Designer Mondo Guerra Makes Sure AIDS Awareness Is Ready to Wear
by Angela Leroux-Lindsey
Mondo Guerra, the enigmatic and innovative fashion designer, meets me on a muggy, hot Sunday morning in a midtown high-rise that, for environmentally-friendly reasons, turns off its air conditioning on the weekends. He’s probably exhausted, having just completed the New York AIDS Walk, a 5k that winds through Central Park; his call time was 6:00 a.m. But you’d never know it: Despite the heat, the rain that swept across the city until about 8:00, and the fact that Mondo has undoubtedly sat for a dozen interviews during his short time in New York, he’s affable and smiling. I waste no time, and inform him that I, ambassador of a nation of reality-TV connoisseurs, think he was robbed. Mondo demurs; he’s heard it before. He was the clear frontrunner of Project Runway’s eighth season, but for opaque reasons—and despite Heidi Klum’s vociferous defense of his talent—the judging panel didn’t agree, and Mondo, who placed in the top three nine times and won three challenges in a row (a first for the series), was named runner-up.
Viewers quickly and ardently disagreed with the judges’ decision, and it’s since become known as the most contested “auf wiedersehen” in the history of the show. The other competitors were talented, but Mondo is exceptional. He works in a higher imaginative gear, and maintains an elusive stylistic consistency that marks a great designer: His clothes carry an easily recognizable aesthetic, a Mondo x-factor. Throughout the season, he increasingly took risks with his looks, hitting his stride in Week 10 with a pair of perfectly tailored pants featuring a vibrant custom print he designed with interlocking plus symbols. The enthusiastic feedback he received from the judges—and Nina Garcia’s respectful querying about the meaning behind those plus signs—provided Mondo with the courage and self-assurance to do something totally unplanned, and unprecedented: He revealed his HIV-positive status on the runway.
“I had been hiding for such a long time,” he says, “and having the confidence, having validation for my work, meeting people that I felt really cared about me, especially [fellow contestant] Michael Costello…I had to talk about it. It was so time.”
It was a powerful moment, and one that left a lot of us breathless. We’re so used to seeing manufactured drama on television, and Mondo could have come out in
the relative shelter of a one-on-one with the camera. By waiting until he was on the runway to his story, Mondo retained control of his privacy, of its timing, and let a dramatic scene unfold on his terms. He defied the idea that being honest about his HIV status is something to fear; instead, he allowed an entire nation to participate in his revelation.
Inspired by the enormous support Mondo received from all over the world, he decided to embrace the role-model responsibility that often accompanies sudden fame, and to advocate for the HIV community. He’s since teamed up with the Merck-sponsored HIV education campaign Living Positive By Design (LPBD), which promotes open communication and a positive outlook as contributing factors to a healthy HIV-positive lifestyle.
Selected to kick off the New York AIDS Walk, he spoke to the crowd of 45,000 about how proud he is to inspire healthy living and optimism. Mondo felt empowered by the energy and buoyancy of the event, and honored to be among celebrities who have championed the cause for years. But he remains cognizant of the fact that such educated and supportive crowds are harder to find in other parts of the country, and that’s where LPBD steps in.
He says, “We have come so far, but the stigma is just lingering and lingering and lingering. The entire community has to be honest with ourselves and with other people…when people see that [those with HIV] are comfortable in their own skin, and really owning it and speaking up about the disease, other people will notice that we’re not weak, we’re not hiding anything, and that they can just stop making assumptions.”
Maintaining an open conversation is key—with doctors and loved ones. Mondo describes a conservative Latin-Catholic upbringing, and how hiding his diagnosis from his family caused mental anguish that compounded his health issues. Today, he’s immensely inspired by how his family has rallied around him. They deal with the stigma just as much as he does, and his mom, in particular—who works as a bank teller in Denver, his hometown—has become an advocate for the HIV community by providing accurate information to the people she meets who ask inevitable questions about her famous son.
Mondo says, “The thing is, to talk about it is not only protecting me, but protecting so many other people. [My family] could never put a face to the disease [before my diagnosis], and now that they can, and it’s someone they care about, they’ve educated themselves. And they pass it on.” Which is exactly what Mondo is doing with LPBD, passing on information about healthy living to those who need it most.
He knows from experience how vital educational campaigns are; he describes the months just before filming began on Project Runway as harrowing because he was so sick, and he lacked guidance. He hadn’t checked in with a health professional for so long that, he says, he’d developed Kaposi’s sarcoma, a type of skin cancer linked to a low CD4 count that is easily detected and typically treated early on. He sought the help of a local AIDS services center, and found himself among a group of people who really understood the kind of medical and emotional assistance he needed.
“This disease can be curable, there are drugs out there that are keeping people alive longer, and that’s the most amazing thing about it,” he says. “But that’s not an excuse to lose control of your health [to begin with]. I hope I inspire people to be honest with themselves.”
