Fashion designer Michael Kuluva hasn’t let rheumatoid arthritis (RA) get in his way.
But he’s acknowledged a notable void in the fashion and beauty industries when it comes to adaptive options and more inclusive designs for people living with an illness or disability.
He isn’t alone.
There are online initiatives in the form of hashtags, blogs, Twitter chats, and Instagram accounts that explore the relationship between fashion and chronic illness. It can be a pain for people in pain to dress themselves.
It can also be difficult to find fashionable, stylish options that are also adaptive and functional for anyone with a disability or aching body.
A fashion dream altered
Kuluva is the founder of the label Tumbler and Tipsy, which he debuted at New York Fashion Week.
However, the former figure skater didn’t always dream of a career in fashion.
After he retired from his sport in his mid-20s, Kuluva realized that he had another interest and a talent that couldn’t be ignored.
He began working as an assistant for a designer despite having no formal training. He eventually secured a scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM).
During his time at FIDM, he found that he was performing well academically but couldn’t perform some basic tasks.
“I noticed I could not even draw a straight line, and I had other little setbacks. I had trouble cutting fabric and I began comparing myself to other students,” Kuluva told Healthline. “My joints just weren't doing what they should be. I had pain. Then, one day, walking from class to my car, my back suddenly gave out.”
Kuluva first thought he had a kidney stone. He saw a urologist who told him the issue wasn’t urological and suggested that Kuluva see a rheumatologist.
After visiting three doctors and waiting months to be seen at the Mayo Clinic, Kuluva was eventually diagnosed with RA. Through trial and error, he found a combination of medications that worked pretty well for controlling his condition.
“No medication is ever 100 percent, but my regimen is going well,” he said. “If I miss a few weeks of treatment, because of travel or fashion shows for example, then I can definitely feel that. I didn’t really have issues while figure skating. … I had some bursitis, but I don’t think it had anything to do with my RA. So, my decision to retire from skating was not related to my rheumatoid arthritis, but I’m glad I retired when I did.”
Bringing awareness to Fashion Week
After showing a collection that would eventually help to launch the career of model Kendall Jenner, Kuluva started to think about how he could use his art and his platform for good.
“There’s been a lot of proud moments — a lot of great moments that are unforgettable. Kendall Jenner helped to launch my career and vice versa,” he said. “This gave me kind of a voice in society. So my CreakyJoints collection was a pivotal moment where I got to express myself within my fashion.”
The collection is a collaboration with the arthritis-related nonprofit CreakyJoints, to promote RA awareness on the runway.
CreakyJoints has worked with celebrities like actress Megan Park to promote RA awareness, but this fashion collection came about rather organically.
“Real Housewife of New York Jill Zarin’s daughter was backstage in my dressing room, and we got to talking because she has a form of arthritis, too. It got me thinking, and after our conversation I figured I might contact CreakyJoints after that collection was done,” Kuluva recalled.
He said he just wanted to lend his voice to a cause and be an advocate for something.
“I like the nonprofit mindset of CreakyJoints, all for the patients. The president, Seth, has [spondyloarthritis], and so he really gets it,” Kuluva said. “So we all had lunch and brainstormed what we could do together. They pretty much left it up to me. I came up with putting starbursts on all the joints in my SS2017 show. The starbursts, while fashionable, represent the joint pain.”
Kuluva said the fashion industry still has a void to fill with adaptive and inclusive fashions for people who are sick or have disabilities. This is especially in terms of shoes and footwear.
Kuluva did acknowledge that some current trends of more comfortable and functional styles may be ideal for people with chronic pain.
As for his own work, he continues to dream big and strives to do more. Kuluva has a history of incorporating charity and social change in his work as a fashion designer.
“I was hoping to inspire change with the collection that I did. I hope that it opens eyes and spreads awareness,” Kuluva said.
In an interview for The Mighty, Kuluva explained his CreakyJoints collection by saying, “It really shows the joints affected by arthritis. It’s an explosion of colors on joints that would light up on tests for arthritis.”
Being diagnosed with RA at age 28 could have destroyed his career or his vision for the future. But it didn’t.
Kuluva advises other young people diagnosed with illnesses like RA to keep looking forward and not hiding their condition.
“As long as you're open and honest with your doctor and your family with what is going on with you and your health, you can get the help you need. An organization like CreakyJoints can help you understand that you may have restrictions, but you can still achieve great things,” he said.
Will fashion become more adaptive?
Kuluva is doing his part to spread awareness and other designers are, too.
Tommy Hilfiger has designed some adaptive clothing for children with special needs and physical disabilities.
Fashion bloggers have fought back against ableism in fashion shoots. (Like Kylie Jenner and Lady Gaga using gilded wheelchairs as “props.”)
Madeline Stewart has made headlines as a model with Down syndrome.
Beyoncé cast disability activist Jillian Mercado as a model in one of her advertising campaigns.
And many more brands are coming out with adaptive clothing that is fashionable and chic, yet still provides necessary comfort and functionality.
Still, many fashions don’t have stylish, easy-to-wear or adaptive alternatives, or inclusive runway shows or advertising campaigns.
The beauty industry also lacks variety when it comes to ergonomic and adaptive options for hairstyling tools and makeup brushes.
But designers like Kuluva think that these baby steps toward progress are working in favor of people with health problems or physical disabilities.
“I think the industry will get there,” he said.
For now, the Arthritis Foundation has a list of approved arthritis-friendly products with the “Ease of Use” seal of approval, to help people with arthritis dress themselves more easily. They also have suggested footwear brands and options.
Other websites, like the now-defunct Arthriving site from Aleve, have attempted to catalog the best products to help people with arthritis pain function better when it comes to daily activities like drying their hair, cooking, buttoning a blouse, fastening a bra, or tying their shoes.
While that site is gone, there are many blogs that offer tips for living well with chronic pain or limitations in terms of physical mobility and ability.