A photo of designer and rheumatoid arthritis patient Michael Kuluva. Michael is wearing a blue shirt that says "Arthritis Doesn't Take a Day Off."
Credit: Michael Kuluva

In 2016, Michael Kuluva made his fourth appearance at New York Fashion Week. For designers, this weeklong event is an opportunity to put your mark on the world of design; to cement yourself as a name that people want to wear. But for Michael, a former professional figure skater who created and runs the fashion sportswear brand Tumbler & Tipsy, that year was also a chance to raise awareness for rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an inflammatory condition that causes debilitating joint pain and stiffness, fatigue, and other symptoms.

At that year’s show, Michael announced that he had been diagnosed with RA and shared what it’s like to be a young person living with a chronic illness — specifically, a young person whose livelihood requires hand strength and mobility, both of which are often impacted by rheumatoid arthritis.

Michael has continued to use the event as an opportunity to raise awareness for rheumatoid arthritis and the broader chronic illness community. CreakyJoints and the Global Healthy Living Foundation have supported Michael’s shows every year too.

Now, as Michael prepares for his tenth New York Fashion Week show, one has to wonder how he continues to seamlessly merge fashion and chronic disease patient advocacy. But this year’s show — held virtually for the second year in a row because of the COVID-19 pandemic — may be his most inclusive yet. Members of the chronic illness community have been involved in multiple aspects of the show, from  designing to modeling. Michael has also expanded his advocacy to include migraine awareness.

Highlighting a New Chronic Illness

For the first time in ten years, Michael is using his platform to raise awareness for another chronic condition: migraine. This is especially meaningful to Michael, as it is a condition that impacts his mother.

“I remember my mom suffering migraine attacks when I was a child,” says Michael, recalling the hours (and sometimes days) she spent shutting out the light and noise to feel some relief. “I don’t want people losing that precious time, especially with their family. If we can bring migraine awareness and relief of any type, that’s important.”

Michael found a way to do both by designing a pair of sunglasses, which will be on sale for a limited time on the Tumbler & Tipsy website.

“When I think of migraine, I think about wanting darkness,” Michael says of his decision to design sunglasses for the cause. He “kept the lenses really dark” to add to the functionality of the accessory, which earned his mother’s approval.

Bright lights are a well-known migraine trigger, and many migraine patients rely on sunglasses and other types of eyewear to minimize their exposure.

Incorporating Patient Models (and Their Needs) Into the Collection

One of the challenges faced by people with invisible illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis is being and feeling seen. Because of this, Michael has always prioritized hiring people with invisible chronic illnesses to model his collections. But this year’s show features 12 patients — the most in any of Michael’s shows. The patient models come from all over the world and live with many different types of chronic conditions. Some of the models include Kelly Boyd, a patient advocate in New Jersey living with RA who uses a wheelchair for mobility (and has previously modeled in Michael’s show in 2019); Jaime Sanders, a patient advocate from Virginia who lives with migraine; Naomi Creek, the national coordinator of CreakyJoints Australia and a person living with RA; and Alice Jones, a patient advocate from New Zealand who has ankylosing spondylitis.

Because many of his models live with painful chronic conditions, Michael ensures that every item he creates is functional as well as fashionable.

“This year’s collection is very flowing,” says Michael. “I wanted everyone to be able to get in and out of the clothes with ease. Not one person mentioned not being able to zip or button an item.”

Michael also wanted to drive home arthritis and migraine awareness with colors: royal blue for arthritis awareness and purple for migraine awareness.

Two photos of models showcasing the designs from Michael Keluva's Tumbler and Tipsy by Michael Kuluva 2022 Collection. On the left is a woman wearing a tight fitted dress that is dyed purple and blue. On the right is a man wearing a blue cape-like coat.
Credit: Michael Keluva

“There have always been some colors here and there, but this year they are the predominant colors and the only ones in the entire collection,” says Michael, adding that they are accompanied by accents of black and white.

What’s even more impressive: Michael hand-dyed all the garments himself. This is no small task, especially for someone whose hand mobility can be impacted by RA. Fortunately, Michael learned a lot about timing and tending to his RA last year, when he had to hand-sew and hand-paint every item as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and being in lockdown when he was creating his collection.

“It took a lot of time, and came together very slowly, but it looks amazing,” says Michael.

Collaborating with Patients on Designs

Adding to the list of fashion show firsts, Michael worked with fellow rheumatoid arthritis patient Eileen Davidson to design three T-shirts for the collection. The collaboration came about organically, as both have been fans of each other for quite some time.

“I’ve been following Eileen on social media for years and have always thought she has such a cool attitude,” says Michael.

One day, Eileen wrote on Twitter about wanting to design rock ‘n roll shirts again — a hobby and esthetic that dominated her life before her arthritis diagnosis.

Michael reached out to Eileen, who will also be modeling in this year’s show, and the two decided to co-design a shirt to raise arthritis awareness. The shirts, which vary in design and color, all feature the phrase “Fiercely Fighting Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

Learn more about the story behind Eileen’s T-shirt design.

Two photos of a woman, Eileen Davidson, modeling the "Fiercely Fighting Rheumatoid Arthritis" t-shirts, which will be available for purchase following the Tumbler and Tipsy by Michael Kuluva 2022 Collection event, airing on Tuesday, September 14, 20201 at 8 p.m. ET via YouTube. On the left, Eileen is wearing a blue shirt with a white circle outlined in black. Within the white circle are the words "Fiercely." Beneath that is a blue ribbon to symbolize arthritis awareness. Below the ribbon are the words "Rheumatoid Arthritis." Below those words are an image of a hand in a fist with lightning bolts. Below the hand is the worth "Fighting. On the right, Eileen is wearing a white shirt with an image of a dying battery on top. Beneath the image are the words "Fiercely Fighting Rheumatoid Arthritis." Below that is a blue ribbon to symbolize arthritis awareness.
Credit: Eileen Davidson

The T-shirts will be available to purchase on the Tumbler & Tipsy website.

Continuing to Showcase Virtually

Last year, due to the global pandemic, Michael and many other designers showcased their collections through virtual shows. New York Fashion Week will be in person this year, but Michael made the decision to livestream his show again.

“As COVID-19 prevails, we didn’t want to put people at risk,” Michael says of his decision. “We’ve always streamed our live shows for global patients and fans around the world, so this isn’t that much of a change.”

By hosting his show virtually, Michael is also able to further diversify his models, both in terms of locations and health conditions.

“Virtually makes it easier to incorporate patients from around the world and patients who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate because of their condition,” he says.

You can join Michael and the CreakyJoints family for the Tumbler and Tipsy by Michael Kuluva 2022 Collection event, airing on Tuesday, September 14, 20201 at 8 p.m. ET via YouTube.

Prior to the show, at 7 p.m. ET, CreakyJoints will be co-hosting a #CreakyChats on Twitter with the Canadian Arthritis Patient Alliance and CreakyJoints Australia. During the chat, members can connect with Michael to discuss his work and ways to amplify chronic illness representation and voices. To participate in the live #CreakyChats, follow CreakyJoints on Twitter.

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