How a Designer’s Rheumatoid Arthritis Inspired a Bold Fashion Collection

Michael Kuluva’s designs put coping with RA at centerstage.

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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.”