Whether by choice or not, when Mondo Guerra came out as HIV-positive on Season 8 of Project Runway, he became an emblem of the HIV/AIDS movement. Humbled, the ingenious fashion designer says he continues to feel honored to use his visibility to bring awareness to the important cause.
He's now teamed up with Merck, the pharmaceutical company, and begun a campaign to "empower people to work with their doctors in taking a 'tailored' approach to their HIV treatment plans," as detailed on his new site, ProjectIDesign.com. The site is interactive, including a design app that allows users to create quilt-like squares to share with other users, stressing the importance of engaging the community about HIV/AIDS.
"It's not about whether you have a positive status or negative status, it's about accessing that information and educating yourself and it's really important for us to pass on that information and get involved," Guerra explains. As opposed to creating a sculpture, wall art, or a printed tote, Mondo designed a dress inspired by a mural he created at the United States Conference on AIDS in Las Vegas.
"At our booth, we had an interactive project, our mural, and over the course of the three days we encouraged conference goers to participate in the mural project," he explains. "Everyday was a different craft material. I had this idea of doing it like a color by numbers painting. The conference goers were very excited to participate, because by the end, what started as a white canvas was covered."
Medical experts, advocates, volunteers, and people living with HIV or AIDS attended the conference in early October. "It was amazing to share my story and have so many people share their story with me," Mondo explains. "I never thought I'd be in a position to empower so many people."
Using the mural as a muse, Mondo called the work a "visual dialog" that he used to inspire the dress. "The dress started out very literal and black and white," he says. "I started reflecting on my own journey living with HIV and spending time with other people sharing their journey with HIV."
The intention of the dress was to create it as a gift. "We have big plans for the dress, but we're not revealing exactly what those plans are," Guerra explains. "Listening to all the stories that people shared so graciously to me, I really applied it to my work. You will definitely see similarities between this dress and my collection for Fall/Winter 2013."
Mondo was diagnosd with HIV when he was 23 years old. "I felt ashamed and alone," he shared. " I grew up in a very religious Mexican Catholic family that was built on morals of respect for the family. When I was diagnosed I felt dirty," he admits. "It was a very lonely and depressing time and I wasn't being very proactive in my own life. The disease was really defining who I was it was taking a lot of my passion, drive and love for the craft away."
"My rock bottom was three years ago, and I was in the hospital with PCP pneumonia. My numbers were down to 14 and it really took me to get to that point to realize that I had to take it back, my soul and passion and not let this disease take [everything from me]," he explains. "That was the day that I started setting not only personal health goals but future artistic goals, and started producing my best work."
Mondo describes the moment on Project Runway when he revealed his HIV positive status as, "being reborn again." "I was scared of what the backlash would be--whether it be the viewers, the HIV community, or my parents. Once that episode aired, I was taken aback by the respect I received."
Mondo views December 1, World AIDS Day, as a day to honor those who have passed away and survive with the virus today. "I will be spending the day with my family and thanking them for their continued support and unconditional love."