By working with his doctor on the right kind of treatment, his health has since rebounded, and when Mondo speaks publicly as part of LPBD—especially at colleges—he always makes a point to bring in the local AIDS organization to expose students to the services available. He also discourages them from relying on Wikipedia or other inaccuracy-prone information sources, and instead urges anyone interested in learning more about the disease to consult with a doctor or visit livingpositivebydesign.com. Regrettably, a lot of the mainstream media can’t be relied on to ardently combat the culture of assumption and misunderstanding that plagues HIV, as pundits are often influenced by political ideology and distort statistics or misquote health officials without reprobation.
Even a design choice—like Mondo’s fantastic and bright “Day of the Dead” T-shirt, created as part of a fund-raising effort with Piperlime and amfAR—can draw uninformed criticism. The Mexican holiday is a celebration of lost loved ones, and Mondo chose the theme partly as a tribute to his late grandmother, whom he calls “his guardian angel.” But he was still accused of being morbid and distasteful. (The negative press did nothing to harm sales, though; the shirt sold out in hours.) It was a lesson in the unrelenting judgment of the media machine, and Mondo took it in stride. “Their irresponsibility makes me want to make the right decisions.”
Mondo’s fearless approach toward fashion allows him to branch out creatively, and he recently developed his first line of jewelry—out of Plexiglas. The series of bold, dramatic earrings and necklaces are a departure from the houndstooth-and-neon styling that he’s become known for, and capture a more technical yet playful form. Mondo collaborated with Denver craftsman Melissa Tenarodriguez on the project (she’ll actually execute the pieces) and his approach is conceptually no less ambitious than any of his designs.
“It’s really inspired by [Paco] Rabanne, and [Piet] Mondrian,” he says of his use of primary colors and geometric shapes. “I picked those two guys because I always want there to be friction, between color or patterns or shapes, which can create a beautiful harmony. I’m also playing with the idea of 1950s cinema and the motion of light…when the Plexiglas shapes layer, they change colors.”
Mondo clearly delights in talking about his work, and says he loves to attend trade shows so he can personally interact with sales reps. He hopes that by talking about how his ideas develop, his enthusiasm is conveyed to consumers, and vice versa. “I think that’s really important as a person, as an artist, to understand your consumer and to have a relationship with your consumer, just like with your doctor. Because it makes you more honest. I think it’s important for my collection to be accessible to a large number of people. I don’t think fashion has to be obscenely priced.”
It’s a refreshing outlook, and completely sincere. His Plexiglas jewelry is available on his Web site, lovemondotrasho.com, and every piece costs less than $50. He’s also created a line of stylish and affordable T-shirts and T-dresses, stickers, and buttons, including some that feature “Day of the Dead” art in glitter or foil and others with the now-famous plus-sign design. Mondo plans to donate a portion of proceeds from plus-sign merchandise to the Colorado AIDS Project, a reminder that despite his growing fame, he remains connected to his roots.
Up next, Mondo will compete on the new Project Runway All-Stars, which is thrilling news for his fans, and a tantalizing opportunity for Mondo to show off his talent without being burdened by the emotional or physical baggage that he dealt with last year. (The show’s industry roster will be new, as well: model Angela Lindvall will host, Isaac Mizrahi and Georgina Chapman will judge, and Joanna Coles, editor-in-chief of Marie Claire, will mentor.) The filming schedule will be grueling, he knows: Long hours, high levels of stress, creative fatigue and emotional exhaustion are elements that he’ll have to incorporate into his treatment regimen.
“It’s hard to find enough energy to get through the day,” he says, “And I’ll have to hit the ground running. Everyone who has been cast has been through it before, and we’re all going to have our A game. We all want to win.” Other contestants include Austin Scarlett, “Sweet P” Vaughn, Kenley Collins, and Michael Costello. It’s no surprise that Mondo was cast—his name came up in practically every news bite about possible All-Stars contestants—and he’s trying not to feel the pressure of being a likely fan favorite. But he’s grateful, and ready to work hard for another chance to be the top designer. The way he handled his Season Eight loss with such grace is part of what fuels his popularity; he’s proof that even in an industry as cutthroat as fashion design, you don’t have to be mean or smug to succeed. “I feel like if you’re doing something you love, and you’re producing, you have to go into it with a positive attitude. I think people are more receptive when you’re kind. Live your life with a positive outlook.” It’s this kind of humility that makes Mondo’s fans clamor for his return to competition, and for his ultimate redemption.
Filming for All-Stars just ended (it will air later this year), and in the coming months, Mondo will travel to California, Pennsylvania, and Illinois with the LPBD campaign. Amid this increasingly hectic schedule, Mondo remains grounded—a typical day in Denver might include tater tots and an episode of Pawn Stars—but also spiritual, and that’s where he draws a lot of his energy.
“We all have to believe in something, you know. And I believe in myself. I’ve always felt, ever since I was a little boy, that I would play a bigger role in this place that we live in, and now it’s here. When you’re able to deliver a message and you see people respond to it, that makes me want to work harder. And keep on going.”
Angela Leroux-Lindsey is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.