Monday morning after the Academy of Friends Awards Night Gala I sat down with Jack Mackenroth to talk about his childhood interest in fashion, education, jobs in the fashion industry and what he has been up to since leaving the show. Mackenroth was very open about being HIV positive on the show and left early after getting a staff infection, something especially dangerous to HIV positive people. He was charming, charismatic and a lot of fun. Here’s what he had to say:
I want to know about childhood. Your interest in art, fashion, where did it come from? When did it start?
Okay. I was born in Seattle, in Bellevue, and I was always an artist. I always drew, I always was making stuff. My grandma gave me a sewing machine when I was like, 12. We weren’t poor, but I didn’t have a lot of money to buy clothes. So I was always making my own clothes. I’d take things I had and turn them into something crazy. I taught myself how to sew when I was like, 13 and that’s sort of how it happened.
What was your style like at that point?
You know, it kind of, um, I didn’t really have any style until high school I started to be very kind of new age and the whole 80’s thing. I had the big Flock of Seagulls hair. Very alternative. I have some very scary pictures from that time.
My childhood beyond that, I grew up with my brother, my sister and my mom. My parents got divorced when I was eight. My dad’s basically out of the picture. He’s still somewhere in the Seattle area but I haven’t talked to him in like 15 years. But yeah, that’s kind of it.
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.
I really loved the sciences and I love the curriculum, but 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.
And did you go straight from Berkeley to Parsons?
Yeah. I literally graduated from high school in Seattle, I went to Lakeside, which is Bill Gates’ school. Then I left there and went right to Berkeley and then right to Parsons.
What was it like moving to the East Coast?
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.
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.”
And how did your personal style develop and change as you went through college and then on to Parsons?
It’s funny, on the way here I was talking about all the clubs I used to go to. I was a club kid. I was still making a lot of my own clothes and it just sort of evolved. For awhile I was wearing vintagey stuff. And then it just kind of became, I mean, I’m a jeans and t-shirt guy. For a fashion person I’m really anti fashion. I mean I would love to be able to buy thousand dollar Hugo Boss suites. I’m really into t-shirts.
And color, obviously.
Yeah. That’s kind of it, casual, cool, trendy. I probably dress a little age inappropriate since I’m going to be 40 next year.
And what did you major in at Parsons? Did you major in design?
And how did your college experiences contribute to making a future for yourself in fashion?
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.
What was it like at Parsons? Was it completely overwhelming? Did it make you feel insecure? I always imagine it would.
Actually, the funny thing was when I was growing up I was always the best drawer in all my classes. For the first time ever when I went to Parsons I was above average, but being with the most talented people in the nation was shocking. There were people that I was just in awe of. It was weird. It was really competitive and it was weird because I came in as a sophomore because I had transferred all my credits and they tell you, “statistically only 30 percent of you will make it to senior year. So, get ready.” That was like, the first day speech.
Did you ever work with Tim [Gunn] when you were there?
Um, you know what, the funny thing is I don’t remember Tim there, but I was going through old paperwork and I found my acceptance letter and he had signed it. It was before he was the head of Parsons. He worked in administration and it was like, that was like ’91, ’92.
And what were your first few jobs out of school?
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.
For those first couple jobs, what kinds of tasks were expected of you? What did you have to do?
When you’re a peon, like, entry level you do what no one else wants to do. So I did a lot of sketching. Now everything is done on computers, but back then it was a lot by hand. So we would draw a lot of the garment laid out flat to send over to the factories. You know, just making mood boards and anything the designer wanted you to do.
Was it terrible?
The thing about Tommy is that, I remember I was like, 24 or 25 and the oldest person there was 30. Everyone was really young. It’s a huge company. And they’d just work us to death and then replace us. It was kind of like a puppy mill. And then we would work crazy hours, we’d spend the night there sometimes. Then we had this thing that was called “adoption” when Tommy would come and look at our line presentation and decide if he liked it or not and if he didn’t like it we had to start from scratch. And so we’d only review them like, once or twice a season.
And on the other side, what were some of your favorite fashion related jobs you’ve done.
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?”
Who are your favorite designers?
I actually just came from Fashion Week in New York. Obviously I’m friends with Christian Siriano from my season [of “Project Runway”] and I think he’s amazing, super talented. I love Diane von Furstenberg, her show was great as well. For menswear there’s a guy named Tim Hamilton that I really like. He’s cool and not so well known. There’s so many. If I was really wealthy and I could wear whatever I want I mean, I love Hugo Boss and all the basics like Armani. But none of them fit me because I wear a 46 jacket and a 33 waist. So nothing fits me.
What have you been up to since the show?
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 roadmap for HIV positive people. I think the great people 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.