Feb. 13, 2014— -- New York Fashion Week is one of the biggest fashion events of the year, where designers live or die by the few moments they have to show a collection they have toiled over for months. Celebrities, buyers, bloggers and taste-makers gather at the coveted shows to decide who moves on and who is left behind.
For the few designers lucky enough to get a spot under the big tent at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, they have minutes, even seconds, to solidify their worth, fortify their presence and claim their position among the fashion elite.
It's not for the faint of heart.
For California native Jonny Cota and his clothing line SKINGRAFT, a small company based in Los Angeles, his show at Fashion Week this year is the chance of a lifetime.
"Today I've been just shut down and curled in a ball, and for the first time I've got all these butterflies and intense nerves and ... finally realizing what's in front of us and what's about to happen," the 30-year-old designer said Tuesday before his show began.
"Nightline" spent a week behind the scenes with Cota and his team leading up to their Feb. 11 New York Fashion Week show as they tirelessly prepared for the biggest opportunity they have ever had. Cota said they had been working towards this moment for seven years.
Watch the full story on "Nightline" tonight at 12:35 a.m. ET
"This is every young American designer's dream," he said, referring to his presence "in the tents."
"For this collection, we've been working on it for five months, and we've been working eight days a week, 28 hours a day getting it ready, and it's been pretty exhausting," he said.
SKINGRAFT's designs are edgy and provocative, known for incorporating lots of black leather. Several celebrities have been spotted wearing Cota's line from Britney Spears to Justin Bieber, who was wearing a SKINGRAFT bomber jacket when he turned himself in to Toronto police last month.
"It was just so perfect, you know," Cota said. "Because the jacket looked great, and he was getting arrested, so everyone's happy."
But unlike some designers, Cota said he doesn't focus on the celebrities who often grace the front row of Fashion Week shows.
"I'm not super drawn to the celebrity culture," he said. "I don't do a huge celebrity push. If they come because they love the brand, amazing, but for the sole purpose of being a celebrity, it's not something I really go after."
In the days leading up to his show, Cota and his team held casting calls for hours to look for models who would walk the runway wearing his line. They reviewed about 400 candidates before settling on 20.
In his models, Cota looks for someone with unusual features.
"I wanted kind of these little alien kids, just like, their proportions were just a little different than what you would expect as like, classic beauty," Cota said. "That's what we look for because I just think it's more interesting. I think it represents our brand much better."
Putting on a show at Fashion Week can cost upwards of $200,000, and while it can alter a designer's career, especially for smaller design houses like SKINGRAFT, it can be a huge financial risk. The night before his show, Cota said his team's credit cards weren't working because they had spent so much money on the show.
"Every month, we have a fear of going out of business," Cota said. Last season, "I was borrowing money from my partner, and we were borrowing money from our sisters and our siblings, and all of my wedding fund, everything went into that show ... and if we didn't see a return on this then we're done. So luckily, we succeeded that season, and hopefully this season we [will] find the same return on our investment."
Two days until show time, Cota set his focus on figuring out what each model would wear on the runway and making sure all 20 of them looked perfect. Everything had to be individually fitted.
Nearby was Kelly Cutrone, helping Cota organize the seating chart and get pumped for the show. Best known as the tough-as-nails judge on "America's Next Top Model," Cutrone handles publicity for SKINGRAFT and it was her job to make sure the clothing line made a big splash.
"There's about 12 to 50 people who really make a difference, so my focus is on those 12 to 50 people," she said. "I don't give a f--- about the other kids who come in black leather."
On show day, it was controlled chaos. Cota was backstage at the big tent, running around as a small army of artists meticulously attended to the models' hair, make-up, nails and wardrobe.
"All day I was a weirdo," Cota said. "I couldn't talk to anyone. I was overwhelmed and butterflies in my stomach, things I don't usually experience but I was realizing the importance of tonight for the first time."
At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, the crowd began to fill the tent. Years of work, months of planning, all led up to this -- Cota's big moment had finally arrived.
Then, about 7 minutes later, the show was over.
But after it ended, an overjoyed Cota ran backstage to greet his models, jumping and screaming with excitement. Congratulations were flung all around, models gathered to snap selfies and group shots. Basking in the exhilaration of the moment, Cota was already thinking about the next step.
"I'll never feel like we've made it," he said, laughing. "I feel like if you say that, you stop trying ... but I think that we'll never make it. We will, hopefully, get close."