Walking the Walk: Mondo Guerra's First Show at New York Fashion Week
New York Fashion Week is the epitome of pure glamour. Because of Sex in the City, America's Next Top Model and Project Runway, the words "fashion show" conjure up images of celebs, champagne and fabulous clothes. So, I was gay-boy-giddy to find out I was going to attend the Fashion Week show of Project Runway All-Stars winner and HIV advocate, the adorable Mondo Guerra. OK, I squealed like a little kid.
I visited Mondo's studio four days before the big fashion show -- his first for New York Fashion Week -- for an interview, to see his workroom and perhaps to peek at his collection. Glamorous, right?
Mondo's studio is in the teeny-tiny basement of his Brooklyn apartment. I ambled down the serial-killer steps to the workspace and found the successful fashion designer wearing a beanie and a sweatshirt, tucked in a corner ironing a black velvet sash, his sweet dog at his heels.
"Hey," Mondo greeted me, "you remember Gordi?" I did, and pet the friendly pup. "And that's Sosy. He's working on accessories. He's hand stitching that entire bag! He's so great: so patient and calm, opposite of me. Thank God for him."
The positively swoon-worthy Sosy Patter was sitting in an opposite corner, bag on his lap and needle in hand. He looked up at me for a moment, smiled and said, "Hi," then went back to his task.
Directly behind Sosy was a petite rack sardined with clothes: the collection. There was also a table with a pile of buttons, boxes of various fashion stuffs, scraps of cloth and pins on the floor. I mentioned how tiny the workspace was, and how it might be the perfect place to hide a body.
"Oh, there might be!," Mondo suggested. "The plumbing in this building is so bad, sometimes it smells horrible, like sewage or something. Like when someone takes a shower, the whole building reeks of ... well, it's disgusting."
"So what do you want to talk about?" Mondo asked.
I told him that I didn't have any hard-hitting questions prepared, so we could just have a conversation.
"Oh, that's great," he said. "Everyone keeps asking what my inspiration is. I don't really know. I mean, I just want to make some great clothes, you know? But it's kinda like my living room. I mean, if you took my collection and put it all in my living room, it would match."
Right next to the ironing board, I mean RIGHT next to it, is a table with Mondo's Brother sewing machine, one of the prizes from Project Runway. Tacked up behind this are sketches of his dynamic designs with swatches of material pinned next to each one.
"I guess you could say I've returned to prints. I mean, I'm kinda known for working with prints, so I'm doing a lot of that again," Mondo added, "and I've brought back the positivity print, just in a different way."
The Positivity Print, in a Different Way
The positivity print is something he came up with on season eight of Project Runway. The challenge was to design a new textile, and Mondo created a very graphic design with black plus signs surrounded by yellow and violet. The print was not just a hit on the show; he's continued to use it in various forms in everything from his fashions to art installations he's created.
One of most admirable things about Mondo is that he has continued to keep HIV awareness at the forefront of his mission. Throughout his creative career since Project Runway, he's partnered with several organizations to promote HIV causes. He works with Project I Design (and the pharmaceutical company Merck) working to empower people living with HIV, and he has been a spokesperson for the nationwide HIV fundraising event, Dining Out for Life, since 2013.
"When I was first diagnosed, I was allowing my HIV status to define who I was, not only as a person, but also as a creative individual," Mondo said, "and when I was allowing HIV to define who I was, I would say I was HIV positive. Now that I'm more responsible, more comfortable with myself, more self-loving and accepting with myself, I would say that I'm living with HIV. I wake up every day with a positive attitude. I do things that I enjoy, which is my work: I continue to create. But to be able to continue to create, I have to be responsible and have open conversations not only with myself but also with my support team that includes my doctors."
We talked a little bit about fighting the stigma that comes with HIV. Mondo hates the word. "I think everybody continues to fight stigma, but I fight it in the way that I don't even want to mention the word 'stigma.'" He grinned, "I give it the silent treatment."
I ask him if he's nervous about the upcoming show.
"Yeah. I mean, I've done fashion shows before, but not like this, not Fashion Week," Mondo explains. "It's a different crowd, you know? Editors and stuff. I'm not really sure who to be, like what kind of an attitude I should have. And they take it all so seriously! I mean, I take it seriously; I love it, you know; it's my work. But it's just clothes."
Fast-forward to four days later, and it's the night of the fashion show, which Mondo has titled "Late to the Opera." The show is in the ballroom at the Stewart Hotel in midtown Manhattan, smack dab in the Fashion District. I brought my pal Sue with me. She and I are both Project Runway and Mondo fans. As we stroll through the lobby to find the ballroom, we see a mix of the too-thin fashion folk and middle-American tourists, some with their show dogs. Turns out, New York Fashion Week and the Westminster Dog Show are happening at the same time. A huge, huge dog -- a horse, really -- an Irish Wolfhound struts through the lobby with an attitude to match any supermodel's, right past a tiny, pretty, skinny blonde girl on her way to Mondo's show. I find out later that the blonde is the current Miss Washington when she takes off her coat to reveal her pageant sash. A middle-aged man in all white walks by. He's got a prominent forehead and stringy, shoulder-length hair, and he's incredibly thin.
We wait in line to get into the ballroom and see a lot of young, young, young people all on their phones. Fashion bloggers, I assume. Then we're led to our seats in the third row. The room is set up with a long runway with chairs on either side, chandeliers gleaming and "MONDO GUERRA" posted in big letters on the stage backdrop. There's a sizable grouping of photographers on the receiving end of the runway, and a DJ pumping sick beats to get the audience excited. I don't see any celebs, but there are some uber-cool people in attendance. A dude wearing a black cape and a full-faced aluminum mask makes a dramatic entrance (Darth Vader?). A chic woman with sunglasses and a pashmina over her head comes in with entourage and a camera man following her. (Is she maybe a Real Housewife?) Then I spot Jay McCarroll, the terrifically talented winner of Project Runway season one, sitting across the room from me. He's got long hair, a beard and a black felt wide-brimmed hat. (I'm thinking, "Modern, cool and hip, or Amish?")
The room is packed. The lights dim. "Ladies and gentlemen, the show is about to begin. Please turn the flash off on your cell phones. This is not your moment."
The lights come up, and the first model comes out. From the first look, the collection is dynamic. Mondo's work is sublime. It takes my breath away. He shows both women's and men's fashions, all with his signature use of color and mixed prints. His work is playful without being silly. It's both bold and charming, razzle-dazzle with a wink of irony. Sue and I love it. Before we know it, it's over.
At the end of the show, Mondo comes out to enthusiastic applause. He has a huge smile on his face and waves to the crowd, and then, he walks over and hugs his Mama.
I'll admit, I got a little verklempt. Mondo Guerra's show was all I dreamed it would be, and more. Mondo came up with amazing ideas, stayed true to his vision and himself and made magic happen from his tiny basement workroom to the runway of New York Fashion Week.
And that's what glamour is all about.