Rhonda Swan, founder and CEO of The Unstoppable Branding Agency, has always been about helping entrepreneurs tell their stories by finding their true authentic voice. She hopes that more business owners will be able to share their stories in a way that shows off their genuine self — not some manufactured image of apparent success.
Perhaps there’s no better example of someone who stayed true to themselves than Jonny Cota. Cota is a fashion designer and the founder of Skingraft. He’s most notable for being the first-place winner on Amazon’s Making the Cut. Cota has since been a guest on The Kelly Clarkson Show, Variety, and, most recently, The Help Me Rhonda Show.
Here, he sat down with Swan to discuss his humble beginnings, route to success, and how he found his voice.
Nowadays, Cota runs a thriving fashion brand with three brick-and-mortar stores. He was credited as pioneering the new American avant-garde by GQ Magazine.
However, things weren’t always this way. In fact, Cota’s introduction to the world of fashion was rather unorthodox.
“Where did this inspiration come from?” asked Swan. “Are your family artists? Are they fashion designers?”
“Absolutely not,” Cota replied. “I was raised with a really religious family and like the suburbs up near San Francisco, and no one was really creative in my family. But you know, at a young age, I realized I was gay. And that kind of sets you on a different path where you know your life isn’t gonna look like everyone else’s.”
“Was that a challenge for you?” Swan asked. “Were they [your parents] supportive? Because it helps us really understand why, and what you’re doing today and how, what drove you to do it.”
Cota mentioned that realizing he didn’t fit in “drove him to a dark place.” He started finding new ways of expressing himself like wearing all black or putting studs in his backpack. He gravitated towards fringe and alternative communities like punk shows and raves.
“It actually turned into a blessing where you kind of discover […] a less expected version of yourself,” said Cota. “So I would say if I trace back my design, aesthetic, and my desire to create, I bring it back to being a 13-year-old goth kid living in a religious house, trying to create an identity.”
Cota admitted that his parents were a lot more loving and supportive than he initially gave them credit for. Still, it was his perceived outsider status that drove him to innovate, experiment, and design.
“Alright, let’s talk about this inspiration of you becoming a fashion designer,” Swan said. “Where did that actually come from?”
Cota replied that around the time he graduated college, he got a call from his friend who was a DJ.
“And he’s like, ‘We’re going on a tour with a circus all summer. Wanna come?’”
But this was no ordinary circus. It was, in Cota’s words, a vaudeville show filled with sex, fire, danger, and skin makeup. Think something closer to Cirque De Solique rather than clowns making balloon animals.
“I have nothing to lose,” Cota told himself. “Let’s do this.”
That next summer would change his life. He spent the following three months doing everything he could to contribute to the circus. Cota started out as a performer after learning to walk on stilts one afternoon in a grocery store parking lot. He performed in front of new audiences every week and spent his days surrounded by eccentric people in lavish costumes.
Yet, he didn’t have a costume for himself. His fellow performers told him he’d have to make his own costume as nobody else was going to do it for him.
“There’s a sewing machine right there,” Cota said. “And so they taught me how to sew and that’s how I learned. So everything I know now in fashion I learned in the circus.”
Making the Cut
“Wait, you just want a million dollars on Making the Cut?” Swan asked, bewildered. “And you learned everything from the circus?”
“I know, right?” Cota replied. “What a lesson in life.”
Cota noted that his background in circus costumes made him the perfect candidate to create stage-ready outfits. In the past, Skingraft created costumes for big names like Lady Gaga, Justin Beiber, Janet Jackson, and Rihanna.
“At the beginning of 2019, we were kind of going down,” Cota said. “Money was tight. Funding was tight. The brand felt like it was coming to the end of a chapter and I don’t know if there was a new chapter after that.”
Yet, there was light at the end of the tunnel for him.
“Someone reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, I have an opportunity for you,’” Cota said. “It’s a new show coming out on Amazon as a competition about creative directors.”
This show wasn’t just going to be some sewing show. It was going to be about branding. It was for people who wanted to build a lifestyle and show off their designs on a runway — something Cota was more than capable of doing.
