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
Guerra’s “positive” Project Runway design. Photo by Barbara Nitke/Lifetime Television
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.
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