This Designer Is Using Fashion To Create Queer Crip Joy

“Typically in fashion, they make it all about the clothing,” says Sky Cubacub, a queer, disabled artist who believes the garment should be used to accentuate the individual, rather than the other way around. Cubacub has always used fashion as a way to feel seen. But as a young adult, they struggled to financially access clothing that both enabled them to explore their gender identity—like binders and packing underwear—and accommodated the physical demands of living with a stomach and anxiety disorder.

Determined to fill the void in adaptive, gender-affirming clothing, the artist pursued fashion at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but was soon disappointed to discover the department wasn’t inclusive of size, gender, race or ability. So in 2013, Cubacub decided to create an adaptive fashion company that goes beyond function to celebrate the intersection of all identities—Rebirth Garments: the first size-inclusive clothing line for disabled, queer and trans people.

While calls for greater inclusivity have prompted big fashion houses to consider the queer, crip community in their designs, people with disabilities and non-gender conforming identities continue to be absent from marketing campaigns and the product development process. There are a growing number of independent adaptive apparel brands catering to disabled, queer and trans folks, but many of them focus on function over fashion; few highlight the unique intersection of identities of the person wearing them.   

Rebirth Garments wants to fix this by championing radical visibility: a dress-reform movement that, rather than erase the individual, uses clothing as a means to make queer, disabled people visible. Instead of using clothing to conceal parts of the body—as adaptive clothing is so often designed to do—Cubacub’s functional designs accentuate the person wearing them by using bright colors, exuberant geometric patterns and reflective fabrics.

“Maybe some people don’t want to be seen, but maybe some people do,” says Cubacub. While not every disabled or gender nonconforming person may want to draw attention to their body, Cubacub believes the empowerment comes from having the choice, “Letting people have options is what is truly joyous and affirming,” they say. “Skinny, cis, heterosexual white folks—every brand is for them, they get all the options,” insists Cubacub. “Queer, trans, disabled, fat, people of color—we need to have as many options as them.” Whether it’s offering stretchy fabrics, a wide variety of colors or optional pocket add-ons for gender-affirming prosthetics or insulin pumps—everything at Rebirth aims to provide the freedom of choice.   

Describing feeling “never enough of one thing” growing up mixed Filipino-white and genderqueer, Cubacub has always resisted the idea of being confined to categories. “Clothing has the ability to free you or box you in,” the artist tells Forbes. It’s for this reason Rebirth Garments has no sizing on their website. Instead, shoppers send in their measurements and have pieces custom designed for their needs—both functional and aesthetic. “Having something that’s super specifically designed for your body, for your desires, really makes people open up and feel cared for in a way they haven’t felt before,” Cubacub tells Forbes.

Recognizing that not everyone can afford custom-made apparel, Cubacub is committed to helping people facing financial barriers, even going so far as to give items away for free. From sending the product to a safe address if the person doesn’t feel comfortable having the gender-affirming apparel delivered to their family home to handing out free masks during the pandemic at Brave Space Alliance—a Black trans-led community organization on the South Side of Chicago—Cubacub goes out of their way to make Rebirth Garments financially accessible. 

The designer is also mindful of the physical accessibility challenges facing the queer, crip community. From infrastructural limitations, like entrance steps or unreachable clothing racks, to discrimination in the form of poor size selection and treatment from staff—shopping can be a disempowering experience for anyone who doesn’t fit into the ableist, straight-sized norm. It’s why the shift of retail to a predominantly direct-to-consumer, online model has been a welcome change, one that the founder thinks should remain after the pandemic.  

For Cubacub, the ability to work online has been what’s kept their business afloat over the past year and a half. A diagnosis of mononucleosis (commonly known as mono) in December 2019 has since turned into chronic fatigue syndrome, forcing Cubacub to rely on their employees to manage the physical logistics while they work from bed. “I’m the most tired I have ever been in my life over the past year,” the designers says. “I’m really not looking forward to things ‘going back to normal’ and I don’t understand why they have to because this is so much easier.”

Even before the pandemic, Cubacub has always preferred having an online store, for it enables them to reach more people. “People would always ask me when I planned to open a brick and mortar store as if that was the ultimate goal,” the designer laughs. “Why would I? Then I would only be able to sell to people in that space.”