He vividly remembers the time he was at the airport, and his mom called to wish him good luck. Cota sobbed so hard that you’d think one of his relatives died.
“I’m realizing I’m going to put myself out there in a way that I haven’t before,” he said. “Am I gonna embarrass myself? Am I gonna ruin my brand? Am I gonna ruin my reputation? Or am I going to soar? Like throwing yourself into the unknown, right? Like really confronting fear?”
When his plane landed in New York, Cota told himself to pull it together. He was as nervous as could be, but wouldn’t let that stop him from achieving his goals.
“Every single day was challenging, but it really pushed me past my limits,” said Cota “That made me a better designer and a better person. And I’m super grateful for it.”
The Drive to Win
Every day of the competition felt ruthless. Cota recalls how he was put under intense pressure and scrutiny at just about every moment.
“I remember a moment where Naomi Campbell ripped you to shreds,” Swan noted, referring to the second episode of Making the Cut. “Share what happened with that. How did that help change you?”
“She just fed me to the wolves,” Cota replied. “Her critiques were so intense. When I almost couldn’t handle it anymore, she came in for the kill.”
Campbell laid her harsh words into Cota. She told him that the judges “didn’t see anything in him” and that he was “boring.” While the show itself only featured about a minute of Campbell’s remorseless words, Cota says the entire tirade went on for what felt like twenty minutes.
Yet, Cota refused to back down or give up.
“I think that was the pivotal moment for me,” he said. “It changed my entire competition because I said to her, ‘I know I have the talent. I know I have the entrepreneurial spirit. I know I’m what you’re looking for, and I’m going to prove it. Give me this opportunity. Keep me here. Don’t send me home today, and I promise you, I will impress you.”
Campbell’s words made Cota feel ashamed and embarrassed. After all, how could anyone survive after being chewed out and humiliated by a judge right from the very beginning of the show?
But even though Cota felt dismayed and expected to be kicked off the show — after all, he’d only packed two weeks worth of clothes — he knew that he had to prove himself. He wouldn’t go down without a fight.
“No one believed in me,” he admitted. “Sometimes that pushes you that much harder to believe in yourself. Without that, I don’t know if I would have won.”
But he persisted past the self-doubt and emerged victorious in the end. The grand prize? One million dollars and a collection with Amazon.
On the second to last episode, Cota had to pitch his business to the President of Amazon Fashion. He remembers being so nervous that he felt as if he was sweating everywhere on his body.
“I don’t care about the million dollars,” he told the President. “I can turn a mentorship with Amazon and a collection with your network into something more profitable than a million dollars. I don’t care about the money. I want the chance.”
And he certainly got the chance he was looking for.
“So what happened from there?” Swan asked. “What’s happened to the Jonny Cota brand?”
“Well we launched the Jonny Cota Studio, which is a collection that we did with Amazon,” Cota said. “I’m also doing Jonny Cota, my namesake brand. [I] launched two collections since the show, introduced my first perfume, [and] launched my second perfume last week, which has always been a dream of mine.”
Cota went on to say that his newfound success helped him launch lifestyle brands, candles, and pretty much everything else he’s always wanted to do but never had the resources to accomplish.
“The biggest thing that’s come from this is resources and funds,” Cota said. “Right now, we are doing all that: telling our brand story.”
Some of Cota’s ambitious plans include building a factory in Bali and a studio in New Delhi where fashion students can learn more about the industry. He also plans on opening up more concept stores around the world, particularly in Bali.
“We’re trying to make a difference with fashion,” he said. “The best thing about winning this money is we’ve wanted to put so much energy into sustainable efforts and create the brand we’ve always really envisioned.”
His advice for budding designers and entrepreneurs? Just do it.
“Just start,” says Cota. “You don’t need the degree. You don’t need the piece of paper. So many people get caught up with [things] like, ‘I don’t have the training. I don’t have the authority. I don’t know how to sow.’ Who cares?”
“You were on freakin’ national TV and didn’t know how to sew!” Swan chimed in.
“Just have a passion. Have a vision. Know that you will learn from your mistakes. Your failures will pave the road to success.”