtown. The SKINGRAFT store soon became a sort of party hub, especially during the early days of the DTLA Artwalk. It wasn’t long until the brand became a top choice of stylists who wanted to add a little fetishy flair to music video wardrobes, and early clients included P!nk, Marilyn Manson and Adam Lambert.
“Back in the day when I first hired Jonny to make me custom looks for a Britney Spears video, I found his sketches and ideas to be innovative and have always been a huge fan of the SKINGRAFT brand,” says revered stylist B Ackerlund, who’s worked with everyone from Lady Gaga to Nikki Minaj to Britney. “His workmanship and dedication definitely shaped the way for him to win Making the Cut. He is a very nice person and passionate about his work, [and] he has a darker side with a touch of rock & roll, and all that resonates with me. I couldn’t be more proud to be Jonny’s friend and to see his success and watch his brand grow with his determination and passion.”
Cota’s focused fervor for alternative fashion is clearly evident on the show, as is his likeability. He managed to convey both in a very natural and real way, which can be hard to do on reality TV. Did he have reservations about appearing on the show? “I was so concerned how I would come off, and how it would be edited,” Jonny admits. “I remember hugging my husband goodbye to fly to New York at like 3 in the morning and I just started sobbing uncontrollably with the fear of, oh my God, what am I getting myself into? Am I going to embarrass SKINGRAFT, am I going to embarrass L.A.? How is this going to play out? So it’s a huge concern. But I did feel — as soon as I met the producers and we became kind of more comfortable on set, I kind of felt like I trusted them and I felt better about opening up and trusted how they were going to edit it, [and] still keep it pretty genuine. ”
All of the Cota family and his husband Frank were briefly seen on the show as he advanced. Brother Chris says watching it with the rest of America (Cut likely got even bigger numbers than it might have due to the safer-at-home guidelines enforced during its debut on Amazon Prime) was “thrilling.” He says he didn’t want it to end. “Aside from his obvious design skills, I think we were all so proud of the way he carried himself throughout that show, and how he could be both simultaneously charming and authentic on camera.”
Another thing that set Cota apart from the other contestants on Cut was his intent to address sustainability in the brand’s production and fabric choices, both of which he presented on the show to Amazon execs. His earnest and enthusiastic plea likely snagged him the win. “I love what I do but I have a lot of critiques of the fashion industry and my biggest is the waste and the pollution and the lack of sustainability in a lot of it,” he explains. “So from the beginning it’s always been important to cut-to-order, focus on sustainable fabrics when they’re available, and just being really conscious with every move we make during the manufacturing process.”
The Cota brothers run their own factory in Bali so they control their means of production, which most designers don’t. Moving forward, they plan to do their part to cut waste and use more natural materials. “We get to make those choices about how things operate. I had posted something on Instagram about this and someone was like, ‘How can you call yourself sustainable if there’s a polyester sweatshirt?’ And I was like, ‘OK, there are two polyester pieces but there’s also organic cotton pieces, there’s bamboo tencel pieces.’ My biggest focus is on sustainable goals, but sustainability, especially for small brands, is expensive and I feel fortunate that with this prize money I can invest in that. It’s hard for small brands and small factories to make those conscious choices so I feel like I just got this incredible fully funded opportunity.”
As for what the future holds in terms of stylistic direction, Jonny says it’s summed up well in the Making the Cut finale runway show where “there’s color and there’s femininity, but there’s still like fetish latex gloves and nose chains and you’re getting that nightlife feel that I come from, but it’s on a global runway platform.” Aptly titled “Metamorphosis,” the collection is mean to represent Cota’s progression, metaphorically letting go of his “armor” and revealing a new “primal softness.”
“It shows the kind of the evolution of where my aesthetic is going,” he explains. “I feel liberated with this new opportunity. There was always a pressure to sell and to broaden the scope of who would love SKINGRAFT so we would have to introduce colors and stuff like that. Now that Jonny Cota is doing all that, SKINGRAFT can go hardcore DTLA, nightlife goth and just live its baddest, freakiest self.”
Indeed, Jonny’s nightlife roots will always inform his work, and for those who’ve followed his journey in Los Angeles, it’s a moment of pride. As club and events impresario Andres Rigal, who’s known Cota for over a decade, says, “From the first moment I met him I quickly realized he was absolutely one of L.A.’s authentic ascending designers. Jonny was one of us… Back then we were all in it together and today we still are, because as I always say ‘When the tide rises, all the boats rise together.’ I’m so proud, but not surprised of his recent win and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for the world because I know that he’s just getting warmed up.”
Thanks to his TV win, Jonny Cota has provided a global face for L.A. fashion that the whole city can be proud of — and one we needed. Though trends are born here and videos and movies are mostly styled here, the West Coast has never been able to get the kind of respect that the East has in the fashion world. Cota admits he felt a big responsibility.
“I think being from L.A., it gave me this advantage in the competition because L.A. loves fashion but there is a casual ease to L.A. that is not respected in the Fashion Week world of the industry,” he says. “You’re taking fashion and you’re fusing it with the Amazon marketplace and having accessible looks. I think it was this perfect storm where that’s my design language already and I think that that was something that resonated with the judges. So it was awesome to be the designer from L.A. on Making the Cut and then to triumph with that; it’s a big L.A. moment. ”
“Jonny has always been at the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist,” concludes Christopher, who’s watched his brother hone his hustle and ambition while maintaining an honest and heartfelt approach, growing as a designer and business person in the process, both before and after his TV triumph. “I think what has helped his designs resonate so much is his ability to draw people in, either through his personality or his actions. He has the ability to spark people’s curiosity, then win them over, and then somehow get those same people to buy in.”