When you look at the organization's achievements these past few years, it's hard to believe it all started with one woman. But when Ninette Murk noticed how little her own children really knew about HIV and AIDS, the Flemish fashion editor decided it was time for a new career.
Fed up with the way in which the fashion industry treated people who were HIV-positive, she quit her job and founded the non-profit organisation Beauty Without Irony, through which she launched the international project Designers Against AIDS (DAA) in 2004.
The initiative educates young people about HIV and AIDS, but in a way that speaks to them directly, using music, fashion, design, sports, celebrities, social media and so on. Additionally, the message of the campaigns focuses on prevention, not on the illness.
"I don't think you can keep doing what we do if you focus on illness and death," says Murk. "Prevention is more fun. It's about sex, and sex is good. But you have to be careful."
What drives Murk every day is how AIDS is perceived as being a threat of the past, or is infecting only people in developing countries. While in fact, the ugly truth is that the number of HIV infections in Europe and the United States are rising once again.
"More than 50% of new HIV infections in the western world can be attributed to young people," says Murk. "AIDS is a disaster everywhere, but nowhere is it easier to prevent than here! Condoms are abundantly available."
Surely no message could be any less sexy than safe sex, but DAA has succeeded rather well in turning that around. Murk simply called up the Swedish-based headquarters of clothing retailer H&M to start a collaboration. Initially, they asked celebrities such as Tokio Hotel and Katy Perry to design T-shirts for a special "Fashion Against AIDS" collection, which was then the focus of a global H&M campaign. It not only got people talking about AIDS prevention, but a percentage of earnings was invested into several awareness programs, including DAA.
In May 2011, the increasingly successful Fashion Against AIDS collaboration will launch its fourth edition, but Murk has already started to think ahead. She wanted to make the work of DAA "more sustainable," she explains.
"The first thing that popped up was the idea of an education centre where we could teach young people from all over the world how to create HIV prevention campaigns using pop culture in just the way that we do - with a lot of enthusiasm, idealism, creativity and often a very low budget."
In 2007, DAA purchased a building in the Deurne district of Antwerp. Renovations started in 2008 and finished last month. They collaborated with Antwerp architectural firm B-Bis and enlisted the help of numerous volunteers; cosmetics brand MAC, for example, sent in a team of make-up artists to help paint the house.
Now that the International HIV/AIDS Awareness Education Center is officially opened, it awaits its first students, who arrive in February. Students take part in a six- to eight-week workshop on launching a creative and interactive HIV/AIDS awareness campaign.
"One workshop will teach them how to make a music video, the other how to organise a fashion show," explains Murk. "The students will actually realise such a project here in Belgium and go home with the know-how they need to repeat and improve on the experience."
Murk is already planning to open a second centre in Los Angeles next year - when everything goes well in Belgium, that is. But first: by Valentine' Day, DAA and Belgian leather accessories brand Delvaux will offer a red leather condom case with a cut-out heart, which will be sold in the DAA web shop and at Delvaux retailers. Packing a condom has never been so stylish.
2008: the launch of Models Against AIDS. Flemish top model Hannelore Knuts is the official spokesperson
2008: sales of sexy bed linens designed by artists like Belgian electronica duo Vive la Fête, Dutch fashion designer Bas Kosters and Belgian-based Spanish filmmaker Javier Barcala
2008: the first H&M collaboration, Fashion Against AIDS, supported by the likes of Rihanna and Henrik Vibskov. The second campaign the following year hit H&M stores in 30 countries, or nearly 1,000 stores. The fourth edition of the event launches next May
October 2010: Designers Against AIDS: The First Decade is published by Ludion
November 2010: Knitting Against AIDS takes over Brussels: fashion designers and enthusiasts gather to make and auction special scarves
December 2010: the official opening of the International HIV/AIDS Awareness Education Center in Antwerp
February 2011: the release of the Delvaux red leather condom case. Happy Valentine's!