After a six-decade onstage career, Elton John is in the midst of his farewell tour. But on Monday, he and his husband, David Furnish, are announcing a project that proves his legacy is just beginning. More than 30 years after its founding, the Elton John AIDS Foundation is announcing the Rocket Fund, an initiative to raise $125 million for the fight against the virus that launched a world-altering epidemic in the 1980s and continues to affect millions to this day.
The foundation set an ambitious goal for the Rocket Fund: using the money it raises to fund projects with an aim of eliminating AIDS by 2030—and a group of big philanthropic names have signed on to donate and work with the fund, including David Geffen, Tani Austin, and Donatella Versace. On Monday, the designer announced that she will be matching donations during Pride Month up to $300,000. In addition to the fundraising drive, the foundation is launching a social media awareness campaign called #InnerElton, asking celebrities and creators to share their own takes on some of John’s iconic looks.
In an interview, Versace said that she wants to remind people that the fight against HIV/AIDS isn’t over, despite the incredible progress that has been made with modern medicine. “It’s very, very important that we keep talking about it because it’s a very, very bad illness—you can die from it—and not everybody has access to the treatments.”
She says she sees the fund as an opportunity to get a younger generation already excited by the fashion and culture of the 1980s and 1990s involved in the fight that shaped her work in the era and the life of her late brother, Gianni. It’s also a way to honor John for the work he has done combating stigma during the fearful environment that the AIDS crisis created.
Versace says she has been honored to see the resurgence of vintage on the red carpet, and she wants to share her memories from the time as well. “I saw with my eyes what was happening in the beginning,” she says. “I lost so many friends, Gianni lost so many of his friends, and people were helpless. Elton was one of the few people who would stand up. He had a platform, and used it in a good way.”
In a recent interview, Furnish explained the reasoning behind the new push for awareness and solutions. “We really wanted to reignite the conversation around AIDS, and make people aware of the things that can be done—and how the news really is so positive, if we drive into what we need to be doing.”
One motivation to start the fund came from the fact that with treatment, HIV can be managed as a chronic health condition, and some medications can make the virus undetectable in a patient’s blood, preventing the progression to AIDS entirely. But according to the foundation, 13% of HIV positive people in the United States don’t know their status, and many who have been diagnosed don’t have adequate access to potentially lifesaving treatments. Ultimately the Rocket Fund will support access to HIV prevention and treatment services, such as testing, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and antiretroviral therapies, to 1 million people around the world.
“The earlier you find and target people who have HIV and don’t know it, and the earlier you get people on treatment, the greater the success,” Furnish adds. “The treatments are so effective and so simple.”
Furnish says that he and John are honored to have Versace take part in the Rocket Fund. “Donatella continues to be one of Elton’s dearest friends and a friend to our family. And Gianni and Donatella both worked and lived in fashion through the ’80s and ’90s, so they witnessed firsthand the devastation of the disease,” he says. “Having someone like her onboard gets her voice into communities to start the conversations in an easy way. We need role models through the Rocket Fund and through the Let Your Inner Elton Out campaign.”
Furnish says the foundation wants to pull in as many people as possible to the campaign. “We want as many spokespeople as we can, because the more everyday conversations that people from all walks of life have about HIV/AIDS, we’re just gonna make more and more progress,” he says. “We’re going to get where we need to go faster, and more powerfully.”
Ultimately, the fight against AIDS is becoming a legacy of John and his family, and Furnish says they are in the fight until the very end. “There’s no exit for Elton or me or our family other than when AIDS is over. That’s our exit point. If everybody knows their status and everybody has access to medication, there’s going to continue to be work that needs to be done so that people can take the medications that will keep them alive,” he says. “We are absolutely in it for the long run.”