Jonny Cota is a Los Angeles based fashion designer, most recognized for his role as creative director of the streetwear-inspired brand, SKINGRAFT for the past decade. He has dressed some of our favorite icons including Britney Spears, Rihanna, Janet Jackson, and more. Jonny is also the winner of Heidi Klum’s series, Making The Cut Season 1 where he was awarded $1 million to create his own brand. Today, Jonny is focused on building Jonny Cota Studio and opening a contact-free store at ROW DTLA where customers can shop both in-person and online.
In our exclusive interview, Jonny talks about how he got his start, Making The Cut, and the future of the fashion industry.
What was it like growing up in San Francisco? Growing up in the Bay Area was awesome, because the access to San Francisco queer culture, rave culture, and overall city culture totally inspired me as a teenager. I was also living in the suburbs being a disgruntled teen at the mall. Even today, there is a certain balance that plays into my work where I’m inspired by aspirational artistic things, but I come from a very all American feeling suburban family.
How’d you get into styling and designing? I got my start as a circus performer and when I was in the circus, I was making costumes, which kind of led to a ready to wear collection when I moved to LA.
Do you remember a key moment that you realized it was what you wanted to do? I’m still waiting for that moment to happen! The very first time someone paid me for something I sewed, I was like this could be a thing! I sold a leather jacket off my back and was paid cash for it– that’s when I thought “I think I’m a designer.” A pivotal moment when things shifted.
What’s your design approach? For every collection, I start by creating a mood board. Maybe I’m pulling from this far off cultural inspiration and a 70’s film, then mashing it up with rave culture silhouettes, combining them all together to create something new, but having all of these historical references throughout.
I design for myself, even though I do men’s and women’s, I design for what I fantasize myself to wear, also what I think I want my friends to wear. It’s actually very personal. I’m quite a selfish designer and make what I want. That’s the advantage of being an independent designer. If I was working for a big brand or the head of a fashion house, there’s tons of pressure to make certain things so I truly value my independence.
You’ve dressed so many iconic celebrities – who has been your favorite celebrity to work with so far? Why? When we did the Britney Spears video with the Auckerlund’s, it was kind of a childhood dream come true. Britney is the icon of our generation and to be honored with designing all the looks making her these gothy, over the top, punk rocker pieces were so much fun. I was able to fuze my world and hers together, which was a major moment in my career.
Describe your personal style in 3 words. Brutal, minimal, extroverted.
Tell us about your experience filming and working with Heidi Klum & Tim Gunn on Making The Cut. I never imagined myself going on a reality tv show, but they found me at the perfect time. I had just closed my SKINGRAFT store of ten years and I was at a major fork in the road in my career. Going on the show, the first day you see Tim, Heidi and all the cameras are pointing at you, you’re like this is a big deal.
They are both as cool, if not cooler than everyone thinks they are from watching television. Naomi Campbell is 10x cooler and more beautiful than everyone thinks she is. Being around that caliber of judges, designers, and TV hosts was a really special moment that I didn’t realize how much awe I would have for the whole experience.
Who did you instantly click with on the show? Esther, hands down. I remember seeing her from casting and thinking who is she? I wanna know her and want to be her. She has the coolest look. When we all arrived is when we discovered the other contestants on the show. We never actually saw or met each other before walking onto the set. At that moment, cameras are rolling for the first time and my reactions were all organic– I was so happy Esther made it.
Did your process differ at all between your experience with SKINGRAFT vs your creative process on the show? Major. I got some critique during and after the show about making designs that were too accessible or too simple. During Challenge 1 or 2: I’m trying to make SKINGRAFT items that are super ornate, you have a deadline and my sewing skills are not fantastic. That’s why I was in such a terrible place in the beginning, because I was trying to do too much and if I was going to create a piece like I would for SKINGRAFT it would just take longer, no matter what. I had to dial it back, my strategy was always what can I make in time, finish and be proud of and I don’t usually work that way. That was something I quickly shifted into and I don’t think a lot of designers were able to make that pivot when they should have.
Which judge did you find the most intimidating? Naomi Campbell– she is a tiger. Just being in the same room with her is intimidating and then the first time she addresses me, she rips me one for 20 minutes and just tears me down, I was almost in tears. I remember being interviewed shortly after that and I said, you don’t tear someone down unless you see potential in them. Otherwise, she would have sent me home. She spent 20 minutes yelling at me then kept me here so I knew the pressure was on and I needed to impress her.
How was it taking such… honest… feedback? For me, it worked out in the end, my whole experience is very positive. As an independent designer, you don’t get much critique. If I receive a review from my fashion show it’s most likely going to be good or mild. I can tell I’ve designed strong pieces if sales are good. If my pieces suck, sales are just bad, I’m very rarely told about that.
