When Cleveland’s Valerie Mayen competed on the 8th season of Project Runway, she designed everything from a revamped bridesmaid dress, to a Jacqueline Kennedy-inspired ensemble, to even a look based solely on an eyeshadow. Yet nowhere in those challenges was she asked to design a face mask.
But with COVID-19 upon us, the fashion designer pivoted. Her signature line Yellowcake has always been committed to alleviating social issues and environmental challenges here and abroad. So it came naturally to provide the world with more of her unique fashion while also giving back. A selection of Mayen’s masks can now be found in a vending machine set up in the lobby of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, with a portion of the proceeds going back to the Center’s programming.
The Buckeye Flame caught up with Mayen to talk all things elastic, find out what patterns go well on what faces, and ask the eternal question, “Just how gay was Project Runway?”
Was it ever part of your fashion training to learn how to make masks?
<laughs> No. Not at all. I definitely learned on the fly. It was a happenstance situation. A friend of mine who works at thinkbox at Case Western reached out to me in mid-March when everything started going down saying, “Listen, [University Hospitals] needs some prototypes, and we have a couple of design ideas. What do you think?” UH ended up going in a different direction, so we ended up doing it ourselves. We got connected to the COVID relief fund and received a grant to make 8500 masks for Lutheran Ministries and all of their homeless shelters. It all kind of snowballed from there.
What have you learned about mask-making? What mistakes have you not made again?
The biggest part of the learning process is that this is a product that we as a people have never really had to buy or utilize in the way we have now. What we’ve learned is that education is the biggest component of our product. Someone might order a size medium and they might need a large. They might not know how to measure themselves. We had no way of being able to measure the countless different face shapes there are out there. But we did learn that if we could be flexible and accommodating, we would try to help everyone.
And also the elastic. The elastic part was hard. A of consumers and a lot of the general public don’t realize that when everyone needs masks and everyone in the world is trying to make masks, supplies will either run short or run out. For the first month and a half, there was no elastic to be found anywhere. If you could find it, it was going to be five times the cost that it normally is and it would take months to arrive. We had to work with what we could get. We were using hair ties and ponytail holders for the first 6-8 weeks. Then finally some elastic came in, and then finally our adjustable straps came in. We’ve been upgrading little by little as time goes on.
Have you ever sold any of your designs out of a vending machine?
No. I have not!
What’s that like?
It’s kind of exciting. We’re going to try to push and promote it a little bit more. It took such a long time to get it functional and there were a lot of bumps in the road. But once we got it set up, we were good to go. It’s cool and interesting. Once masks are behind us and the pandemic is over we would definitely be interested to seeing what else we could put in there that might not be a typical vending machine item. Do we put jewelry? Do we put condoms and candy? We’re thinking outside the box.
Can you give some fashion advice for our readers? What masks should they be looking for to complement their ensemble?
It depends on their level of comfort and the end use. If they are going to be wearing the mask all day long and the mask doesn’t make them anxious or claustrophobic or dizzy, then I would recommend wearing something fun…more of a unique statement piece. We have a mask we call our dancing queen, with tiny little disco ball tiles on the mask. It’s shiny and shimmery. And it’s stretchy and comfortable because the inside of our all of our masks either have a cotton-knit or a cotton muslin, so they are soft against the face. We’ve noticed that a lot of beauty industry people wearing them while they’re working behind the styling chair or working at a make-up counter. And also teachers are buying them to brighten up their day and make things more joyful.
If you’re going to be wearing a mask to the grocery store or where it’s a little bit warm, I would go for a lightweight cotton mask. We have a lot of fun prints. We have a new cat mask, in black or mustard. We have chevron. We have stripes. It really depends on your comfort level. There are no rules in fashion, so there are no rules in mask-wearing. <pause> Except for wearing a mask.
That’s the key piece!
The number one rule is to wear a mask!
Because I have you on the line, I have to ask: just how gay was Project Runway?
<laughs> On a scale of 1 to gay, it was super gay.
I welcomed it. Some of my best friends on Project Runway were all my gay friends like Mondo and Michael and Cassanova. I’m really grateful for the experience. It was a good time. But it’s definitely a queen’s world for sure.