Putting Yourself into the Equation
Mondo Guerra Talks to A&U’s Lester Strong about Empowering Yourself in Your Health and Your Life
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Stephen Churchill Downes
Interview fashion designer Mondo Guerra and you know you’re in the presence of an original. It’s not just that he won Project Runway’s first All Stars season in 2012 with a collection whose bright colors and bold, saucy designs were both runway and run-away favorites with the judges. It’s not just that near the end of season 8 in 2010 he came out as HIV-positive in a moving confession to the show’s judges, his fellow design competitors, and a TV audience of millions. After getting to know him, it’s clear this young man—he’s thirty-four years-old—has learned how to harness his design talents and his response to HIV/AIDS in a way that benefits both.
Among other projects—not all of them AIDS-related—Mondo is currently partnering with Merck on the I Design educational campaign aimed at fostering good communications between those living with HIV/AIDS and the doctors who treat them.
Interviewed recently in New York City in a photographic studio overlooking a portion of the city’s famed new Highline Park running through Manhattan’s Chelsea section, Mondo said about the campaign: “I Design is geared to empower people living with HIV, such as myself, to take a tailored, proactive approach to managing their treatment. And I can tell you from personal experience that one of the best ways to find out what treatment suits you best and how best to manage it is by having an open dialogue with your doctor. That means being prepared when you see your doctor and really knowing what you want to talk about.
“Visit the I Design Web site [by logging on to projectidesign.com]. There you’ll find a conversation checklist that you can download, a friendly reminder of topics and questions you always want to talk about with your doctor when you’re HIV-positive: CD4 count, viral load, any side effects you might be having from your current medicines. There are also other health concerns you may need to talk about, like cholesterol levels, diet, exercise, stress, smoking, alcohol consumption.
“You may have only ten minutes with your doctor, so it’s really important to be prepared when you see him or her by having that checklist with you.”
Mondo is certainly an expert witness on the need to communicate about illness—and not just with one’s doctor. “When I was first diagnosed in 2001 [at age twenty-two], I was living in New York City,” he said, “I had a job in design, and was in a relationship. But I felt lost, empty, alone, ashamed, guilty in a lot of ways. I grew up in Denver in a very religious, Mexican-American Catholic family, where it was all about morals, respect for the family and tradition. I came out to my parents when I was eighteen years old, just as I was graduating from high school, and they weren’t very supportive. I never heard my family talk about HIV or AIDS, so after the relationship in New York broke up and I moved back to Denver I felt like I couldn’t tell them about my illness. I felt they weren’t comfortable with my being gay, and I was letting them down by having HIV.”
Moving back to Denver was the start of a very rough period for Mondo. He wasn’t in total denial about his illness, and he had a small circle of friends who knew about it and formed a kind of support circle. But he wasn’t managing his treatment or his life very well. “I tried dating,” he said, “but every time I disclosed my status, the guys would run away. I wasn’t in another relationship for years and years and years, and that made me scared. So I stopped. I just stopped. I didn’t talk about my illness much, and not at all with my parents or my larger family, the people who could have really loved and supported me.”
Mondo was working at the time as a dresser at an arts center in Denver, but the job provided no health insurance. “My [CD4] numbers were iffy,” he continued, “and then I got Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions on one of my legs. I was getting very sick, so I stopped working. I was living in my own apartment in Denver, but wasn’t making any money. My heat was turned off, I didn’t have money for food, and I didn’t feel I could tell my parents I had quit work because I wasn’t physically healthy enough to do anything. That was the first time I really started going down—down—down. All the stress and strain put me in a huge depression, and I didn’t feel I could get myself out of it. I was stuck.
“Finally I contacted my local AIDS service organization, the Colorado AIDS Project, to ask for medical help, counseling, and financial services. I also accessed their food bank. It was a really scary experience for me. I never thought I’d get to that point.
If I’d been able to disclose my status to my parents, I could have asked for that help from them. They lived only ten minutes away, and would have been there for me, I’m sure. But I couldn’t do it.”
The spiral down continued. According to Mondo: “I was seeing a doctor. But when I was put on meds, I wasn’t good at taking them. It got to the point where the illness started taking away from my creative process, and I really, really got depressed. That led to me hitting rock bottom, and rock bottom for me was ending up in the hospital over Christmas one year, with PCP [pneumocystis pneumonia]. It felt like everything was being taken away from me: my creativity, my life, my family. My mother was with me in the hospital room on Christmas day—she even brought me a Christmas tree—and we just watched TV together not saying much because I still couldn’t tell her or my father what was wrong.”However, this was a turning point. “After my mom left the hospital that day,” he said, “something started to click in me. HIV is such an emotional issue. There are good days and there are bad days. But even when you’re feeling healthy, it takes a lot to continue to be proactive about your health. I realized my life was being taken away from me, and it was happening because I was allowing HIV to define who I was. I needed to start setting goals again, not just goals for my health but goals for my creative life. That was the day things started to change. I began having the conversations with my doctor I needed to have to find out what I had to do medically and personally to get my life back again. I began having the conversation I needed to have with myself, that inner dialogue you need every day, because you need to check in with yourself before you can check in with anybody else. There can be such a lack of feeling of self-worth when you’re living with HIV.”
