Inside Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn’s ‘Making the Cut,’ Amazon’s Bid for an Escapist Fashion Franchise

The Eiffel Tower lights up the velvety night sky. Blue, red and white lights from the traffic below twinkle through the arches of the landmark — the centerpiece of an opulent outdoor fashion show. The bass thumps, the audience hurrahs and models bathed in gold light strut down the runway. Designers weep backstage in grateful disbelief at where they are and what they are doing, lifelong dreams realized.

The scene, from Amazon Studio’s forthcoming design competition series “Making the Cut,” is a postcard from the past. Paris today is a ghost town, streets devoid of people. It is one of numerous cities around the world implementing social austerity measures, allowing its residents to leave their homes only for groceries or other essential needs, in a bid to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus fueling a worldwide pandemic.

These are anxious, uncertain times. And to launch a reality show at this moment, when life itself is surreal, is both a tall order and a potentially welcome salve. The 10-episode series will premiere on Prime Video on March 27, even as the entertainment industry has been brought to a standstill. The show was filmed over the summer of 2019, jetting its internationally sourced group of competitors from New York to Paris to Tokyo, months before nations began closing off borders in service of the greater good — and months before its top-billed star, supermodel and executive producer Heidi Klum, quarantined herself over concern about a possible COVID-19 diagnosis. (Klum announced on Instagram Tuesday that she tested negative for the virus.) There is also the small matter of trying to build a global fashion brand — the show’s very premise — that is now made even tougher as a recession looms.

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The industry’s new normal includes shuttered movie theaters and an upended status quo, with major studios such as Universal and Disney closing theatrical windows and making films available on demand to home audiences. People cooped up indoors want, perhaps even need, entertainment and distraction during the crisis.

“I think that ‘Making the Cut’ is a much-needed antidote to everything that we’re going through,” says co-host Tim Gunn, who speaks with the warmth and reassurance of your favorite college professor. “It’s feel-good television. People want to be inspired; they want a distraction. They’re not going to see designers squabbling; they’re going to see designers helping each other. It’s going to be uplifting for people.”

That viewers may find comfort in the escapist, high-fashion, retail-ready world of “Making the Cut” is of particular significance to Amazon, whose Venn diagram of sprawling businesses — a streaming service at a time when remaining home is key to public health, an online retailer at a time when people are avoiding physical stores — is not least a story of the modern age of art and commerce.

From the appropriate social distance of her home in greater Los Angeles, Klum says she hopes her new show can “bring a small bit of joy and entertainment into our day.” Tens of millions of Americans are in a state of lockdown akin to Paris, and by the looks of Twitter chatter, people are going a bit stir crazy. That’s still no reason to leave the house. “We are all in this together,” Klum says. “This virus knows no borders, so as people of this planet, we all need to do our part to protect each other and to stop the virus from spreading. It’s so upsetting to see that people are not listening to guidelines and are out and about when they don’t need to be. The virus will keep spreading, and we will all then need to isolate for even longer.”

It was not that long ago — and yet what feels like so very long ago — that Klum was speaking to Variety in mid-January about her decision to venture into new territory with Amazon Studios.

Klum and Gunn have long been synonymous with “Project Runway,” and for 16 seasons sought to spotlight talented apparel makers. They bid “auf Wiedersehen” to that franchise two years ago amid a network shuffle, and ran into the open arms of an Amazon entertainment division trying to right itself under new leadership. Looking to create a program on their own terms, the pair first talked with Netflix before landing at Amazon Studios, where newly installed head Jennifer Salke had taken command of a strategy to invest significantly in unscripted programming. The former president of NBC Entertainment, Salke was more than familiar with the splash that a competition show like “The Voice” could make.

Cliff Watts for Variety

This year, Amazon Prime Video will debut “Making the Cut” and Bear Grylls’ “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji,” a Mark Burnett revival, as Salke aims to establish the streaming service’s unscripted presence in a “needle-moving” way. “Making the Cut” will be its first major international competition series.

“This was really the foundation — this plan to commit to a couple big, big shows that we could really, truly say are global but would be compelling, that we could then experiment with [in] a week-to-week cadence on the service, which is different for us,” says Salke.

“Making the Cut” will air two episodes a week, in contrast with the binge model popular of most streamers, and it summons the studio’s corporate synergies in a big way: Viewers will be able to buy the winning looks from Amazon Fashion.

