Mondo Guerra encourages individuals living with HIV/AIDS to design their own care
by Angela Leroux-Lindsey
It’s been a whirlwind year since Mondo Guerra, the charismatic designer from Project Runway, was last profiled in these pages: He’s launched a new HIV awareness campaign called I DESIGN; he has a new line with Neiman Marcus coming out this fall; he’s designing costumes for the Denver production of Legally Blonde; and, to the great pleasure of his many fans, he returned to Project Runway and won its All-Star season. This win was a huge redemption for Mondo, whose second-place finish in Season 8 left many wanting more of his big personality and clean designs. In addition, Mondo’s courageous and moving on-air revelation that he is HIV-positive made him an instant role model for young people struggling against stigma and trying to make decisions that will enable healthy, full lives.
I chatted on-line with Mondo about his busy life, and his enthusiasm for I DESIGN—a campaign co-sponsored by Merck—is palpable. Central to its mission is to promote an open communication between people living with HIV and their physicians; since every patient is different, taking into account these personal medical and lifestyle needs is vital to a successful treatment regimen. Equally important is an open, honest dialogue with a doctor. “Communication with your doctor shouldn’t be limited to discussions of your viral load, CD4 cell counts and side effects—it should also include what is going on in your personal life,” Mondo says. “This is why I think I DESIGN is such an important campaign, because it encourages people to have this open communication and ‘tailor’ a treatment plan that works best for them.” Feeling comfortable enough to share intimate details with a doctor is hugely important: Factors outside of the actual HIV diagnosis can play a role in the effectiveness of medication, and different medications may have different side effects in different people. Individualization is key.
Equally important is the stability that a trusting relationship with a doctor provides: By maintaining an open dialogue, a doctor is able to give catered advice and offer emotional support. A diagnosis, and the consequent decisions about treatment, “can be a scary and emotional time…personally, I think it is important to have someone present to lean on,” Mondo notes. He says this personal contact is what keeps him on the fence about over-the-counter HIV tests; at that moment, it’s more important than ever to have someone to talk to and to offer support. Stigma against HIV/AIDS still affects a lot of people, and having an ally in the medical field can make all the difference in leading a healthy, productive life. Mondo feels that this doctor-patient relationship “is empowering because you’re asking the questions to manage your own health. Open dialogue gives you power to really embrace the entire process and journey of living with HIV.”
Mondo represented I DESIGN at last month’s International AIDS Conference, which was hosted in the United States for the first time in twenty years. In itself, this makes a huge statement about shifting attitudes toward the HIV-positive community, and brings a renewed national spotlight to the epidemic. Mondo comments that hosting the IAC “brings HIV to life in our home country and helps address the stigma. Symbolically, it also restores faith and makes us feel like we’re moving forward, not backward.” Amid sobering statistics that indicate rising numbers of new HIV diagnosis in minority communities, this kind of action has real centrifugal effects. In combination with the messages of open communication and tailored treatment that I DESIGN promotes, U.S. policy on HIV/AIDS could make real inroads toward an eradication of stigma in typically hard-to-reach places. “Coming from a Latino background, a community that is disproportionately affected by the disease, I know first-hand how difficult it can be to talk about the disease with the people you love,” Mondo says. “I find that this lack of communication really fuels the fire and stigma among these communities.” Through his work with I DESIGN, Mondo hopes to inspire others to follow his lead: Speak up, work with a doctor, and spread the word.
One of the innovative features of the campaign is its on-line component, ProjectIDesign.com, a fully interactive site that allows users to create unique digital textiles that illustrate the importance of individual approaches to treatment plans, and the beauty of individual people. It also highlights the power of participation: Mondo notes that “users become part of the campaign and learn while they do it…I didn’t want the site to be too clinical because I know that it can be intimidating to receive information that is so black-and-white.” Mondo’s textile is layered with his trademark plus-sign pattern and evokes the kind of optimism and big-heartedness that makes him such an ideal ambassador for this campaign.
But I DESIGN is hardly all Mondo’s focused on these days: His new line with Neiman Marcus is set to launch in the coming weeks, and while details are still largely under lock and key, Mondo reveals that the designs are inspired by Roy Lichtenstein and 1960s military uniforms, a combination that sounds at once artfully eclectic and geometrically clean. He shares, “I’m known for prints and you’re definitely going to see some of that in the collection, but it’s a bit more minimalist than what I usually do. The line is very wearable, season-less, and I used some similar silhouettes to what I’ve done previously on Project Runway, because I wanted to take into account fan-favorite designs.” Mondo is also designing costumes for the Denver production of Legally Blonde, a gig that is close to home (he grew up in Denver) and close to his heart. “I actually started in theater, so I have a personal attachment to it…I love the hustle and bustle of backstage and being part of the rehearsals, dress rehearsals and opening night—there’s such an amazing energy and it’s really inspiring.”
Surely, that inspiration is felt by the actors, too, since Mondo is more popular than ever after his big Project Runway All-Stars win. He writes that he still gets emotional when he thinks about it, and feels so grateful for the opportunity for a second chance. “I know how hard I worked to get to that point…looking back, it was a huge test for me. My focus was to do my best possible work and explore my design process. When I won, it was so rewarding for me because it made me realize that I really could do it and I had it in me all along.” The satisfaction of self-expression is a big part of the I DESIGN campaign, and is precisely why people with HIV can feel empowered by expressing themselves honestly with a doctor, and working to design a tailored treatment plan.
Up next, Mondo will be the keynote speaker at the HIV/AIDS Action Summit in California in September. Dr. Michael Gottlieb, an influential doctor specializing in HIV, met Mondo at the International AIDS Conference and personally invited him to participate. Mondo writes that this is a huge honor for him. “I plan to share my personal story and talk more about the I DESIGN campaign and how excited I am to be a part of it. I hope that I can inspire others to speak actively about the disease.” Mondo, who has been HIV-positive for more than a decade, is more than just a role model: He’s living proof that with the right relationship with a doctor, the right tailored treatment regimen, and the right attitude, anything is possible.
Angela Leroux-Lindsey is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.