The turnaround happened very quickly, within a matter of months. Mondo wanted to feel better physically, so he discussed with his doctor the medicines he needed to get better, and started complying with his medical regimen. He made sure he ate well and got all the sleep he needed. He went out again looking for love, and met—in his own words—“a really nice guy” who could be there for him emotionally. And he applied for and was accepted as a fashion design contestant on Project Runway.
Anyone watching season 8 in 2010 would have taken Mondo to be a self-possessed, grounded person. He certainly displayed
his talents well in the designs he created for the various competitions, even winning the eighth, “Jacqueline Kennedy,” challenge, the ninth, “L’Oréal Makeup,” challenge, and the tenth, “HP Fabric Pattern Design,” challenge. But it didn’t come easy. “When I first got to the show, it was scary,” he explained. “I felt like people didn’t understand me and my designs, and I didn’t want to be understood. I was taking myself out of the equation, and I felt like I was hitting bottom again. Then I told myself: ‘Either you’re going to participate in the show and really go for it, or you’re going to protect your feelings and not do your best work. You should just be yourself and show what you can do. People will either get it or they won’t.’ So I dove in headfirst. I wanted to feel proud of myself. But I also did it for my family. I wanted them to feel proud of me too.”
In the tenth, “HP Fabric Pattern Design,” challenge, Mondo definitely put himself into “the
equation” of his work with the design that won the competition: fabric with bright, bold plus signs he used to create a pair of women’s slacks. As he explained during the episode, the inspiration for the design came from his own positive HIV status, which he had been keeping secret for ten years.
Disclosing like this was a major move. Before the episode aired on TV, Mondo finally told his parents about his status, and this time around found them very supportive. “They had kind of suspected it anyway, I’d been so sick for such a long time,” he said. “They told me our family is based on unconditional love, and we’d get through it together.”
How did he feel on making his HIV status public? In his own words: “I felt a lot better. I felt free.”
Mondo’s worries about his creativity disappearing were a thing of the past. He didn’t win season 8 of Project Runway in 2010, but he was invited back for the show’s first All Stars season in 2012, which he did win.
Mondo has stated: “I hear rhythm when I’m designing—the rhythm of the scissors, the sewing machine. It’s almost music to me.” Even a casual glance at his designs shows them to be colorful, dynamic compositions, perhaps not symphonic in scope but definitely lyrical in the effects they achieve.
Asked during the interview what he hopes to communicate to the world at large through his designs, Mondo replied: “I’ve always experimented with color and texture. A lot of people look at my clothes and say, ‘I love your stuff, but I could never wear it.’ I ask, ‘Why not?’ and they answer, ‘Well, I only wear black,’ or something like that. So I say, ‘Why don’t you throw in some color? Try something different? Just for one day.’ In my designs I like to encourage people to push boundaries, to feel empowered. Fashion is one place you can take safe risks, where you can have the courage to stand out.”
Mondo has brought that sense of courage, inventiveness, and adventure into his current projects. One of the important offshoots of his winning Project Runway’s first All Star season is a contract to design a line of clothes for Nieman Marcus. “It’s a small, capsule collection, coming out in the spring of 2013,” he explained during the interview. “It was inspired by the mobiles of Alexander Calder—pops of yellow and blue, primary colors. I love primary colors. And very basic shapes. Kind of minimal in terms of the mixing of patterns I’m known for, but fun.”
He’s also designing a line of glasses for SEE Eyewear, which should fit right in with the company’s imaginative “hip without the rip” collections. “I never thought I’d be designing glasses, but I wear glasses myself, so it makes sense. What I’m designing is basically what I would want in my own arsenal of eyewear. The collection is inspired by 1960s’ sitcoms—Gidget, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Munsters. Lots of reminiscence and primary colors. I’m excited by this collaboration with SEE.”
Mondo will also soon be launching his own private label of clothing that initially will be available through his Web site. “That line should be out sometime later this year,” he said. “Again, you can expect primary colors and bold patterns. Keep checking mondoguerra.com for its debut.”
One project not to be overlooked is the dress Mondo unveiled last December 1 for World AIDS Day 2012. “The I Design project and I went to the U.S. Conference on AIDS last September in Las Vegas,” he said. “At our booth, we created a collaborative mural with the participation of those who attended the conference, and from the mural I designed a dress. Both the mural and the dress are meant to serve as an embodiment of the HIV/AIDS community’s courage and commitment to living meaningfully each day with this disease. So much of my own creativity has been involved with HIV and AIDS. I hope others can learn to see the disease not as a hindrance but as a challenge to living as fully as they can.”
Mondo Guerra has definitely put himself back into the equation of both his work and his life. Not a bad place for anyone to be. In the context of AIDS, it’s an attitude that certainly puts a different spin on the word “positive.”
For more information about Stephen Churchill Downes, log on to www.scd11.com.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U.