Kenneth Cole, Simon Doonan and Alan Cumming Discuss Why AIDS Awareness Is Still So Important

The sometimes-controversial designer doesn't like talking about himself -- but he does like talking about amfAR and the importance of their AIDS research.
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Tyler McCall
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The sometimes-controversial designer doesn't like talking about himself -- but he does like talking about amfAR and the importance of their AIDS research.
Joyce Culver for 92Y

Joyce Culver for 92Y

Designer Kenneth Cole doesn't like talking about himself. That much became clear during his chat with Fern Mallis for her "Fashion Icons" series at New York's 92Y earlier this week, where he sat defensively folded up in his chair, staring at the floor and politely evading even the simplest questions about his childhood.

Fortunately for Cole, the format of this session was different: Rather than spend the entire time talking about his life and career, as Mallis did with previous guests Tom Ford and Vera Wang, Mallis did only a quick Q&A with Cole before screening the documentary he produced, The Battle of amfAR. After the screening, Barneys' Simon Doonan and actor Alan Cumming joined Cole on stage, and Cole became significantly more animated during their discussion on the importance of amfAR and the work they've done with AIDS research.

AmfAR is an organization that Cole has been active with for nearly 30 years, almost since its founding. "In 1985, no one spoke about AIDS because you couldn't, the stigma was so invasive," Cole explained. "If you did, you were presumed to be at risk, which at the time meant you were Haitian, an IV drug user, or gay." He said he felt comfortable speaking out because he didn't fit into any of those groups ("I was a single male designer, so I just figured everyone would assume that I was Haitian," he quipped.).

But the group agreed that even though the AIDS epidemic has become more controlled thanks to higher levels of awareness and advancement in drugs, we've become dangerously indifferent about the disease. Mallis quoted a terrifying fact: 40% of new diagnoses in the U.S. are youths aged 13 to 29, and a staggering 60% of them don't know they're infected.

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"There's been a huge education gap across the whole spectrum: young gay men, young straight men, young straight women," Cumming argued, bemoaning the abstinence-only education that dominated the Bush years. "There's this whole generation of adults who have no concept of how to protect yourself, not just against AIDS but other diseases, and I think that's what we're fighting against now."

Cumming also feels that younger generations are "encouraged to be so cavalier" about their sex lives -- especially by (you guessed it) Hollywood. "It's interesting that the HBO show Girls -- which I love -- I'm very affected by the fact that you see them having sex, but there's no condom use and no mention of it when really that should be a huge part of that," he said. "I think in the first season they did have it, but I guess it's not so sexy."

And finally, the actor takes issue with the growing notion that AIDS is a manageable diagnosis thanks to advancements in medicine. "I don't think they understand the fierceness and the side effects of the combination therapies," he complained.

"That era when we destigmatized AIDS is in the past," Doonan agreed, "and now we need to say, 'Your health is something you need to respect more and be more serious about.'"

The other important next step? Memorializing the victims in a real way. "I'm haunted by the friends that I had [who] didn't even have funerals," confessed Doonan, who also said "almost everyone [he] ever slept with" died of AIDS. "No one even claimed their bodies, their parents had disowned them, all their friends had died, so I don't even know what happened to them," he added solemnly. Doonan quoted a close friend whom, near death and angry, told him, "Everyone's going to forget us, we're the Lost Generation."

"Subsequently I've realized he was right," Doonan said. "On the 30th anniversary of the arrival of AIDS, it was the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and you look at how beautifully and appropriately the [victims] of 9/11 were memorialized, and then there's 600,000 people who died of AIDS -- including Franco Moschino, Halston, Patrick Kelly, Willi Smith -- and there are all these young people who don't know who they are now, and it's quite sad."

All of these are reasons that Cole continues to work so hard with amfAR and to raise awareness of his efforts. "Today, we know how to keep ourselves safe, but not everyone has access to that knowledge and access to those resources," he offered as a final thought. "I'm hoping to get [The Battle of amfAR] played in schools across the country -- it's a length that's very scalable to be played in schools."