Instead, Cubacub believes in-person gatherings related to the brand should be used as an opportunity for radical inclusion of the queer, crip community. Instead of the typical runway show, Rebirth Garments holds fashion performances featuring models of all different marginalized identities. The models dance in their outfits to demonstrate how the garments enable them to move freely and express themselves. Cubacub eliminates the traditional power hierarchy between the performers and the audience by eliminating the elevated stage and inviting everyone to dance with the models at the end of the performance.

The community-building that results from these hyper-inclusive shows is the driving force behind Rebirth Garments. While in another space, Cubacub says people of “all sizes, ages and skin colors” might not feel impelled to talk to others, here, the clothing acts as an icebreaker and source of connection. “That’s my favorite part—building this really strong community that’s more about the people than the clothes,” the designer says proudly.

Cubacub will never turn down a prospective model based on their identity—they’re adamant about not gatekeeping. “It’s a huge problem in disabled, trans and queer communities,” says Cubacub. “It makes people scared to come out.” The artist knows how it feels to be excluded from their own communities. “I felt super alone in my Filipino identity, even though I had so many Filipinos around me growing up,” says Cubacub, describing the historical erasure of both queer Filipinos and Filipino artists. “Being queer and an artist felt very alienating.” As a result, Cubacub prioritizes showcasing their Filipinx heritage, and has run three shows in collaboration with Filipino artists to date.

Whether it’s designing for their disability, embracing their queerness or highlighting their ethnic identity—it’s Cubacub’s personal experiences that motivate every aspect of Rebirth Garments. The genuine interest in making marginalized people feel seen is what sets them apart from the big brands, who Cubacub thinks are wasting their resources by not involving their target consumers in the design process. “When people think of adaptive clothing, they think of magnets,” says Cubacub. “But magnets are tricky, their poles will switch or they’ll be sown in wrong.” Cubacub stresses the importance of testing adaptive clothing on people with disabilities, something the designer says Tommy Hilfiger failed to do with their adaptive line. “Anything designed for a particular community should be designed by a person from that community,” Cubacub says.

“I try to reject the fashion industry as much as possible, I just want to do my own thing” says Cubacub. The entrepreneur thinks where large fashion houses can make a difference is by funding small, independent designers, because “we’re where it’s at,” says Cubacub. “We are changing the face of fashion, more than people think.”

And yet, it can be incredibly challenging for a small business going against the grain to survive. From death threats on YouTube to Instagram algorithms banning images of their adaptive clothing, Cubacub continuously comes up against discrimination online, and receives little support from the platforms on which they rely for advertising and staying connected to their clientele. “Instagram is never on the side of queer, trans, adaptive, POC or fat-positive brands,” Cubacub tells Forbes.

Still, the entrepreneur doesn’t let obstacles get in their way. “Anytime I see there’s a lack of something I’ll figure out a way to do it, even if I have no clue how,” Cubacub says. It’s no surprise then, that Cubacub has several projects on the go. Locally, the Chicago-based artist is developing a queer, crip curriculum for the Chicago Public Library’s Radical Fit teen fashion-making program. While on the other side of the globe in Hong Kong, the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textiles will be showcasing Cubacub’s designs in a pride fashion show at the Eaton HK this summer.

The entrepreneur is even branching into the CBD space with Radically Chill: a new line of tinctures “for queer chronically ill babes.” Containing 2000mg of CBD, Cubacub has intentionally priced each THC-free tincture at $65—a much lower price point than comparable products on the market. “We’re trying to make it more available to the queer crip community,” the founder says, “it’s the perfect crossover because so many of my clients love CBD.”

Constantly seeking ways to address the needs of people with disabilities, the artist also recently launched the COVID Vaccine Oral History Project. After suffering a severe allergic reaction to the Moderna vaccine that landed them in the hospital, Cubacub came up with the idea to create a resource where people can look up how the vaccine might affect their disability. “We’re collecting stories from other disabled folks about their reactions to the different vaccines so we can better prepare ourselves,” the founder says.

When asked what being “radically visible” means to the entrepreneur at this unique moment—one marked by exhaustion and loss after a year and a half of the pandemic—Cubacub responds, “taking care of my mental and physical health, and talking about that.” They find being open about their personal struggles makes others feel less alone too. It also helps dispel the myth that their success has come easy. “I’m always hustling, it’s just in my soul,” says Cubacub lightheartedly. “My goal is to fulfill every single need for queer crip joy in life.”

Some quotes have been edited for length and clarity.