Retail tie-ins aren’t new, of course. Netflix’s “Next in Fashion,” as a recent example, partnered with online luxury shop Net-a-Porter to hawk the winning designer’s collection. But Amazon’s interconnected web means that you can watch a show, buy a dress, consider another item that’s “frequently bought together” (as recommended by the site) and have it shipped to you for free, all without leaving the platform. It’s a flex that no other Hollywood player can boast.

In developing the series, Amazon Studios had told Klum, Gunn and showrunner Sara Rea to think big. Klum had dreams of “Fashion Force One” — an imagined 747 jet housing rows of sewing machines, so designers could work en route from one fashion capital to the next. She also wanted $1 million for the winner to fund his or her business.

“They said no to the plane, but they said yes to the million dollars,” says Klum. “That was amazing, because you need that startup money and you need to have people behind you who believe in you, who support you — and also a place where you can sell.”

And of course, they landed a runway show outside the Eiffel Tower.

“We went in to Amazon, and we asked for the world,” says Rea. “And they said yes and yes and yes.”

The move to Amazon Studios dates back to the spring of 2018, when the “Project Runway” cast and crew were two weeks away from shooting Season 17. The show was without a broadcast home, after Lifetime parent A+E Networks earlier in the year cut ties with “Project Runway” series owner The Weinstein Co. amid mounting sexual assault allegations against TWC chief Harvey Weinstein. Working with production partner Bunim/Murray and backed by funding from private equity firm Lantern Capital (which had acquired the bankrupt Weinstein Co.), Klum and Gunn were nevertheless forging ahead.

Then came “Watch What Happens Live” host Andy Cohen’s surprise announcement at NBCUniversal’s upfront presentation: “Project Runway” was heading back to Bravo, the show’s network for its first five seasons prior to a decade at Lifetime. What might have seemed like good news instead blindsided everyone. The following day, production shuddered to a halt. New contracts had to be negotiated.

The Friday before the news, “I had been out in Long Island City looking at the workroom, which had just been finished — the painting, the furniture arrangements and lighting,” says Gunn, who assumed Bravo would pick up where Lifetime had left off. The crew had turned down other commitments. “Oh! And we had the designers selected. I felt bad for everybody.”

The homecoming at Bravo prompted Klum to reevaluate her ties to the show she fondly refers to as her “first television baby.” Chafing at the proposed contract and recalling that she “didn’t have the most amazing experience” during the Bravo seasons, Klum wished the show luck and jumped ship. Gunn readily went with her. (Jumping along with them was longtime showrunner Rea and, later, 15 or so members of the crew.)

Cliff Watts for Variety

The budget for “Making the Cut” far exceeds the limits of its spiritual predecessor. In the well-appointed Paris design studio, there is no Piperlime accessories wall, no HP and Intel challenge, no Mary Kay makeup room. The designers do not engage in the sponsor-heavy feats that dogged contestants on “Project Runway,” from handing out Yoplait frozen yogurt samples on the Coney Island boardwalk to creating server uniforms for Susan Sarandon’s pingpong social club. No one is enlisted to sing the praises of Dixie Cups (another onetime “Runway” sponsor).

In lieu of product placement are famous landmarks, as the “Making the Cut” designers roam the streets of Paris for the first half of the season. Some choose to sit and sketch on a grassy hill by the Sacré-Coeur, or soak up sartorial history at the Yves Saint Laurent Museum. After a particularly tough day, the designers decompress at a sidewalk café with glasses of wine. Later, in Tokyo, they wander the Harajuku district for inspiration.

“We really wanted those locations to be an experience for the viewer,” says Rea. “Food [programming] does a lot of travel. Fashion, you don’t see that.”

In light of the current state of the world, Rea’s instinct to channel the designers’ wonder at their surroundings turns out to have been prescient, resulting in a loving, travel documentary-like tribute to these fashion capitals.

Director Ramy Romany, a documentarian and an Egyptologist, lavishes attention on the scenery. At a runway event at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the camera lingers on the interior of a three-story sculpted-stone hall. The episodes break for playful interludes in which Klum and Gunn explore the Moulin Rouge or a Japanese seafood market.

