CHICAGO — Sky Cubacub pokes their armored head out of the door and into the January sun.
The Rebirth Garments designer’s atelier is, unlike its resident artist, austere from the outside, golden brick, low fence, a few entrances on a quiet corner of Chicago’s North Side. The studio’s most important demarcating feature—a ramp for accessibility—is obscured by the snow. Cubacub is in the doorway at the top of the ramp, their head covered in chainmail best described as Mardi Gras chic, all pinks, purples, greens and golds, waving me inside.
The interior is much more indicative of the artist, and is, indeed, an artist’s house (they never look the same, but almost all look alike). In the living spaces shelves groan with books while seemingly every space must possess an objet, so that it feels like walking through a sawgrass stand of splendid stuff. Even the bathroom evokes creativity, with a sink the purple of Tina Brown first pages.
Cubacub identifies as a GQPOC, a gender queer person of color, and uses they/them pronouns. Cubacub’s studio is in their family home, and their family’s creative life shares the space. Abstract paintings by Cubacub’s father line the walls, while an entire mirrored wall reflects their mother’s dance career. Inside this creative nexus is the studio itself, where interns take to paper patterns and textiles in buzzing fuchsia or hot pink on black print with scissors and bladed devices like lithe, voguish pizza cutters. The white thread trees of sergers, usually the thrumming heart of Cubacub’s practice, sit quiet. And in the glorious visual cacophony of the atelier, nothing is louder or more vibrant than Cubacub themself.
Start with the headpiece, a chainmail armor of the type Cubacub’s been making since forever. A historian would call it scale armor, but it really resembles a prismatic pangolin, a rainbow-flanked fish on a Hawaiian reef, or something only the most fabulously peacocking warrior of glamorous antiquity would wear. A black and white windowpane racerback is covered by a billowy top in sheer purple and aqua with sleeves of chartreuse and magenta. Cubacub’s tights contain a modern art wing’s worth of colors and patterns: pop! rainbow zebra, attacked-by-a-hole punch hot pink, black and white checkerboard, awning stripe, patches of geometric color madness, and squiggles, shapes and sharp edges that can only be described as Saved by the Bell! chic. Everything looks as bright as it does comfortable, not merely because it’s made from stretchy, forgiving material—a melange from the aptly named Spandex World—but because they are Cubacub’s chosen fabrics, colors, cuts and fits, perfectly bespoke for both cognitive and corporeal comfort.
Clothing items such as binders are rendered medicinal, available in exciting shades like black or “nude,” while those with physical disabilities find few options made for them at all.
Under the label Rebirth Garments, Cubacub designs for people marginalized and forgotten—in both the fashion world and society at large. Their clients are people with disabilities, queer people, gender non-conforming people and transgender people, and Cubacub’s vision for them is to be as visible, comfortable and confident as the designer is now.
It’s a vision that will be on display in the exhibition Omega Workshop at Manhattan’s EFA Project space, a sort of counter-fashion week that coincides with the run of New York Fashion Week 2018. On February 8, Cubacub will be on a panel titled Fashion and Democracy, discussing the connection between fashion and social hierarchy.
What makes Rebirth Garments unique—aside from Cubacub’s psychedelic chorale aesthetic—is its focus on marginalized customers, particularly those with disabilities and those who are queer, an intersection Rebirth refers to as “QueerCrip.” Coined by Carrie Sandhal, this umbrella term encompasses queer and transgender people, gender non-conforming identities, as well as the entire, vast spectrum of disabilities, both visible and non.
Many members of this community require specialized clothing, and have their bodies and identities roundly ignored by the fashion establishment. When they are catered to, it is with the barest of style sensibilities. Clothing items such as binders, used for chest binding, are rendered medicinal, available from medical supply stores in exciting shades like black or “nude,” while those with physical disabilities find few options made for them at all. What is available often resembles scrubs, as Cubacub puts it.
“It’s only the function,” Cubacub says. “They don’t pay attention to the form. But that I think is really telling of how we value people. It’s like, ‘Oh, you only deserve to have something that’s serving your base needs … Whereas my clothing is all about celebrating. One of the needs that I feel like should be met are the needs to feel good and confident and sexy in your clothing.”
Every garment Rebirth makes is sewn by hand, using detailed measurements that are especially important in the case of clients with muscular dystrophy or other physical disabilities. The battery of numbers—bust, underbust, overbust, waist, hips, butt, thigh, calf, ankle, armhole, bicep, forearm, wrist, arm length, shoulder to shoulder, shoulder to shoulder back, neck to underbust, neck to waist, neck to crotch, inseam, knee to ankle, neck, head, and others—are combined with the client’s description of the article of clothing (e.g., sexy skirt or brightly colored binder) and often a consultation, sometimes in person at the atelier (hence the ramp) or at a client’s home. Then the design process begins.
Cubacub never sketches, preferring instead to manifest their creations completely in the jewelry box of their mind. From there, paper patterns are made (due to the idiosyncratic nature of the clothes, there are legion of these sandy-colored patterns, and they dot the studio like porgs) and the garment is assembled, almost always out of stretchy fabric and very often in a riot color.
The stretchy materials are a Rebirth trademark, important for comfort as well as their wider array of patterns and prints. They are also a touch more difficult to work with, which explains the multiple sergers. These machines lay loops of thread under and over the stitch, allowing them to stretch along the seams. A simple needle and thread may split.
“You can make it do a lot of different things,” Cubacub’s collaborator Compton Quashie says. “Unlike non-stretch materials, it’s more accommodating to varying bodies.” The materials are also as hypoallergenic as possible, as both Quashie and Cubacub have some textile allergies.
