From making leather wallets in Bali to winning a million-dollar design contract with Amazon Fashion, Jonny Cota spills the beans on his life, right here in Bali.
Words by Rebecca Foreman
You may have seen Jonny Cota doing what he does best on Amazon Prime’s reality TV series, ‘Making the Cut’, hosted by Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn. The 35 year-old fashion designer battled it out against 12 other contestants to win the show in 2020, and with it, a million dollars to launch his very own label exclusively on Amazon Fashion. Cue the birth of Jonny Cota Studio, his namesake brand born out of his creative studio, right here in beautiful Bali.
Jonny Cota is no stranger to the Island of the Gods because, for the past 15 years, he was the creative mastermind and founder behind Los Angeles-based label Skingraft, alongside his brother Christopher, which manufactured and produced their progressive streetwear swag from Bali’s shores.
Jonny took a rare hour away from the grind of his sewing machine and sketch pad to chat with us about his brand, his life on the island, and his favourite Bali hangouts. And, I am proud to say, I was able to introduce Jonny to his first-ever porncake, dished up from the cool confines of Bali’s much-loved Brunch Club.
Hey Jonny Cota! Tell us about how you came to set up your studio in Bali?
Fifteen years ago, my brother (Christopher) and I came out to Bali to make leather wallets. We heard there were cheap leather goods and cool people and we literally just asked someone at the airport, who happened to have a cool leather wallet, where to buy leather. We took a taxi to a leather store, asked someone if they knew any friends who could make wallets, and just started like that. Totally random. Our first studio consisted of one tailor, one sewing machine and one manager in a room. We left back to the US, communicated via email, and we didn’t return for a year. We’ve had tonnes of ups and downs, and it’s hard to manage from across the pond. But it’s really paid off. All of my manufacturing is done here. It’s not the cheapest, but it’s the quality of life here, the happiness of everyone… you can’t beat it. And you can feel it in the clothes, in the Jonny Cota brand. It’s putting positive energy out there.
Tell us about your experiences in Bali over the years?
I always say, you experience Bali exponentially – it can be exponentially hard and difficult at times, but then on the flip side, it can be exponentially good also. I’ve never been sicker than I have in Bali, and I’ve never been healthier too. I’ve never been more depressed, and I’ve never been happier. One of my favourite sayings is, Bali gives you what you need, not what you want.
What’s it like being a TV personality now that you’ve won ‘Making the Cut’?
It’s an interesting awakening. I have a lot more ears listening now and I’m officially a personality. But when I won the show, my mum said to me: “since you were four years-old growing up in California, you were always opinionated, colourful, the loudest person in the room with all this fiery energy. Nothing has changed except that you have a camera to catch it.” So I would say that I’ve become more considerate about how I live my life publicly – I’m still political, but I’m more conscious as to who’s watching.
What are your new year’s resolutions?
To pull it together! To get back on track with health, fitness, work, my skin, more work. I usually take good care of myself, but not in the last week or so. I’ll get back on track!
What do your future plans look like?
I would like to be here in Bali more. I would like to put more roots down here and bring the spotlight here and to shine a light on the really talented people on the island, producing great things, especially in the fashion world – when things calm down.
What does Bali mean to you?
Every time I land in Bali I cry. I’m always so happy to be back here. And one of the great things about this time, in particular during the lockdown, is that I have seen Bali through different eyes. I share things on my social media about Bali and so many more eyes are seeing it now, and giving me so much wonderful feedback about how beautiful it is. In the past, none of my friends were that interested in pictures of me or my team sewing clothes or dying this and that. But now because of all these eyes on me, I’m showing Bali. It’s such a unique setting here, and the rest of the world wants a peek.
Bali is renowned for being a spiritual mecca. Discuss.
I don’t usually pray (I certainly don’t pray in LA) but I would pray in Bali because it rings true here. We are constantly surrounded by prayer and ceremonies. In terms of healing experiences, I’m quite skeptical of any kind of self-ordained healer, especially in LA. It just doesn’t ring true to me. But in Bali, I think because so many people believe in it and indulge in it, all the local healers that do healing work (who pull all the bad stuff out of you as they do) – it’s unique and a fantastical, weird but wonderful process. Somehow it just makes sense here. I definitely believe in healing experiences and have had bodywork and healing massages in Bali – I’m always up to try something new!
What is it about fashion in Bali that you most enjoy?
If I go out to someone’s house for dinner I could be surrounded by 100 people and everyone is a designer, doing incredible things. There is nowhere else in the world where that would be the case. I could complain about my day, and these people will know what I’m talking about. A lot of the people I know either have a team or a studio, and there’s a kinship here that’s very special and unique. We’re all entrepreneurs. In LA, it’s very different in that there’s a lot of competition with people producing similar stuff to yours, and therefore you wouldn’t be sitting around a table talking about it like you would here because you’re always competing. I think everyone has their own unique ways of selling their things in Bali, so we’re not overlapping.
How would you describe the Jonny Cota style?
Statement pieces, practical, interesting details, understandable shapes – all with comfort as a priority. You can wear it up or down, pair with heels, or go to the gym.
Next up: Jonny Cota’s favourite places in Bali…
Best gym in Bali?
I used to be at Soham for ten years in Seminyak, but now I’ve mixed it up and I go to Body Factory Bali.
Rent or build in Bali?
Build! We are building a ‘black’ house at the moment. It’s going to be a cool, cement, modern, industrial vibe. I wanted it to be like the shade of black you see at the temples here – that’s the idea anyway. It’s very me, I like black. It will be intense and masculine, and brutal, but without losing warmth. We’ve been working with Utara Architects to get it right. The land is being prepared now. I’m really excited about it, we’re getting the ball rolling!
Favourite places in Bali?
It’s so embarrassing, but I rarely get the chance to explore because I’m always here to work. But I do love the Kintamani region, and Mount Batur is one of my favourites. I love being around the volcanoes, whether hiking or seeing them in my immediate view. I actually did my video campaign for ‘Making the Cut’ at Mount Batur with a drone. That was the whole imagery of my collection, and that won the show. Showing Bali is something I’m proud of.
Favourite cafe in Bali?
Revolver is my favourite cafe – I love all of them and they’re owned by one of my oldest mates in Bali.
Favourite restaurant in Bali?
Favourite sunset spot in Bali?
Everywhere I love gets demolished! But I do love La Brisa.
Favourite night-hangs in Bali?
Mixwell Bar is fun (old Bali), which is where all the drag queens hang out. It’s on a little tiny gay strip in Seminyak, all drag bars. It’s like drag on a budget so everything is made out of affordable fabrics, but it’s really wonderful, it’s like a second home.
Best advice to people visiting Bali?
Go on an adventure! I always tell my friends who visit to get out of Canggu and Seminyak for a second and check out places like Nusa Lembongan or stay at Bambu Indah in Ubud to have that real Bali experience. I rarely get that time, but when I do, I think to myself, this is the real Bali that people imagine it to be. Make sure you have that when you visit. You can find whatever you’re looking for in Bali, you just need to get out and discover it…
Thanks for your time, Jonny Cota!
Words by Rebecca Foreman
Currently living the island life in Bali with her family, Rebecca fills her days with travelling, writing and reviewing, often with the kids in tow. Follow her bountiful island adventures on her Instagram page.