Project Runway’s Jack Mackenroth Talks Fashion

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Melissa Baron and Jack from Project Runway
Melissa Baron and Jack Mackenroth smile for the camera at the annual Academy of Friends Academy Awards Night Gala at Fort Mason wearing their black tie finest. (Courtesy of George Nikitin)

San Francisco’s finest ventured into the pouring rain in their formal wear Feb. 22 for the 29th annual Academy of Friends’ Academy Awards Night Gala at Fort Mason. The event began as a small party in a home and blossomed into one of the largest parties outside of Hollywood, raising money to support 12 local HIV/AIDS organizations. The theme was “A Night of Superheroes, Villains & Divas.” A black tie fashion event, the party drew in a variety of outrageous outfits. Most men were in tuxedos and women in formal dresses (much shorter than typical black tie), but there were several men in their most glamorous drag and others who took the superhero theme to heart.

Guests entered the venue on a blue carpet, making their way into the festival hall filled with food, drinks, dancers and items for auction. Men in gold latex bodysuits, “the Oscars,” circulated through the party and danced on tables with men and women dressed as famous super heroes like Poison Ivy, Batman and Superman. Tables set up around the venue gave out hours devours from fancy restaurants around the city and samplings of wine and champagne. A back room revealed an inflatable tower to climb, nerf guns to shoot at posters and an inflatable boxing ring.

“Project Runway” season four contestant Jack Mackenroth attended the gala as a representative of “Living Positive by Design,” his educational campaign focused on HIV/AIDS education and awareness. He made a point of being very open about his health status as HIV positive to foster open conversation amongst viewers. Unfortunately, Mackenroth had to leave the show prematurely because of a staph infection, which can be incredibly dangerous to a person with HIV. We sat down after the gala and talked about his fashion career and his new focus on philanthropy.

San Francisco Foghorn: What did you do for college?
Jack Mackenroth: I went to Berkeley. And actually, my father was an ears, nose and throat surgeon and my mother was a registered nurse and I was the first child so I was expected to be a doctor so I was premed for two years. Then I realized I didn’t want to be a doctor so I ended up double majoring in fine arts and sociology.

SFF: And why?
JM: I really loved the sciences and I love the curriculum, but not my peer group. I was like, if these are the people I’m going to be working with for the rest of my life…I don’t like these people. They’re just boring. At Berkeley they were so competitive it was just no fun. I was taking art classes on the side and maybe thinking of minoring or something, but I decided ‘this is really fun,’ but I didn’t know I could make a career at it so I threw in the sociology major as well. Then I ended up going to Parsons after that.

SFF: What was it like moving to the East Coast?
JM: It was crazy. I drove cross-country, I didn’t know a single person. This is not a joke, totally true story — I unpacked my stuff in my dorm which was literally the size of a table, I walked out on eighth street where my dorm was and a crack addict put a knife to my throat.

SFF: No way!
J: Yeah, it was just like totally random, for no particular reason. Like, said something unintelligible and put a knife to my throat and I was like “oh my god,” and then he ran away. I actually wasn’t really scared, I was like “Oh my god I’m in New York. Welcome to New York.”

SFF: And how did your college experiences contribute to making a future for yourself in fashion?
JM: You know it’s funny, I always loved to draw. And I didn’t really know anything about, I mean I’m from Seattle, where there is no fashion industry. I didn’t know that could be a job. I just thought it was fun that I could make my own clothes. And then, you know, I discovered Parsons and went there and it was a whole new world. I realized this could actually be a career. A hard one. Parsons was really rigorous, much harder than Berkeley. I pulled at least one all nighter a week. It was a good training ground. I think people think fashion is really glamorous, where you like, touch models and play with fabrics all day, but it’s hard.

SFF: And what were your first few jobs out of school?
JM: Right after school I opened a menswear store in the village called Jack. I had that for a couple years and I sold up and coming designers. And then my first real fashion design job was at Tommy Hilfiger. I actually did women’s at Tommy and it was one of my only women’s experiences. From there I went to a Levis company, kind of a brother company to Dockers called Slate, and I don’t think it’s even around anymore. And then I worked briefly at Vera Wang. Right before I went on “Project Runway” I was working at a place called Weatherproof.

SFF: What were some of your favorite fashion related jobs you’ve done.
JM: I mean, the coolest stuff has come post “Project Runway.” Since I’m my own boss now it has been really cool. You know, I made an Emmy dress for Heather Tom [from “The Bold and the Beautiful”], I did a fashion show called “The Chocolate Show.” So that has been super fun to do. My job before I went on “Project Runway,” I was my own boss. I mean, the owner of the company was my boss, but he thought whatever I did was perfect, so he would check in with me like once a month and ask “are you on schedule?”

SFF: What have you been up to since the show?
JM: I’ve been doing a lot of things, but the reason I’m here is because I’m working on HIV/AIDS awareness with Merck. It’s “Living Positive By Design,” and that’s why I was at the gala last night. Because on “Project Runway” I was open about being HIV positive for going on 20 years, so it was really just a great synergy for Merck and myself. They actually came to me and were like “we have this kind of program in mind and we want to work together.” It kind of mirrors how I’ve been successful in managing my own HIV and basically the point of the program is to, I mean I’m obviously very comfortable speaking about it, but trying to get other people to feel the same way. To talk about it. Beyond that it’s kind of a road map for HIV positive people. I think the great thing about the program is that it talks to HIV positive people as opposed to a lot of the HIV education and outreach now, which is based in prevention. It’s great, we need more of that as well, but there is a large population of people in the US that are HIV positive. So we’re really speaking to them about finding a doctor and getting on a treatment regimen that works for the individual and getting on medication that’s tolerable and minimizing side effects. The ultimate goal for anyone who’s HIV positive to maintain a undetectable viral load. It’s just kind of repeating that over and over and trying to get it into people’s heads. That’s what I’ve done. You know I’m not saying, “Do what I do and you’ll be fine, but it’s about being proactive.”

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