When Mondo Guerra appeared on Project Runway he never anticipated that both and his work and his life would appear on the catwalk.
Guerra originally appeared on the show during its eighth season in 2010. During one of the design challenges Guerra and his fellow designers were asked to create a new textile pattern, one that evoked a narrative from their own lives. Guerra knew exactly what he had to dohe created a textile that told his story, one that surrounded his life with HIV and the secrecy he enveloped the disease with until that show taped.
"Creativity was the one thing that has always kept me going," he told Windy City Times. "I was afraid and not initially speaking the truth about what that textile meant to me. I had been really lying about who I was as a person and as an artist." Guerra told his story of living with HIV for the past decade and that his piece was a reflection of that journey. "I wasn't really concerned about making my status public at that point. I wasn't sure what would happen. Then once the episode aired, I began receiving emails and letters from fans telling me their stories and letting me know that I helped them with their struggle too. I began feeling that I now had a responsibility to add my voice to the larger discussion of HIV and AIDS."
After appearing on and winning Project Runway: All-Stars this year, Guerra has received even more attention and given a larger voice to the discussion of HIV/AIDS. "My journey has been so different from others but I still felt a sense of fear, shame and loneliness that many people living with HIV have," he said. "There is a huge emotional attachment to the disease and that has not changed but I could change and I did and became honest with myself."
Guerra used what he learned to partner with Merck Pharmaceuticals to create an interactive Internet HIV portal. "I've partnered with Merck to launch I Design, a unique approach of treatment for anyone living with HIV and AIDS," Guerra said. "The idea was to create a program of treatment that enabled someone living with HIV to enter into an open dialogue with his or her doctor to create a more tailored approach to their own HIV treatment. Not every case of HIV is identical, and the I Design program is to make sure that each person demands the kind of treatment that they need.
"When you pick up a pamphlet on HIV or AIDS, the information you receive can be generalized or confusing to a lot of people," he said. "I wanted I Design to be a web-based, interactive and user-friendly approach to both getting information on HIV and treating HIV." Guerra added, "This disease is manageable with the right resources. It is so important for those with HIV to have this conversation and to keep fighting the good fight."
His partnership with Merck and the launch of I Design made for top billing at the National Conference on AIDS this year in Las Vegas. The conference attendees collaborated to form a mural that was kept on display for the duration of the conference. "Those who attended came from all walks of life and from all aspects of HIV treatment and advocacy," he said. "Each one added something of their own to that mural. Once the conference ended, there was a canvas filled with pattern and color and all of that told hundreds of stories of living with, treating or being an advocate for those living with HIV."
The mural inspired Guerra; with said inspiration, he created a dress that he said was a result of "digging a little deeper and taking a step back" from the narratives of those living with HIV. "I wanted to make something high-fashion, something that embraced the journey of living with HIV," Guerra added. The dress was revealed in collaboration with World AIDS Day 2012. "This dress is a collection of passionate stories. It looks different depending on which angle or approach you have. What you see from the right or from the left will look completely different when looking at the dress from the front or from the back." Guerra views his greatest strength and gift his creativity. "This dress is my gift back to all those who have lent their voice to the fight against HIV and AIDS."
Guerra recently partnered with SEE Eyewear to develop a series of frames inspired by 1960s television sitcoms. "I remember watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show or The Munsters with my parents growing up," he said. "So the names of the frames pay homage to those characters." Guerra also has a new line being featured both on his website and at Neiman Marcus.
"The launch was supposed to have happened on Black Friday this year but many of my sample pieces were lost in transit because of Hurricane Sandy," he added. "So we've had to push the launch back a bit. I've also had to scale the size of the collection down to nine of 10 pieces. While I love me some accessories, it's all garments."
While Guerra's initial line will have Neiman Marcus' price points, he stressed the importance of continuing to collaborate with other retailers to bring his work to as many people as possible. "Good design is good design," he said. "Whether it's a $50 skirt or a $250 skirt, my work should be as accessible as possible for everyone."
For more information on I Design and for a look at Guerra's couture dress, visit www.projectidesign.com .