12/31/2012 08:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Offering Care on the Battlefield of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic: An Interview With Designer Michael Bastian

2013-01-01-michaelbastian.jpgRecently I sat down with designer Michael Bastian, who received this year's Style Vault Award from my organization, Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), for his generous support and for his exemplary talent in the fashion industry. This award would have been presented at GMHC's annual fundraiser, Fashion Forward, but the event was cancelled in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Hill: When did you first learn about the HIV/AIDS epidemic?

Bastian: I first learned about this virus in 10th grade health class. They didn't even have a real name for it yet. It was still called "gay cancer" or something. A classmate of mine gave a report on a New York Times Magazine cover story on it. I think a lot about how my generation was the first to get the warning signal that this disease was out there and how it affected us all. We were the first on the "life boat," in a way, but also the first generation with a front-row seat to the horrors and uncertainty of those early years.

Hill: What were your initial thoughts or feelings about the epidemic?

Bastian: Well, as a teenager who was just coming to terms with being gay, it was a terrible thing to hear about. Looking back, I think it probably kept me in the closet a little longer than I probably would have been if there weren't this mysterious new disease that was, at the time, explicitly linked to being gay. It really gave young gay people a reason to stay underground back then (we're talking early '80s).

Hill: Is there a particular story related to HIV and AIDS that has moved you?

Bastian: They all move me, every single one. And they keep coming, unfortunately.

Hill: When did you start to get involved?

Bastian: I think my first contact with GMHC (like a lot of people) was when they started the AIDS Walk New York. Here was a great way for ordinary people to show their support and help raise some money in a very real way. After that, I think the next time I got involved beyond walking was after I started my company and was asked to participate in a GMHC runway show.

Hill: What drew you to work with GMHC?

Bastian: As a gay man living in New York, it was actually the least I could do, and GMHC was the first organization to actually address this disease head-on. They immediately became this kind of positive outlet for a lot of people frustrated that a cure wasn't being found, that the government didn't even talk about it, that friends were getting sick and dying and we still didn't fully understand why. GMHC was a place where we could direct that energy and frustration toward something good, even if we weren't sure at the time where this disease was taking us.

Hill: Why is it important to you to be a supporter of GMHC?

Bastian: It's actually more important than ever to support GMHC. As this disease and our knowledge of it evolves, we've learned it's not just a gay man's disease -- actually far from it. While gay men have been disproportionately affected, this has become an issue that touches all of us as humans. In 100 years we will be judged by how we responded to this crisis, and I'm proud that in these dark years I did what little I could. I was recently watching a documentary on the Civil War and how at the time there was very little emergency care on the battlefield, and more men were dying of infection from non-lethal wounds than from the wound itself. And in the midst of this confusion and devastation, one woman, Clara Barton, jumped in and did what she could from the back of her wagon to help save these men. Her efforts were the beginning of what has now become the American Red Cross. I see lots of parallels with the work of GMHC, the first to jump in the battle and do something when others won't or can't.

Hill: What examples have you seen of the fashion industry fighting AIDS?

Bastian: As a group, the fashion industry has been one of the strongest in the effort to fight HIV and AIDS. There are many groups dedicated to fighting this disease; GMHC's Fashion Forward is just one of them. But I think everyone in this industry fights it in their own way.

Hill: What do you see are the reasons that the fashion industry is so involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS?

Bastian: My industry was affected so strongly and immediately by this disease; we actually lost a significant part of a whole generation of designers. I think a lot about how the landscape in my industry would be different if we still had Perry Ellis, Halston, Willi Smith, Giorgio di Sant' Angelo and a million other talented designers and just other people in the industry around today.

Hill: If you could send out a message to the general public about HIV and AIDS, what would that message be?

Bastian: It's not over yet. While we now have more knowledge and enough history and information to take responsibility for our health and our actions as we each see fit, it's easy to become emotionally worn down and immune to this disease. This is the monster that barged into our bedrooms and living rooms and has unfortunately come to stay, at least for the time being. And just because it's been slightly tamed, it's still not going away. No one knows if we're nearing the end of this fight or just in the middle, but it's still here, and we can't let our guard down yet. It's not over until it's over.

Hill: If you had one wish about the epidemic, what would it be?

Bastian: Well, every New Year's Eve, I make a little prayer hoping this is the year some very smart person finds a cure for HIV/AIDS, but after 30 years of this prayer, now I just ask that I will be around when a cure is found. That will be the happiest day of my life.