Armando T. "Mondo" Guerra knows a thing or two about adaptation: The 32-year-old Denver native got his start in fashion by taking thrift-store clothing and repurposing it for his own designs with scissors and a glue gun. But after graduating from the Denver School of the Arts in 1996 and taking art and music classes at Community College of Denver, Guerra started designing seriously in 1999 after winning a contest and getting a job out of it. Since then, he's split his time between New York and his home in Denver's Highland neighborhood. And he's been a winner elsewhere, including The Fashion Project at Tamarac Square in 2007.
This year, Guerra became the first hometown contestant on Project Runway, where he'll put his penchant for working with found objects to his advantage.
The Lifetime show, which begins season eight on July 29, pits contestants against each other in weekly challenges, where they must design usable fashion, often with unusual materials (food, for example, has been one) and in a limited amount of time.
Guerra can't talk about specifics — Lifetime has him under strict orders to stay mum on the results — but he can dish on Denver, his background, his experience on the show, staying true to himself, and being professional versus having fun.
WW: Why did you apply to be on Project Runway, and what was the application process like?
MG: The application process for Project Runway was intense. Portfolio, home video, page after page of personal questions. I applied for Project Runway to challenge myself. It was a goal I had to accomplish. When I got the call that I made the cut, I went through every emotion possible, a roller coaster of tears, laughing. I was in shock.
WW: What family do you have In Denver? Are you close with them?
MG: All of my family lives here. Very close, major fiestas.
WW: In 1999, you won a competition for Auraze Juniorwear and moved to New York to take a job with them, right? Tell me about that experience.
MG: It was great. You know, out in New York there's just so much culture. I think a lot of fashion, or fashion inspiration, comes from culture, or different cultures, and if you want to experience that kind of culture, New York is the place to be. You know, that would be where you'd go to have that experience. And there's so much going on all the time. So it was great to have that experience, to sort of be able to be in the middle of everything.
WW: But then a few years later, you came back to Denver. Why?
MG: Well, I broke my hip. I slipped on some ice and I broke my right hip, and if I would have stayed in New York, they would have put me in a home, you know, because I lived in a walk-up on the fifth floor. So I just decided to just come home and be with my family. And I actually ended up staying a lot longer than I planned.
WW: So, having basically started your career in New York, how did being back in Denver compare? What were some differences, or some similarities?
MG: Well, I think clothing is just an extension of who you are. You know, everybody comes from a different background, everybody has a different story. I guess for me, personally, I like to change it up; I'm kind of a chameleon. Some days you want to dress up and look professional; other days you just want to have fun. More often, I want to have fun.
WW: That seems to be a theme in your design style, actually, which is pretty eclectic. Compared to the other contestants, or at least what little we've been able to see of them, your design sense is pretty out there. How did that play out on the show?
MG: Well, even going into the show, I knew that I did have a different point of view from a lot of the people on it. I like to look to the past for inspiration, for, like, silhouettes, but I also really like looking at more modern stuff — textiles, prints — and keeping that just modern and fresh. But, you know, I do think everything should be wearable and functional.
WW: There also seems to be a certain cheerfully sleazy aesthetic to your designs; one of your collections was called LoveMondoTrasho, for example. How did that come about?
MG: Well, when I first started cutting patterns, I was really into reconstruction. I went to a lot of thrift stores and bought clothes and looked at how they were laid out flat, like a flat pattern, and then put them back together and made new pieces out of them. So I just feel like I'm really into the idea of found objects as fashion. And as I've matured as a designer, I feel like I use that way of looking at things in a different way, like in my prints or my patterns. So that's kind of how I stay true to me.
WW: Did you find your experience on the show changed how you design, or how you approach designing?
MG: You know, my experience on the show showed me that I can design a lot faster than I thought I could, at least when I'm working in my own space. We all have time restrictions for each challenge and everything. But you know, you always want to break the rules as much as you can. You just don't want to break them so much that you have to, you know, go home.
WW: One criticism of your work on the show, at least in the casting call, was that the judges called it "over-designed." Do you think you've reined it in at all?
MG: You know, the thing about it is, you're always going to be critiqued. You're going to be critiqued by one person or the other. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I actually responded to that by saying, I think there's a customer for everything. You know, you might not be attracted to it; you might think that it's over-thought, but there is going to be a customer that will really appreciate what you think it means. Sometimes in my life, I think, I like to just live by saying more is more.
WW: So in the end, in spite of whatever criticism or direction you might have gotten on the show, you just kind of kept on doing whatever you wanted to do.
MG: Yeah, you know, I feel like if you are good at what you do, you listen to criticism and you take it in, but you also have to digest it and take what you want to hear from it — but also to try not to be so stubborn. You know, I took the criticism and learned from it, and I feel like the whole competition was for the best, and I grew a lot as a designer. But, yeah, if you allow yourself to kind of do whatever everybody else is going to tell you to do, then I don't feel like you will ever really find your strengths.
WW: Can you tell me a specific thing that you learned?
: I learned that I'm appreciated for really being who I am and staying true to my strengths. You know, I'm one of the most colorful designers in the competition; I use different textiles, lots of texture. I think everything I did was wearable and that it wasn't overdone, and so I think they really appreciated the fact that I stayed true to myself, but also that I improved challenge by challenge.
WW: Who's the best-dressed person in Denver?
MG: Oh, man, you know what, you're going to ask me again? I'm going to say I am.
WW: Good answer.
MG: What am I supposed to say? You want me to lie?
WW: What do you think of the fashion scene in Denver? Do you hang out with other designers here?
MG: Denver has a strong emerging fashion scene with some amazing independent designers. I don't really hang out with any other fashion designers. I surround myself with photographers, musicians, visual artists.
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WW: What do you hope to show the world about Denver on the show?
MG: Denver gots something good: me.
WW: What are you doing now, and will you be staying on in Denver for a while?
MG: I'm working as a freelance designer, but I'm planning on moving to one of the coasts. I'm thinking L.A. since I've already done New York City.