Amazon's new fashion design competition captures the thrill of Project Runway on a grander, more enterprising scale.

By Kristen Baldwin
March 24, 2020 at 08:00 AM EDT
Amazon Prime Video

Making the Cut

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In times of crisis, we need Tim Gunn. This became abundantly clear about 20 minutes into the series premiere of Making the Cut, Amazon’s big-budget twist on Project Runway. Gunn, who once again serves as a mentor/cheerleader/shoulder to cry on for the competing designers, surveys a garment intently through his dark-rimmed glasses. “I think it’s going to be sensational!” he says in his signature deep lilt. “This looks like a winner!” he tells another contestant. “You can do it,” he assures a third. Though I can barely sew a button, I found myself nodding along. We can do it. We can get through this.

If nostalgia is chicken soup for the anxiety-riddled soul, Making the Cut — which reunites Gunn with his fellow Emmy-winning Project Runway host Heidi Klum — is a soothing and entertaining distraction for our current Covid-19 nightmare. The 10-episode reality competition, premiering March 27 on Amazon, is the best kind of reboot: It captures the spirit and thrill of the original on a grander, more enterprising scale.

Frustrated with how formulaic Project Runway had become, Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn left the long-running Bravo (and Lifetime) series in 2018 and took their talents to Amazon. Consequently, Making the Cut plays like Project Runway if its rich aunt died and left the show her millions. Rather than toiling in a fluorescent-lit workroom at Parsons in Greenwich Village, Making the Cut hopefuls craft their garments in an airy and spacious atelier in Paris. (Later, they move to the Amazon Fashion Studio in Tokyo.) Rather than paying the bills through awkward product integration (see, for example, the woeful Saturn car parts challenge of 2008), Heidi and Tim just say “Amazon” a lot, as in the aforementioned “Amazon Fashion Studio,” and Heidi’s frequent reminder that “the winning look will be produced and sold immediately on Amazon.” And rather than competing for $100,000, the Making the Cut contestants — all of whom are working designers hoping to take their existing brand to the proverbial “next level” — have their eyes on a $1 million prize.

Of course, if a big budget was all it took to make a reality show successful, Fox would currently be airing season 9 of The X Factor. For all of its globe-trotting flash, what works best about Making the Cut are the reality competition basics: Interesting people battling the clock, their own insecurities, and each other to make art. Casting is everything, and producers have assembled a group of contestants who are telegenically eclectic. Some standouts include Sander, a cocky, 25-year-old Belgian artiste with an over-the-top aesthetic and a flair for sinister wit. (“Very ‘office slut,’” he purrs, assessing a fellow designer’s two-piece creation. He means it as a compliment.) Ji-Won, 27, was so desperate to fit in as a kid growing up in Oklahoma, she told everyone to call her “Rachel” — but today she creates designs influenced by her Korean heritage. My favorite may be Esther, a lanky, mulleted forty-something from Berlin who only makes clothes that are black, much to the judges’ chagrin.

Oh, the judges! While nothing will beat the original Project Runway lineup — Heidi Klum, Nina Garcia, and Michael “that crotch is insane” Kors — Making the Cut’s panel is an excellent substitute. Reality TV star-turned-actress-turned House of Harlow designer Nicole Richie is pragmatic yet friendly, often reminding the contestants that fashion is a business, not just an art. French design wunderkind Joseph Altuzarra is the gentle guidance counselor, straining to offer constructive criticism in the kindest way possible. (Six episodes in, the harshest thing he’s said is that one of the designers has a “taste-level problem.”) Heidi, meanwhile, remains blunt and Germanic, delivering her verdicts (“You barely made the cut”) with crisp detachment.

And then there’s Naomi Campbell. The British supermodel is demanding, discerning, intimidating — everything you’d expect from a woman who once wore stilettos to perform her court-mandated community service. No one expresses displeasure quite like Campbell: “Oh, no, no, no,” she moans, her eyes sliding suspiciously over a look making its way down the runway. “I don’t like,” she drawls in a later episode, as though she’s so bored with the garment in front of her that she can’t even finish the sentence. At one point, reader, she yells at the designers for disrespecting the art of haute couture. Pay her whatever she asks, Amazon. She's worth it.

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Not everything about Making the Cut works as well. The episodes run a little long (about 58 minutes each), perhaps because each one features silly-cutesy vignettes with our newly-reunited hosts: Heidi and Tim go to the Moulin Rouge! Heidi and Tim try fencing! Just give me Heidi and Tim talk to designers, please. As part of the rejiggered judging process, contestants explain their garments in a sort of thesis-defense conversation, and much hoopla is hooped about the possibility for those talks to save a designer from elimination. (Note to producers: The “Judges’ Save” was lame when American Idol introduced it in season 8, and it’s equally blah here.)

Still, as Tim Gunn tells a nervous contestant early on in the season, "I'm a believer." Entertaining and emotional, escapist and inspirational, Making the Cut is first-rate quarantine TV. Grade: B+

Making the Cut premieres Friday, March 27 on Amazon.

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