For the past few years, Amazon has been on a mission to become the largest clothing retailer in the world. It has surpassed stores like Kohl’s, Target, T.J. Maxx in sales as traditional brick and mortar stores have suffered in the face of Amazon’s ubiquity, and in 2019 even outpaced Walmart. But while the company makes it easy to find and buy clothing through recognized retailers like Chico’s and Levi’s, and their products can easily climb Google rankings with the right search terms, Amazon is still missing something: a sense of style.
It’s not like Amazon hasn’t tried to be stylish, to create a sense of luxurious exclusivity alongside its offerings of stretchy yoga pants and polyester black minidresses. Just as Amazon has clamored to take over retail, it has tried and failed to build a reputation as a fashion company. The company’s nearly 76 in-house private labels, with minimalist names like “Lark & Ro” and “Mae,” account for only a small part of its clothing sales compared to household names. People might be fine with ordering brands they already like through Amazon, but they won’t go so far as to buy from a personality-less offshoot created by the company. And they certainly wouldn’t ever think of Amazon as synonymous with fashion.
Enter Making the Cut, Amazon’s new reality TV fashion competition. It’s hosted by model Heidi Klum and TV personality Tim Gunn, who previously hosted Bravo’s Project Runway. Because of this, the show feels like you’re being visited from two ghosts of Project Runway’s past, but don’t mistake Making the Cut for Klum and Gunn’s former gig. Amazon’s show is enormously expensive and full of the kind of fashion industry talent that’s difficult to lure to a laptop screen, like hosts Naomi Campbell and former Vogue Paris editor-in-chief Carine Roitfeld. In the first episode alone, the contestants are whisked dramatically to Paris where they participate in their first runway challenge directly underneath the Eiffel Tower, and Klum is sure to drop the one million dollar investment winnings as often as possible.
Making the Cut attempts to replicate what being a fashion designer is really like, as most of the contestants, a diverse crew pulled from places like Berlin, Israel, and New York, already have their own brands or experience in the industry. “This is not a sewing competition,” Gunn announces early on and explains that, not unlike how most of them already work, they’re responsible for designing, buying fabric, and creating patterns and instructions for outfits, which will then be sewed by seamstresses based on those instructions for most episodes. This takes away a good source of tension historically found in clothing competitions: there’s always a designer with a label who can’t work a sewing machine for their life and it’s thrilling to watch them struggle, and while there are some personality clashes in Making the Cut it’s a show largely devoid of drama. The seamstress choice also erases a good source of labor and skill from the process of making clothes. That we don’t see the seamstresses might mirror how design houses work where the designer is king, but it’s a fitting decision for a show produced by Amazon, a company built on the concept of tucking away working-class labor to sell the illusion of ease.
It’s hard to get away from Amazon in this show because the clothes themselves are intrinsically linked to Amazon. Each week the designers are presented with a new challenge (to collaborate, to create streetwear) and the winning outfit gets mass-produced and sold on the site, so you can buy the clothes right off your screen (just close your Prime video tab and head on over to your Prime shopping tab!) a move that echoes what Project Runway adopted with the company Nineteenth Amendment. Viewers don’t get to see who sews the Making the Cut mass-produced clothes either, though I doubt it’s artisan Parisian seamstresses. And once you take into account that Amazon is launching a luxury fashion platform soon, as first reported by Women’s Wear Daily, the timing and existence of Making the Cut feels like nothing but a marketing move.
The emphasis, throughout the show, is that the judges are looking for an entrepreneur as much as they’re looking for someone who can make cool clothes. But the show frequently tilts towards the former, and any fantasy and fun with fashion are zapped out. “Streetwear is a billion-dollar business,” Gunn says in one episode as if reading a press release. “Heidi and I thought it was very important for our designers to experience this very robust market.” The program can feel more like Shark Tank as contestants are wheeled out to defend their design aesthetic against the demand that it be more sellable; in one episode, Esther Perbandt, a gothic, German designer and frontrunner who only works in black, is brought to near tears because she’s tired of hearing she needs to inject color into her clothes.
What’s disturbing about Making the Cut is that, for as long as Amazon has created and distributed original programming, that programming has not really reflected the business of Amazon itself. I haven’t noticed Midge Maisel downloading anything to a Kindle, at least. But unlike Netflix and Hulu, Making the Cut is backed by a billion-dollar e-commerce store, and its content blurs the line between television and advertising.
The seamless connection between the clothes you see on Making the Cut and what you can buy on Amazon opens a door to a range of possibilities for the media company. For example, Amazon could create a cooking competition and then sell the dishes you see prepared as meal kits at Whole Foods or offer decorative wares directly tied to a home improvement program. Reality TV shows often have sponsors or media tie-ins, like Top Chef featuring San Pellegrino or The Bachelor staging a photoshoot for the cover of Cosmopolitan, but the way in which Making the Cut keeps everything in-house appears unprecedented. And in its emphasis on accessibility and business, Making the Cut works against not just what makes reality television fun, but also fashion.
Making the Cut premieres March 27 on Amazon.