Michael Kuluva’s designs put coping with RA at centerstage.
Models striding down the runway at New York Fashion Week may not be the first image that comes to mind when you think of rhematoid arthritis, but not for fashion designer Michael Kuluva, creative director of Tumbler & Tipsy and a patient with rheumatoid arthritis.
With metallic gold embellishment draped around models’ hips and neon-blue flares on shoulders and elbows, these designs embody and embrace the sometimes unseen side effects of rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
“It amazes me that there is so much stigma still in the world about this disease,” says Kuluva.“People can’t see the disease, and they can’t relate to it.”
Rheumatoid arthritis affects around 1.5 million people in the United States. It causes the immune system, which typically helps the body by attacking foreign bacteria or viruses, to attack the joints instead. As the joints of the hand, feet, elbows, and ankles become inflamed, they swell and become painful. (Learn more here about what rheumatoid arthritis is and how RA is treated.)
“When I was deciding to come out with my story, I wanted to do it in a very positive way,” says Kuluva. Pairing up with nonprofit education and advocacy group CreakyJoints, Kuluva created a spring-summer fashion collection directly inspired by his experience coping with RA.
Breaking the mold in the fashion world is nothing Kuluva isn’t used to. A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), Kuluva aims to be “reworking, redefining, and revamping the world of fashion” with his brand, Tumbler & Tipsy. He defines his design style as “fun, bold, luxurious, and daring”—a far cry from the words people might use to describe RA.
“On the clothing, I would have bursts of color on all the joints,” says Kuluva. “It’s something that is so visual that you’ve always wanted to tell people and now they can finally see it.”
While RA can quite painful to live with day to day, Kuluva wanted to turn his experience into something positive that could empower other patients with rheumatoid arthritis. He wanted his designs to be something people could wear comfortably (which is important for RA patients; sometimes overly restrictive clothing can be uncomfortable) and make a statement with. “It’s something that you can actually show your friends and still be fashionable.”
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Rheumatoid arthritis is what I've been
told is a disease that affects my joints,
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and that it pretty much attacks,
my body attacks itself.
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And it just amazes me that there's so
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much stigma still in
the world about this disease.
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People can't see the disease and
they can't relate to it.
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I don't go out and say hi, I have
rheumatoid arthritis, good to meet you.
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When I was deciding to
come out with my story,
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I wanted to do it in a very positive
way because I've been very grateful for
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all the people I had around me and
the success that I've had.
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And I really wanted to have a voice
now on advocacy for other patients.
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A good friend of mine Jill Zarin,
her daughter actually has arthritis and
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is involved with a organization
named Creaky Joints.
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So I worked with this amazing
organization, and they were so supportive,
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and they were able to let me really
create a line that was inspired
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by arthritis and they're like, sky's the
limit, you tell us what you wanna do and
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you design it and
let's work together on this.
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So the collection was a Spring, Summer
collection at New York Fashion Week,
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and it was presented at
the Metropolitan Pavilion, and
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we named the collection Creaky and Tipsy.
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It just kind of made sense of what was
happening at that time in pop culture and
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life and my life and it was something
that hadn’t been done before,
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nobodies really inspired
an entire active-wear line at
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New York Fashion Week and
let it come down the runway with
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the designer even having and
the disease on top of it.
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On the clothing I would have
bursts of color on all the joints.
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And so when a model walked down the
runway, you would just see bursts of color
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on certain parts of the body,
something that's so
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visual that you've always wanted to tell
people, and now they can finally see it.
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I was trying to make something
that isn't always pleasant into
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something that you could wear and
make a huge statement with.
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It's comfortable and it's, something
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that you can actually show your
friends still be fashionable.
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What is rheumatoid arthritis? Atlanta, GA: Arthritis Foundation. (Accessed on February 7, 2018 at https://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/rheumatoid-arthritis/what-is-rheumatoid-arthritis.php.)