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Amazon Is Buying Its Way to Streaming Wars Supremacy

When the company wanted to get into the food delivery business, it simply acquired Whole Foods. Now that it’s looking to break into reality TV with a ‘Project Runway’ facsimile called ‘Making the Cut,’ it has simply acquired the former stars of ‘Project Runway.’

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In fashion, it’s often better to buy used than new. Yes, it’s cheaper, and in theory more environmentally friendly. But the true appeal of consignment and thrift stores has less to do with virtue than convenience. Why put in the effort of hunting down an item off the rack when you can acquire something that’s already stood the test of time? Sites like Depop and TheRealReal have made millions off the answer to that rhetorical question.

The same holds true for fashion TV shows. Or at least that’s what Amazon is betting on with Making the Cut, its debut entry into the crowded reality competition space, and the even more crowded subgenre of clothing design contests. To spearhead this all-important enterprise, debuting on Prime Video Friday, Amazon didn’t bother to assemble a dream team of its own. Instead, it did what a retail giant led by the richest man in the world can do best: acquire the competition. When Amazon wanted to break into food delivery, it simply bought Whole Foods. And when Amazon wanted to make its own version of Project Runway, it simply poached the faces of Project Runway.

Making the Cut is hosted by German supermodel Heidi Klum, who is supported in her efforts by the wry, avuncular Tim Gunn. For 16 seasons over 13 years on two different networks, Klum and Gunn presided over Runway as the kooky aunt and stern uncle of American fashion, propelling the show to early and enduring reality success. (Before decamping for Lifetime in Season 6, Runway set the template for future Bravo successes like Top Chef until the network went full Housewives.) The duo announced their departure for Amazon in the fall of 2018—long enough ago that Runway itself has had time to air multiple seasons of its own relaunch, starring Karlie Kloss and Christian Siriano in the traditional Klum and Gunn roles.

Amazon is far from the first streaming service to make such a bald-faced power play. For its foray into nature documentaries, Netflix commissioned none other than Sir David Attenborough and the rest of the Planet Earth team to create Our Planet, a show distinct from its predecessor in its alarming focus on climate change but still shares its signature trove of jaw-dropping footage. Interestingly, however, Netflix took a slightly different tack for its own Runway competitor, Next in Fashion, casting Queer Eye style guru Tan France as a lead cohost alongside Alexa Chung. By keeping things in the family, Netflix boosts both France’s profile and its own as a hub for homegrown stars who can have multifaceted careers entirely within the larger brand.

But without prior reality successes in the vein of Queer Eye (or Love Is Blind, Dating Around, Nailed It!, and The Circle), the stakes for Amazon’s first competition show leave far less room for chance. Klum and Gunn are certainly flashy enough names to catch viewers’ attention, but their new patron backs them up with a full battery of flexes. Project Runway still resides in New York, a city intrinsic to the show’s identity; Next in Fashion, a fledgling upstart, spends most of its first season confined to a single Los Angeles soundstage. Making the Cut, by contrast, starts with a bait-and-switch that’s also a gauntlet throw: Contestants are gathered in New York, only for Heidi and Tim to spring the surprise that they’re all being flown to Paris, where production stages dramatic fashion shows beneath the Eiffel Tower and on the banks of the Seine. Halfway through the season, as if to drive the point home even further, the remaining cast packs up and relocates to Tokyo. Runway may have name recognition and Next in Fashion the Netflix distribution machine, but Amazon will spend whatever it takes to close the gap.

Making the Cut does share something with Next in Fashion, a common characteristic of streaming shows attempting to attract as wide an audience as possible: The series’ talent pool is truly global, pulling designers from Italy, Israel, Shanghai, and Berlin as well as U.S. standbys like New York and L.A. The same goes for the judges panel, a mix of familiar archetypes and unmistakable mic drops. Joseph Altuzarra, like Siriano, Michael Kors, and Brandon Maxwell before him, brings the expertise of a real-life designer with a thriving global business; Naomi Goddamn Campbell shows up to deliver some of the panel’s most withering critiques, for which the contestants rightfully thank her. Some personalities wear both hats: longtime French Vogue head Carine Roitfeld has the same editorial background as Runway’s Elaine Welteroth and Nina Garcia, but with more prestige—and, no doubt, a price tag.

Klum and Gunn’s association with Amazon brings more than just money, though (though there’s certainly a lot of money involved). Before Amazon was an unlikely force in entertainment, it was and is a retailer, and not one exactly known for haute couture. For the Making the Cut contestants, the company’s patronage proves a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the winning look each week is manufactured and made instantly available to hundreds of millions of customers. On the other, there’s a sometimes uncomfortable focus on accessibility and commercialism. “We feel like you didn’t really give us a sellable version,” Klum admonishes one contestant whose work is acknowledged to be otherwise superlative. In the same episode, a designer who favors black is warned her clothes won’t stand out to online shoppers. “You’re going to be faced with, ‘Do I compromise my vision to grow my business?’” Altuzarra tells her. “And sometimes the right answer is yes.”

At the start of the season, Gunn informs his charges that Making the Cut “is not a sewing competition.” What the judges are looking for, we’re told over and over, is “the next big global brand,” a phrase Gunn at one point utters with actual tears in his eyes. “The designer behind the brand is just as important as the clothes,” Klum declares before every episode’s judging session. Competitors are regularly critiqued for not being consistent, and therefore legible, enough in their looks; it’s always easier to market what you can put in a box. The emphasis on branding isn’t necessarily wrongheaded in the age of social media—it just feels like as much a reflection of Klum and Gunn’s new patron as the flesh-and-blood fashion world.

The Making the Cut ethos makes itself felt in what it doesn’t show as much as what it does. Designers have seamstresses to assist them, but they work overnight and are never seen on camera; ditto the makeup artists and hairstylists who collaborate on runway looks, even though their work is crucial to the final effect and often praised accordingly. Models, often developed into secondary characters on Runway, are kept largely mute and interchangeable. There’s a real sense these contenders are being trained to be bosses, not workers, and that the former are intrinsically more worthy of our attention. With Amazon as a platform, it’s hard not to draw the line between Making the Cut’s omissions and its parent company’s own troubled history with marginalized workers.

Making the Cut may tweak and heavily subsidize its hosts’ personae, but the show still understands that its core appeal comes down to Klum and Gunn. Charmingly eccentric interstitials show the pair, now nearly two decades into their working relationship, embarking on various platonic couples’ activities: fencing, learning the cancan, getting their caricatures drawn. Their chemistry is awkwardly isolated from the main action, which keeps the two in separate spheres as judge and mentor, but its inclusion feels pointed. Amazon is new to the reality arms race. As much as it puts its own spin on the format, the streamer also knows the value of its newest assets. Better to tailor a secondhand suit than cut a new one from scratch.