Martinez native captures $1 million prize on Heidi Klum’s fashion-design series – The Mercury News

Cota with Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn (Reegan Smyth) 

Martinez native Jonny Cota has had a great big secret bottled up inside of him since last September. That’s when “Making the Cut,” a new fashion competition hosted by Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, wrapped production.

And he was declared the winner.

And captured a $1 million grand prize.

Incredible, right? But because the series didn’t start streaming on Amazon Prime until late March — and the finale didn’t drop until Thursday night — Cota was forced to struggle and squirm and agonize for months while remaining mum about the results.

He couldn’t tell people he received a million bucks to invest in his brand. Or that he earned a one-year mentorship with the Amazon Fashion Team. Or that he was about to have his own eclectic collection of progressive streetwear sold exclusively in Amazon Fashion’s store.

“It has been an impossible secret to keep,” Cota said on Friday. “But I’m glad I kept it.”

That’s because 30 friends and family members were able to watch the finale with fresh eyes, via a Zoom viewing party, and “no one knowing the outcome provided such a great moment.”

And it wasn’t until that moment — when the “Making the Cut” judges panel handed Cota, 35, a narrow victory over fellow finalist Esther Perbandt of Berlin — that his accomplishment truly sank in.

“It hadn’t been real until then — when we got to celebrate,” says Cota, an alum of Alhambra High School and UC Santa Cruz. “Before that, it was just an idea. The secret was buried so deep that it wasn’t affecting my life in any way. But now it will be real. I can see the sales reports of the new collection. It’s crushing it. My phone has hundreds of text messages. I have thousands of new (social media) followers.

“So now it’s real and I get to enjoy it.”

“Making the Cut” is somewhat similar to “Project Runway,” the fashion-design show formerly headlined by Klum and Gunn. But it has more of a global imprint — welcoming 12 established designers from around the world and whisking them to such fashionable locales as New York, Tokyo and Paris. The judges panel included, among others, supermodel Naomi Campbell and Nicole Richie.

The show also places nearly as much emphasis on entrepreneurship as it does design. Contestants were pushed to bring their brands to a new level. And as part of the finale, Cota and Perbandt had to pitch their visions to Christine Beauchamp, president of Amazon Fashion (Cota called that the “scariest” part of his journey).

Cota’s path on the show wasn’t always a smooth one. He arrived with 15 years of experience running his own line called Skingraft. And he has clothed celebrities, including Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé. But he hadn’t made a dress in 10 years and, early on, he was known the “leather guy” — someone who created mainly jackets and stuck to dark and neutral tones.

At one point, Klum wondered if he was a “one-trick pony.”

An example of Cota’s new collection. 

But Cota quickly adapted, allowing a “softer side” of himself to emerge, along with more colors and “a new sense of femininity” in his creations.

“I had to show (the judges) my range,” he says. “So even though I was discovering a lot about myself, I was also digging into a design language that I understood but I just don’t do for Skingraft.”

Cota, who now lives in Los Angeles, has fond memories of his East Bay youth. As a senior, he served as student body president at Alhambra, where he was a “shockingly enthusiastic” student and even spent some time inside the bulldog mascot costume.

On Friday, he received numerous messages from former classmates, the gist of which was: “I’m super-shocked and I’m totally not shocked at all” by your victory.

“I have so much Martinez pride,” Cota says. “It feels like a hometown win for everyone in the Bay.”

And with that win, Cota is energized.

“I feel like now the world is my oyster,” he says. “I have a new brand that is my namesake. I am so excited to expand my categories, do lifestyle things. I have a whole new blank canvas. And with that opportunity, I feel like I can do anything.”

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