Raising Rheumatoid Arthritis Awareness through Fashion: A Profile of Michael Kuluva

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

Michael Kuluva wants to change the world, one sweatshirt at a time.

When Michael retired from professional figure skating to become a fashion designer, the 33-year-old never imagined combining his rheumatoid arthritis (RA) with his label Tumbler and Tipsy to raise awareness about the disease.

Creaky and Tipsy, his Spring/Summer runway collection for New York Fashion Week, is presented by CreakyJoints, the arthritis advocacy organization, on September 13, 2016. The new collection uses playful designs to illustrate the impact of RA and celebrate the goal of living successfully with the disease.

Q: How did you become a fashion designer?

Michael: My road was nonconventional. I was a pro figure skater for the United States for over 10 years. I just always had a passion for fashion and styling. When I decided that I wanted to retire from skating, I was accepted at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.

I was very lucky. I started a brand called Tumbler and Tipsy while I was in school and used all my school projects to boost my own label. By the time I was able to graduate, I was invited to show in New York Fashion Week.

It was a magical experience. Everything came together, and it was just an explosion of fun and fashion and celebrity. It was all so glamourous.

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Q: You were diagnosed with RA in 2011 and have kept it private until now. Why did you decide to be public about your RA?

Michael: My rheumatoid arthritis has been a secret because of the stigma, especially in the workplace. I didn’t know if my brand would succeed this long, so I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself into something that might have affected longer-term careers.

When I talk to people about it, they don’t really understand it. My peers and people that are younger than me don’t really know what rheumatoid arthritis is. It’s hard for people to understand that I don’t feel well or I have stabbing pain in my joints. It’s hard to explain to people when you just don’t look sick.

I came to CreakyJoints wanting to be able to come out and speak about my experience with RA, working through the pain every season secretly. And now finally being able to culminate with a collection that’s inspired by my arthritis. It’s really amazing.

Q: Tell us about your new collection, Creaky and Tipsy.

Michael: I’ve taken my entire collection and tried to inspire it with some sort of joint awareness. We have different bursts of color on joints, on the knees, on the hips, on the ankles, and we also did it on the sweatshirts, on the wrists, on the elbows, on the shoulders. When the outfit is fully worn together from head to toe, you see your whole body light up where you would if you had arthritis.

The pieces are vibrant and very colorful. They are very fashion forward and a lot of them can be worn to yoga and to play sports. They are made of Lycra and other soft materials. It’s a very wearable collection, and it’s something that’s going to feel good on you.

Gold medalist Dalilah Muhammah walking in Michael Kuluva's show
Gold medalist Dalilah Muhammah walking in Michael Kuluva's show. / WireImage Style360

Q: What do you hope to accomplish by being open about your RA?

Michael: I’d like to build awareness, and show that people with RA can still have a great career and do what they want to do. That they can be anything their heart desires.

That’s a lot of awareness that I want to have from this collection, and I think this is a very unique way of showing what we can do.

Q: What’s next for you?

Michael: I’m getting ready to teach this year at a fashion school, and I have a couple of television shows that are in the works (no release date yet).

WireImage Style360
Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, facebook.com/rahealthcentral. She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.