Cubacub’s desire for comfort comes from a genuine place. In addition to battling panic and anxiety disorders their entire life, Cubacub developed a debilitating stomach issue in their early 20s. While the actual culprit has not been identified—Cubacub believes that a nasty bout of food poisoning, combined with a stressful period of their life, led to their stomach flora being razed—the end result is near constant pain. The worst of it occurs in the morning, which Cubacub has taken to sleeping through, leading to a second shift kind of schedule; the rest is managed by soft, stretchy garments, like those Rebirth makes, which don’t form a tight, painful band across the stomach.
Binders are Rebirth’s “bread and butter,” as Quashie puts it. The customized measurements, client input and broad range of colors and patterns available in Rebirth’s binders turn what can feel like a medical device into a piece of purposeful fashion. Furthermore, their bespoke nature helps to prevent the very real health issues caused by ill-fitting, too-tight binders.
The materials and measurements allow Cubacub to ensure the functionality of the garments. An open mind, a desire to stop the desexualization of people with disabilities and a fearless love of loud address the form.
“I definitely went through a period of my life where I was like, ‘I’m going to wear all black, because then people won’t notice my body, and they’ll forget that I have a body,’” Carrie Kaufman says.
Kaufman, who utilizes a powered wheelchair, is a model for Cubacub and a client. The brilliant colors of Rebirth’s clothes represent more to Kaufman than a fashion choice; they’re a choice to be visible, to be seen, to be impossible to ignore.
“That didn’t actually work,” Kaufman says of her monochromatic wardrobe. “I remember the moment where I was like, ‘Fuck that. I want to wear bright colors, and it’s going to highlight my body and that’s the way it’s going to be.’”
A friend of Kaufman’s had posted on Facebook that Cubacub was looking for queer, disabled models for a show and Kaufman applied. Cubacub dressed her in powerful, fun and flirty designs, including a mermaid tail, which took advantage of Kaufman’s chair. (An ambulatory model cannot do justice to a mermaid tail, after all!)
“[M]y clothing is all about celebrating. One of the needs that I feel like should be met are the needs to feel good and confident and sexy in your clothing.”
“I felt really seen,” Kaufman says. “I felt really happy, I felt really comfortable in my skin. I felt sexy and understood.”
Consultation and collaboration eventually led to the creation of a piece which perfectly captures Rebirth Garment’s ethos: A skirt that appears completely typical while Kaufman is sitting in her chair, has a sheer back panel hidden from view. Singular, sexy, taking advantage of Kaufman’s chair, the piece conveys Cubacub’s mission to defray the desexualization of people with disabilities in cloth.
A quick Google search brings up articles, chat threads and numerous other writings on the desexualization of people with disabilities. The American Academy of Pediatrics, in their policy on contraception for adolescents, explicitly states that contraception for teens with disabilities or chronic illnesses is “often forgotten.” At best, the persistent notion that people with disabilities do not have sex or do not want to feel sexy serves to further isolate and dehumanize them. At worst, it can lead to increased rates of sexual assault and even more difficult and substantial barriers to disclosure and justice.
Cubacub’s clothing directly defies the notion of desexualization, or that certain articles of clothing—the undergarments transgender people may wear for example—are more medical devices than fashion choices.
It is a privileged attitude to consider oneself “above” fashion and a foolish one, as well; no look is a look, after all. But for someone effectively cut out of the fashion industry, the inability to display their own sensibilities can be particularly harmful.
“If you’re forced to only wear things that look terrible and don’t fit, it’s not fair,” Cubacub says. “It’s not OK.”
“I think it makes them feel less valued,” says Dr. Kelly Reddy-Best, assistant professor of apparel, merchandising and design at Iowa State University. “It goes back to representation. When the options aren’t available for a particular group or community, regardless of what the identity is … it can communicate to a group that, is your body able to be sexy, if it doesn’t fit into the dominant norm of what we think of as beauty ideals?”
Kaufman certainly felt less valued and viable as a romantic partner. She felt isolated in ways “practical, physical and logistical,” especially at parties or events centered around sexuality, sex or intimacy. But in one of Cubacub’s eye-catching designs or wearing the sexy secret skirt that would be scandalous without her chair, Kaufman feels seen.
“That’s what I love about radical visibility,” Kaufman says. “It’s about being very visible, very celebratory of our different bodies.”
According to Dr. Reddy-Best, Rebirth Garments is essentially unique in the fashion world, not only because of who their customer is, but how the clothing is made. While the line has an incredibly modern approach to color, cut and clientele, it takes an especially old one for manufacturing.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, almost all clothes were made by hand. With automation came fast, affordable fashion, opening up a world of possibility to many—perhaps most—of society, but ironically disenfranchising any group too small to be effectively capitalized on.
In this way, Cubacub—whose every garment is custom fitted—is actually a throwback to the past, to a time when most all clothes were handmade.
“It’s not easy, at all,” Reddy-Best says. “Sky could send their patterns to China and have them mass produced, but they’re not, because they’re going to design them here for folks and work with each customer and think about their individual needs. That’s really thinking about the nuances of identity that lots of people don’t think about.”
Acknowledging the price that custom clothing demands, Cubacub offers gender affirming garments to teens or people in need on a sliding scale.
“They just have to email me and we work something out,” Cubacub said via text message.
That response exemplifies the mission that drives Cubacub and Rebirth: meeting the individual needs of individual people, especially those that fashion—and society—has forgotten.
“It’s all about being very in-your-face,” Cubacub says, practically vibrating with with electric energy. “And not being able to be made invisible or ignored.”
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