It was a challenge for every designer to hear the real talk coming from the judges, I think everyone responded to it differently, but for me, it lit a fire that made me want to impress them even more. I don’t think taking negative criticism is everyone’s strength. I didn’t realize it was one of mine until the show, but I always want to prove people wrong and stand up for myself so the format worked really well for me.
Apart from winning Making The Cut, what has been the most memorable moment of your career? My first New York Fashion Week show in the tents of Lincoln Center Autumn/Winter 2014. It was the climax of my entire brand, best selling collection, the most exciting runway show, first major time in New York, all the press was there– I remember running out after the final walk and being blinded by the lights of the runway, trying to wave and act all cool, but also focusing on not falling. That was one of the highest points of my career.
Congratulations on your upcoming concept store at ROW DTLA! Could you give us any details or what to expect for a socially-distant shopping experience? We are in renovations now, building a contact-less retail experience and rebranding as the Jonny Cota concept store. Jonny Cota will carry Jonny Cota Studio, and it will be the exclusive retailer (brick and mortar) besides amazon in the entire world. We will also carry the new perfume I’m launching, candles and homewares. We will also stock the most popular items from SKINGRAFT all within the concept store of Jonny Cota.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about people who can’t make it to the store and we’re adding an extra layer where the whole store is going to be photographed and recorded to create an interactive shopping experience online where you can feel like you’re virtually shopping the store. Online shoppers will be able to take a video walkthrough, browse products on mannequins, and click on the outfits to purchase.
Whether you are not ready to be in public because of the lockdown or you don’t live in LA, it will create the retail experience for today’s digital landscape. We’re even switching our customer service team from the phone to Zoom. I am passionate about creating real interactions with people through a digital experience.
I love that you’re inclusive in your work as you create unisex pieces and keeping different body types in mind – how important is recognizing diversity in your brand and clothing? I think diversity is paramount. It has to be front and center. I feel like I’ve done a strong job having diverse casts, models, and employees this entire time. I believe in “walk the walk, don’t talk the talk”– I should be an example of diversity and I feel like for 10 years I have, but In 2020 we have to do more. I aim to vocally make it part of our brand manifesto and let every customer know that this is an integral part of how we run our business and if you don’t like it, go somewhere else.
One exciting thing about this time is that a lot of customers are pulling up the receipts for brands– they’re talking about diversity and Black Lives Matter but in two months, will there be black representation in your campaign? From two months before or back to last year, there may not be any. I think it’s an exciting time for all of us to hold each other accountable and I’m sure there will be moments when things will be pointed out to me and I have to be prepared to learn from that. Everyone participating in fashion should.
What are your thoughts on sustainability in fashion? How do you do your part? We own our method of manufacturing so we have a small factory that produces the whole collection. We cut the order, there is no excess waste, we are not overproducing anything, and use eco-friendly materials whenever possible and when available. Every step of our manufacturing process has transparency tied to our efforts in being sustainable, where we need help, and where we’re falling short. I will say that one awesome take away from winning Making The Cut and getting this financial boost is that– I’ll be really blunt and say being a sustainable brand is expensive.
If it was cheap, everyone would do it. It’s hard for young brands or small designers to do it– fabrics and mailers overall are more expensive. This is an exciting opportunity for us to push forward in our quest for more aspects of the brand to be sustainable and keep growing.
Where do you see fashion going into a post-COVID world? This is a scary time for everyone and business. It’s a much-needed reset button on the fashion industry. I think major brands, stores, and big key players that have been doing it wrong for a long time – not recognizing diversity or sustainability or the changing buying patterns of young customers- are falling apart. When things crumble it leaves room for a new generation to fill something new. Of course, I do not wish to see anyone fail as health is a major concern along with business success, but I am excited to see what newness will be built after this.
Major department stores that I aspired to be in have completely changed over the last 18 months alone, I have so much respect for all of those retailers, but it’s a different ball game today.
Who are some of your biggest style icons? I am obsessed with Grace Jones.
When you’re not working, what does a “day off” look like? I’m not good at taking days off, but when I do, I have this little black gothic-style cabin in the woods about an hour and a half from LA where I can escape. I lay in the sun or hang out in the snow– weather depending and I just drink tea, play music, dance around the deck– really appreciating the small doses of quiet time.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out? Just start. Start small. I hear young designers say “well I’m looking for this $10,000 investment so I can buy this or that.” I’ve also heard “I have this branding team who’s going to help me put together a logo.” Just start, come up with a name and start.
I started making my first terrible jackets with no lessons and no training. You learn on the job and your friends will tell you what’s great and what sucks. Don’t build it up to be some major thing. I mean, I went on Making The Cut and my sewing skills were crap. Every night before bed I watched YouTube videos on how to sew sleeves onto shoulders. Just start!