“Like, I’m in Paris — I want to see the Eiffel Tower, I want to see the Louvre, I want to see all these spectacular places,” says Rea. “So we wanted to make that event as big as it could possibly be. If you just watched the fashion show, you’d enjoy that moment because of all of the spectacle that we wanted it to be.”

The panel of judges that decides the designers’ fates is a who’s who of the sartorial elite: supermodel Naomi Campbell, CFDA award-winning designer Joseph Altuzarra, actor and designer Nicole Richie, digital entrepreneur Chiara Ferragni and former Vogue Paris editor-in-chief Carine Roitfeld.

Roitfeld may not be as familiar to the average viewer as Anna Wintour, but she is an influential figure in the fashion realm, enough so to reportedly inspire a character in “The Devil Wears Prada” — Jacqueline Follet, the French magazine editor set to pounce on Miranda Priestly’s job. Roitfeld is a proponent of democratizing fashion, likening Amazon Studios’ efforts to the runway show she presented last summer in Florence, Italy, for 5,000 members of the public.

“To open these gates to people who [would] never get a chance to see Gigi [Hadid] on the runway wearing a Tom Ford dress, that’s what I like,” she says.

How audiences in lockdown mode will like it remains to be seen. Will they yearn for escapist, fun fare that distracts from the gloomy headlines and days spent in sweatpants?

Ferragni, an influencer with 19 million Instagram followers, has been sheltering in place with her family at home in Milan, located in the region where coronavirus has hit Italy hardest. She posts daily photos and videos of her outfits, her toddler and her musician husband, Fedez, serenading the neighbors; she also urges her followers to stay at home, and has spearheaded a huge fundraising campaign to provide a local hospital with more beds.

For her, “Making the Cut” is not just a sartorial romp but an opportunity to refuel enthusiasm for exploring the world. She hopes it will inspire people to “follow their passions.”

“The program was shot months before the coronavirus disease was an issue, so it will be beautiful for me to re-see New York and Tokyo from the eyes of the program,” she says. “I hope it will remind people how beautiful it is to travel.”

Amazon is perhaps one of the few companies to flourish amid this massive public health crisis. The travel, restaurant and airline industries have been crushed, but the e-commerce giant is hiring 100,000 more people as its order volumes spike. (It has also come under scrutiny for its treatment of hourly warehouse workers, the lowest-paid but arguably most integral part of its workforce, amid the contagion.)

Of the 150 million Amazon Prime subscribers around the world, some analysts estimate 90 million are Stateside. That, in theory, means Amazon Prime Video’s reach in the U.S. is greater than that of Netflix, which has 61 million subscribers domestically. It’s unknown how many Prime subscribers regularly watch the streamer.

Cliff Watts for Variety

Says Campbell, who joined “Making the Cut” at the behest of longtime friend Klum: “What I love about this platform and this show is the reach, and how many people it’s going to attract around the world.”

Unlike the movie business, which has been completely upended by the pandemic, the release of new TV shows on direct-to-consumer platforms has thus far been relatively unaffected. And with so many more people working from home and engaging in social distancing in recent weeks, streaming usage is up globally, per video distribution provider Wurl. Netflix will not be the only streamer that gains during this time of forced homebody-ism.

It would not be surprising to see Amazon boost its subscriber level even more in the coming months, as people ramp up their reliance on delivery services, particularly fresh-food couriers. The company owns Whole Foods, after all, and with grocery stores packed with panicked shoppers and shelves perpetually empty, the e-commerce behemoth is in command of a major food supply. Based on survey data, Jefferies analyst Brent Thill found that amid the crisis, people were spending more money than usual at Amazon, the only store to see such an uptick.

For newer Prime subscribers, the platform’s video content is a siren call to become more deeply enmeshed in the Amazon ecosystem. And “Making the Cut” deftly reroutes those customers from the video side back over to its wide retail maw at the end of the program, encouraging them to buy new looks every week.

Salke and others are quick to stress that any revenue from the show’s apparel would be “icing on the cake” (although Amazon Fashion has since decided profits will now go directly to the designers). Amazon’s total net sales in 2019 were $280.5 billion; one brand or product is but a drop in the bucket.

Yet getting customers to buy more stuff is a core part of Amazon’s business, even from a streaming lens. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos famously said at the 2016 Code Conference, “When we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes in a very direct way.” And Amazon is estimated to be the No. 1 apparel retailer in the country, outselling Macy’s and Walmart, the nation’s largest department store and brick-and-mortar chain, respectively.

