Naomi Campbell, ‘Making the Cut’ Judges Talk Design, Amazon and Building a Global Fashion Brand

Naomi Campbell does not tolerate irreverence for high fashion.

“With couture, there’s a certain respect you have to have,” she says sternly to a nervous designer on the chopping block. “I mean, it goes back centuries. I feel like you disrespected the whole entire word.”

Prior to joining the judging panel of “Making the Cut” — Amazon Studios’ new unscripted fashion design competition series, hosted by Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn — Campbell had thought she was done with reality TV. But the supermodel and philanthropist was drawn back in by a comrade from her ‘90s modeling days.

“Heidi. Heidi, Heidi, Heidi. I have a great respect for Heidi – she’s a really hardworking woman, and I [think it’s because] we’re both Geminis,” Campbell tells Variety with a laugh. The friends have made guest appearances on each other’s programs: Campbell on “Germany’s Next Top Model,” and Klum at Campbell’s Fashion for Relief in Cannes.

Her judging ethos — Campbell wants “every stitch, perfection” — underscores how seriously the designers (and by proxy, we the audience) are to take the sartorial endeavor on a show that boldly strives to not just pit established designers against one another but to nurture the eventual winner into an international fashion brand. “Making the Cut” is the spiritual successor to “Project Runway,” the series that made Klum and Gunn a household pairing, and intertwines Amazon’s expansive studio and retail arms. Essentially, it is the tech giant’s synergized take on fashion design TV; after each episode, viewers are encouraged to flick over from the show to Amazon’s apparel portal to buy the winning look.

The “Making the Cut” panel of judges is a name-check of today’s sartorial ruling class, including former French Vogue editor-in-chief and CR Fashion Book founder Carine Roitfeld, CFDA award-winning designer Joseph Altuzarra, actor and designer Nicole Richie and digital entrepreneur and influencer Chiara Ferragni.

“I think with this show, they really dreamt big because they really selected people that are key players in the fashion industry right now,” says Ferragni, whose business is bolstered by a legion of social media followers. “The whole show is at a very high level. The designers are very talented, all of them. And I think Amazon Fashion is setting up a new standard for fashion and to think differently.”

It might seem unusual to see Roitfeld — Anna Wintour’s French counterpart — on a reality show, but she has long been working to put this exclusive industry within reach of a mass audience.

“We’re a very small world, elitist world, and I’d like to push the gate and show it to a larger [audience],” she says, adding that the show is likely to attract viewers outside of the fashion industry. The seriousness with which the show takes apparel design is also potentially helpful in elevating the social status of Amazon Fashion, which up to this point has largely been known for offering basic shirts and socks, not accessible luxury.

“This means a lot, because they gain the respect of the fashion world,” says Roitfeld of the Seattle-based e-commerce titan. “So at the same time, we have the respect of the fashion world and the visibility of an entire new world. So it’s two things at the same time [that] have never happened before.”

Even before the coronavirus gripped the global public health and economy, fashion has always been a cutthroat market. For Richie, the appeal to join the show stemmed from the chance to offer these 12 established designers further relationships within the industry.

“If I could put at the top of my list something that’s been so valuable to me in the journey of my business, it’s been getting advice or mentorship or just talking to other people in the business about this business,” says Richie. “I don’t think it’s a beginner thing. Joseph [Altuzarra] and I do it all the time with each other. It’s just something that has been so important to me and plays such a big role. I feel like asking to give your time to somebody very creative that’s coming up in this industry, it’s something that you should do too.”

Plus, with the advent of Instagram influencers and the constant hum of Twitter chatter, the market is more crowded than ever. Altuzarra typically creates high-end garments, but has also previously collaborated on a mass-market collection with Target. He is well-acquainted with the obstacles that the next generation of designers face.

“One of the biggest challenges that young designers are facing that I don’t feel I had to face in the beginning, is we’re living in the age of social media and over-stimulation and overload of images and the customer’s attention span is short,” says Altuzarra. “We’re living in this era of – everything is branded, and everyone is branded. And what I found kind of interesting about a big part of this competition was to help the designers story-tell. And that’s not necessarily something I felt I was so focused on when I started my business… I just wanted to make beautiful clothing.”

“Making the Cut,” whose lavish set pieces across the world indicate that Amazon Studios was willing to pay a pretty penny to set up shop, also offers a larger purse than any of its fashion design show peers: $1 million.

“You need it,” says Richie. “You need financial stability on some level. And I don’t think there’s a way to do it otherwise. And to have that many eyeballs on you — Amazon now is the biggest department store. Even with your own website, it’s hard to get that traffic to your site every day.”

The winning designer will be even further challenged by a looming recession. In the meantime, the show’s hosts and judges are focused on mitigating the impact of a global pandemic.

“Making the Cut” is donating more than $600,000 to the World Health Organization and to local charities in New York, Paris and Tokyo — cities in which the designers spent the summer of 2019 filming and competing. And Klum has spearheaded #StrutForTheCut, encouraging fans to record themselves strutting in their homes in a bid to raise awareness for the WHO and charities such as the NYC is Food Education Fund. (“Making the Cut” is not the only one contributing to the war effort; “Project Runway” alum-turned-host Christian Siriano has begun using his fashion house to sew masks for hospital staff, in coordination with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.)

As for who ultimately wins the series, all will be revealed on April 24. After a runway finale on the rooftop of the Hudson Mercantile in New York last August, the judges mulled over their decision into the wee hours, weighing not just who was the best designer, but who would make the best entrepreneur.

“It was very hard for me,” says Campbell. “I don’t want to say what I did, but it was hard, because I come from the creative side. I chose, when I was younger, designers who couldn’t pay me, but I loved what they did creatively, so I said I’m going to work for you for free. I came from that side of thinking. But at the end of the day – it’s a business. You’ve got to make your money and you keep turning it around to put into your business.”