In 2016, Los Angeles-based fashion designer Michael Kuluva did a remarkable thing at New York Fashion Week. He used the event as a platform to publicly share his journey as a patient living with rheumatoid arthritis, designing his clothing line to symbolically demonstrate the ways RA physically affects the body.

In the first show of its kind, Kuluva’s shirts and pants featured colorful “bursts” near the elbows and other joints; RA is an inflammatory autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the joints, causing swelling, stiffness, and loss of function.

Fast-forward to the third fashion show for Kuluva’s line Tumbler & Tipsy, held September 11, 2018 — and it’s clear Kuluva’s work as an inspirational advocate for what it means to live well with rheumatoid arthritis is still going strong and more impactful than ever.

The show for Kuluva’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection was groundbreaking for the RA community on a number of levels.

Creating Fashion-Forward Adaptive Clothing

For one thing, Kuluva’s collection was designed to be RA-friendly, as the simple act of getting dressed—think tying shoelaces, buttoning a blouse, or even hooking a bra — can be very challenging during flares of RA disease. (Here’s more info about how to make getting dressed with RA easier.)

In partnership with PAOM, a main focus of Kuluva’s collection was the inclusion of magnetic closures, which make getting dressed simpler.

However, you’d never know the line is considered assistive fashion from looking at Kuluva’s creative and high-energy clothes. The collections within his line are each effervescent in their own way: urban skylines and subway maps inspired by New York City; patriotism-infused prints; and fluorescent, vintage looks that invoke the eighties, with fluorescent and neon splatters of color and retro symbols and icons.

“Since opening up about myself having RA to the public, I have been more focused on helping others with arthritis in my designing,” says Kuluva. “Even though each collection has its own theme, they all have an underlying approach to helping the arthritis community. I have concentrated on collaborating with other brands that have the same like-minded approach to finding alternative solutions to everyday garments and accessories.”

Showcasing the Diversity of the Arthritis Community

What’s more, this year Kuluva invited model Charis Hill, who lives with a type of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis, to walk in his show. Hill is a patient advocate in the Global Healthy Living Foundation’s 50-State Network, where she advances the mission of expanding access to care for people living with chronic illness.

Ankylosing spondylitis can cause severe back pain, among other symptoms; many people with AS have limited mobility and can struggle with even getting out of bed, let along strutting a runway in the fiercest six-inch platform stilettos you can imagine.

“It was so wonderful to have models with arthritis walk my shows because it shows that even though you might have a debilitating disease that you can still live out your dreams,” says Kuluva. “I am living out my dream of being a fashion week designer and I feel others should be able to have that same platform for themselves. I love to show people that we can persevere and push through any obstacles in life to live out our passions.”

For her part, Hill (see three of her looks for the show below) says that all of Kuluva’s designs were very comfortable. Being in his show, she says, was an amazing way to be a powerful voice and advocate for the AS community.

“I would like to say to fellow patients to find a way to live, not just survive,” Hill says. “For me it has been my modeling and my writing. Find a passion, a new one or one you’ve had before and find a way to still do it with the limitations you have. Find something that feels good. Find a way to live with the body that you have.” Read more about how Hill lives with ankylosing spondylitis here.

A Powerful Partner in CreakyJoints

Kuluva, who was diagnosed with RA at age 28 while he was taking classes at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, is also an active member of CreakyJoints. The digital arthritis community and advocacy organization has been presenting his show for the past two years. (At left, Kuluva poses before presenting his 2019 collection with CreakyJoints’ co-founders Louis Tharp and Seth Ginsberg.)

“CreakyJoints is amazing at bringing awareness to the arthritis community from our shows,” says Kuluva. “I always feel that CJ always impacts the arthritis community with awareness each time we work together. By reaching so many people, we are able to break down stigmas and build up more understanding of arthritis to the public.”

Fashion is a perfect platform to raise awareness for the arthritis community, Kuluva says, because everyone wants to look good and feel good.

As for Kuluva’s advice for dressing well when you have arthritis: “I would say don’t be afraid of clothing, but be smart about what you are putting on.”

Kuluva says he dislikes clothing or accessories that are difficult to get on or get off. “I love clothing that has zippers or easy closures and that is comfortable,” he says. “Comfort is always my main focus, as life is too short to be wearing something uncomfortable.”

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