Salke says that her goal upon arriving at Amazon Studios two years ago was to “synergize with as many parts of the company as we could.” Prior to “Making the Cut,” she was already leaning into this area, creating shoppable offerings for Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty fashion show on Prime Video, for example. Fashion and music are the two largest crossover areas for the studio.

A valuable opportunity for the “Making the Cut” winner in scaling up his or her business comes in the form of a yearlong mentorship with Amazon Fashion head Christine Beauchamp, another key component of the prize. The former brand president of Ann Taylor and chief exec of Victoria’s Secret Beauty — whom Gunn admiringly calls “very user-friendly but no-nonsense” — Beauchamp is a member of Bezos’ elite “S-team,” the group of 20-plus senior lieutenants who lead Amazon’s army of divisions in retail, web services, artificial intelligence, hardware and more.

The two final contestants are asked to present their business plans to Beauchamp, in a manner akin to ABC’s “Shark Tank,” the prime example of an unscripted series that has supersized dozens of businesses through investment and audience exposure.

Of course, reality TV has no shortage of promises of greatness: Be the next top model, top chef, voice, American idol. But its collective track record for creating household names is spotty. In the design world, “Project Runway” alum Christian Siriano (now the show’s resident mentor) broke into the mainstream, but he is the exception.

“We just wanted to make this an actual, real brand that can exist,” says Klum. “Look at Christian Siriano — he worked it out, and not a lot of people do work it out after doing something like this. You win something, and then it’s like, where do you go from here?”

As such, simulating an environment that reflects the retail industry was important to the show’s creators. Unlike the competition-in-a-box format that other reality shows rely on, “Making the Cut” has few restrictions. The designers are given two days to complete their assignments and a season-wide budget that can be parceled out however they wish, keeping in mind that the final product will be made for retail.

“One of the major differences is that [‘Project Runway’] was intent upon limitations, intent upon saying, ‘We’re going to give you parameters that are so constrained that it’s going to test your creativity in ways that no one can anticipate,’” says Gunn. “As a teacher, I loved that aspect. But ‘Making the Cut’ is very different. We want to give you all the resources that we believe are important for you to succeed, and then it’s all up to you.”

Seamstresses are at the designers’ disposal, akin to a real-life fashion house. Competitors must create a couture look and a more “accessible” one; the winning accessible look will be produced in a limited-edition batch and sold on Amazon for $100 or less.

“This is about finding the next great global brand,” says Klum. “Everything about it was supposed to be more real and less gimmicky — not that gimmicky’s bad — but less showy, less super stressed for them.”

That’s not to say the pressure doesn’t get to them; the designers know that $1 million is career-changing. But the free-range realism of the show prioritizes their work above all, dampening the interpersonal drama. The theatrics come from the craft itself.

Perhaps the contestants, each plucked from their lives as business owners, also sense they are not vying with one another so much as bracing against larger capitalist forces. The real competition is not in this room full of sewing machines but out there: from the fast-fashion factories to the prestige design houses to the perennial wave of new labels that comprise the competitive, saturated apparel retail market.

One challenge for Amazon in working to elevate the winning designer to international status is building its credibility as a destination for tastemakers and style enthusiasts.

Despite the company’s apparel dominance, retail analysts agree that it is better known for socks or multi-packs of white T-shirts than for fashion-forward outfits. Amazon’s Stitch Fix-style service Prime Wardrobe and influencer-led limited-collection hub The Drop are efforts to expand past that.

Given the evolution of Bezos’ company from bookstore to “the everything store,” Altuzarra believes the show has “the opportunity to help shift that perception of Amazon and allow for people to think about Amazon as a destination for fashion with a capital F.”

The winner will have even more to contend with amid the coronavirus-induced stock market crash that has sent the economy spiraling. To that end, it is fortunate that Amazon Fashion will be funneling all profits from the show’s winning looks back to the designer who created them.
To Gunn, at this surreal moment in history, the show is about a collective appreciation of art and humanity.

“For me, ‘Making the Cut’ celebrates the global community of fashion and the extinction of boundaries and barriers; we are but one world,” he says. “It’s a feel-good show and a tonic for troubled times.”