Twenty-three years ago, when Fashion Cares was still in its infancy, I was working as a junior doctor at St Andrew's Immunology Unit at Saint Bartholomew's Hospital in London, UK, treating people newly diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
The then-new, but not confined just to the queer community (despite what the pulp presses of the UK would tell you) “Gay Plague,” which was quickly becoming a frightening epidemic, was raising its ugly head throughout London.
In those days the treatments that people, like myself, living with HIV and its complications nowadays take for granted, did not exist. Antiretroviral therapy was still in its primordial infancy and HIV treatment mainly consisted of methods aimed to slow and curtail advanced and life-threatening opportunistic infections.
I remember at that time feeling that HIV seemed to maliciously take away what people valued most about their lives: a female patient working as a makeup model got Kaposi's sarcoma just on her face; an up-and-coming young male dancer contracted PML, a debilitating brain disease that causes incoordination, muscle spasms and paralysis. I was honoured to treat Derek Jarman at the end of his life, a gifted gay producer and filmmaker who died completely blind due to CMV retinitis, which he contracted as a result of his HIV infection.
It seemed that HIV knew exactly how to hurt people by taking away their livelihoods and passions. Treatments back then were new and potentially dangerous, and there was a constant feeling of hopelessness in the air; “cures” were sporadic and prone to debilitating relapses, and the new discipline of “AIDS medicine,” as it was then called, felt as if it was rapidly going to become an aspect of palliative care and hospices. I could empathize at Fashion Cares as David Furnish and Dean and Dan Caten of Dsquared recounted that people they loved and valued were “disappearing” and “something” had to be done.
I laughed with many in the audience when Dean and Dan said they made a dress for the first Fashion Cares out of – what else – rubber and I realized that whilst they were stitching together their opus out of PVC I was distributing condoms by the bucket load to patients I saw in the vastly growing HIV clinics in London.
At one point during the night's proceedings I was able to spend some time with some of the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) volunteers who were working tirelessly behind the scenes. These people ensured that everything ran smoothly whilst those of us lucky enough to attend the event got to schmooze with the glitterati and admire fashions that the vast majority of us will never be able to afford.
Whilst grabbing a cigarette with one of the volunteer event coordinators, a delightful 70-year-old woman who has been volunteering at ACT for five years, I got to see another side of Fashion Cares firsthand. Many of the volunteers spent most of the night confined to a tent outside the Sony Centre, and it was here I discovered some allegedly anorexic models of urban-myth wolf down large slices of pizza before returning to display themselves and their bejewelled and feathered gowns to the hoi polloi socializing inside.
(It was a far cry from the lovely little crudités-on-sticks I was offered inside the Sony Centre, especially if you remember the ACT volunteers were working for free and fuelled only on water, whilst the rest of us swam around in a haze of free liquor.)
Despite all this the volunteers worked with a wink and a smile, and it was wonderful to realize that they, with all the unexpected problems they had to contend with, still managed to enjoy themselves and treated the evening as the fun and charity-inspiring event it was intended to be.
When I left the last Fashion Cares it was not with a heavy heart that such a spectacle has come to an end. The greatest thing Fashion Cares showed me is that people from all walks of life have been tirelessly waging war against HIV, in their own way – with whatever skills, abilities and talents they have – raising awareness, money and education, for as long as this pernicious virus has been around.
It is with a quiet confidence that I can say I firmly believe the “HIV plague” will, eventually, be limited and overcome.
This is all thanks to the continued efforts of A- to Z-list stars, doctors and nurses working with people (and empowering them) to live with HIV, and the tireless volunteers of ACT and all the other folk working behind the scenes who ensure that events like Fashion Cares run seamlessly. (Pun intended.)
Hopefully, whatever enterprises ACT and the organizers of Fashion Cares move on to tackle next, the work will continue.