Fashion models standing in a room with cloth masks
Photo credit: George Pimentel/Getty Images

Four years ago, Michael Kuluva, a former professional figure skater who created and runs the fashion sportswear brand Tumbler & Tipsy, did something monumental with his New York Fashion Week debut. He used it as a platform to announce he’d been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune condition that causes debilitating joint pain and stiffness, fatigue, and other symptoms.

Michael started openly talking about what it meant to be a young professional living with a chronic illness and has become a staple in the patient advocacy community ever since.

Fast-forward to early spring of 2020, when Michael would normally have been in the thick of planning his upcoming Spring/Summer 2021 collection to be presented at New York Fashion Week. But as we all know, there was nothing normal about the early spring of 2020, as the novel coronavirus began to spread around the globe and dramatically alter life as we knew it.

In April, COVID-19 was ravaging New York City, and Michael and his team had to make a decision about what to do with planning and presenting the latest collection. At the same time, as someone living with underlying health issues, he was also concerned about his safety.

But Michael knew that doing nothing was not an option.

‘The Newest Normal’

Michael thought back to his earliest days as a rookie fashion designer, when he would present his latest designs in short YouTube videos more than a decade ago.

He decided to expand on that idea by creating a small, COVID-conscious fashion show in his home in Barrie, a suburb of Toronto in Canada, taping it, and presenting it with CreakyJoints in a worldwide virtual event.

You can watch along with us in a Zoom launch party, co-hosted by the Canadian Arthritis Patient Alliance (CAPA), on September 16, 2020 at 7:30 PM. Learn more and register here.

“Everyone keeps saying ‘this is the new normal’ and so I wanted our collection to be the newest normal,” Michael says.

This year’s clothing collection reflects how the pandemic has changed our lifestyles, especially for people with chronic illnesses who are trying to stay home as much as possible. “I would say around 80 percent or more is very comfortable leisure. I don’t think a lot of people are going to be attending many events for a while, and comfy clothing for lounging around in and working from home in is key.”

Of course, the collection also features Tumbler & Tipsy cloth face masks, which are instrumental in helping to stop the spread of COVID along with social distancing and hygiene measures.

Making Invisible Illness More Visible

“The Newest Normal” video is not just a fashion event, however. Working with a fellow local patient advocate from CAPA, Emily Sirotich, the video tells the story of how patients with chronic illness are coping with painsomnia and loneliness during the pandemic — and demonstrates the importance of finding community for support and sustenance.

“Attending this virtual event can help people forget about their pain and their daily normal for 10 minutes, which is so important right now,” says Michael. “People have been sitting home all day long, for months on end. It’s not necessarily easy or safe for people to get out.”

He hopes that “The Newest Normal” (and the accompanying Zoom Watch Party) help to provide that escape for his fellow members of the arthritis and chronic illness patient community.

A special highlight of the collection shines a spotlight on this community: sweatshirts and sweatpants hand-painted (by Michael) with glow-in-the-dark ink that’s meant to show all the joints and places affected by arthritis.

“At night, you’ll light up like a Christmas tree, but during the day, the design is more subtle, which is just like these inflammatory diseases,” says Michael. “We’re making invisible illnesses more visible. And now that you know it’s there, you can see it.”

Navigating Rheumatoid Arthritis Through the Pandemic

Michael usually has a small team that helps him create and manufacture the collection on display during the show, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing, this year, he produced everything by himself, which he estimates at more than 80 pieces. He made all the silkscreens himself and hand-painted every single item.

“Each garment is literally one of a kind,” says Michael, who adds that any clothing purchased from this year’s collection will come with a certificate of authenticity and will also be hand-signed by him.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Michael had an RA flare up over the summer — “probably because I was working so much,” he laments — but he says he was able to get it under control fairly quickly.

On the other hand, he credits his work and keeping a strict schedule for helping him “stay sane during lockdown.”

Another pandemic lifeline was the new addition to Michael’s family, who is prominently featured all over the new collection: a French bulldog puppy named Gus. Though Gus is technically not a quarantine dog — since Michael got him a week before everything began to shut down — having a new furry friend to care for helped keep Michael’s spirits up and fend off loneliness throughout the pandemic.

And while having an underlying condition during COVID is an ongoing concern, Michael actually think his rheumatoid arthritis helped prepare him better for coping with the pandemic.

“I’m used to using hand sanitizer all the time, I’m used to wearing a mask — it’s more that other people now have to get used to this lifestyle,” he says. “In our own community, we’ve already kind of been in a lockdown already just because of having these diseases.”

The Power of the Arthritis Community

“This year, we have been communicating so much more on social media on a daily basis than we ever have, and that connection has brought in so many more people to our community,” says Michael. “I feel like there’s been a new sense of family among us.”

Please join Michael and the CreakyJoints family for “The Newest Normal” premier this Wednesday September 16, 2020 at 8 PM ET. You can watch along with us in a Zoom launch party, co-hosted by the Canadian Arthritis Patient Alliance (CAPA), starting at 7:30 PM. Learn more and register here.

“I really want people to have a smile on their face. I want everyone to put their feet up, relax, enjoy the show, and forget about everyday life for a few minutes,” says Michael. “After all, how often do you get to see a runway show from the comfort of your own home? It’s awesome.”

Visit tumblerandtipsy.net for more about Michael’s story and to shop for items from his collections.