Artist aims for radical visibility with new clothing line for queer people with disabilities


By Rebekah Frumkin

Sky Cubacub, who uses the personal pronoun “they,” runs excitedly around this Lakeview studio, retrieving various chainmaille garments in the process. The bounty includes a chainmaille vest, a halter dress and bands of “metamaille,” or chainmaille that has itself been woven into a chainmaille pattern.

“I’m super drawn to chainmaille because of its texture, and the way it moves,” Cubacub says, smiling. “It’s like: kinetics!”

Cubacub, whose gender does not conform to the male-female binary, is a genderqueer garment-maker and performance artist whose sculptural chainmaille garments are an integral part of a new clothing collection, Rebirth Garments. But chainmaille isn’t the only thing that makes Rebirth unique: the clothing is designed specifically for people who are queer and/or transgender and have disabilities, a demographic Cubacub refers to as “queercrip.”

“ ‘Crip’ is the politicized, umbrella term for people with disabilities, inclusive of people with all kinds of disabilities and disorders …physical, developmental, emotional, psychological,” Cubacub says. “I like using ‘queer’ and ‘crip’ together because that’s what describes my line the best.”

“Instead of being centered on cisgender, heterosexual, white, thin people, my line is centered on queercrip people.” – Sky Cubacub

Cubacub designs garments with individual wearers in mind, calling upon queercrip clients to describe aspects of their bodies that make them feel confident or vulnerable and then tailoring looks accordingly.

Carrie Kaufman is a friend and model of Cubacub’s who has collaborated with the designer on a number of garments for people with disabilities. Kaufman, who uses a wheelchair, is excited by the prospect of adaptive clothing that is also creative and attractive. Her favorite piece is a pink lace miniskirt designed to look like a mermaid’s tail.

“The tail goes over both my legs and attaches with garter clips to an amazing hip-hugging miniskirt of shiny underwater colors,” Kaufman says. “So it’s a brilliant and sexy design, plus a subversive and radical way to take advantage of the fact that my legs don’t move, and that they actually look best in a mermaid type of pose.”

Rebirth pieces for trans people include binders designed to flatten the chest and “packers” that mimic a phallic shape. Pieces for people with disabilities include catheter covers and drool cloths for those whose motor function impedes swallowing saliva. All pieces burst with Rebirth’s signature blend of bold lines and electric color. Some pieces – a multicolored stocking for an artificial leg, a chain that rattles against a foot cast – draw attention to the wearer’s disability, a type of hyperintentional design Cubacub calls “radical visibility.”

Even on a casual day, Cubacub is a walking example of radical visibility. Small and slight, Cubacub wears a colorful Rebirth unitard beneath a purple hoodie. Cubacub mentions the unitard is made of Spandex, a favored material for its elastic ability to accommodate wearers of all sizes. On Cubacub’s right hand is a half-glove of “scalemaille,” a chainmaille pattern featuring woven beads shaped like lizard’s scales. Beneath the right eye is a geometric design – makeup, not a tattoo. The look’s pièce de résistance is a headpiece of scalemaille that gives the impression of a futuristic swimming cap.

Cubacub, who has been diagnosed with anxiety and panic disorder, says the headpiece functions as a form of armor. Typically anxious and shy in social situations, Cubacub feels confident wearing the conversation-starting scalemaille. The garment has the added benefit of confusing and deterring likely harassers.

“All my clothing is supposed to be emotional armor,” Cubacub says. “Kind of inviting but also saying, ‘I’m bold enough to be wearing this, so you can stay away.’ Like brightly colored, poisonous frogs or beetles.”

Cubacub models a cape-in-progress. (Rebekah Frumkin/MEDILL)

The child of a video artist and dancer/ornament-maker, Cubacub is no stranger to the creative life. Cubacub’s mother brought her 2-month-old to her art shows, and Cubacub was selling wares by age 10. By 13, those creations included chainmaille jewelry.

“Sky was able to visualize difficult weaves right away,” says Rebeca Mojica, who first taught Cubacub how to weave chainmaille. “In the 18 years I’ve taught the dragon scale weave – and I’ve taught it to somewhere between 60 and 100 people – I’ve only had one person finish the bracelet, and that was Sky.”

Cubacub attended Northside College Preparatory High School, winning a full scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on the basis of a garment collection called Repetitive Motion. Northside faculty recall a dedicated and unusually gifted student.

“Sky was a very unique high school kid,” says art department chair Joanne Minyo. “They had a clear vision of what they wanted to do from a really early age, and they were driven to a ridiculous degree.”

Minyo remembers Cubacub wrestling with a drill in the process of making a chainmaille outfit for Repetitive Motion. Eager to finish the outfit before the showcase, Cubacub accidentally increased the speed of the drill, resulting in the loss of a thumbnail.

“The crazy thing was Sky was angry but was not upset about the pain,” Minyo says. “They were more upset that this was going to put them off schedule for finishing all their outfits. But of course they got all their outfits done. Nothing stopped Sky.”

At SAIC, Cubacub met with ideological opposition: a fashion department that cherished thinness, had little interest in disability and frowned upon Cubacub’s practice of using friends as models.

“They’re constantly telling you, ‘This is how the fashion world is and you can’t change it,’ ” Cubacub says. “They’re just teaching us to assimilate. It’s all very ridiculous.”

Cubacub left the fashion department, choosing instead to take classes in fibers and performance art, where professors were less critical of queercrip design. Rebirth launched in November 2014, six months before Cubacub’s graduation from SAIC.

Unsurprisingly, Cubacub is not interested in showcasing the line in traditional fashion shows, choosing instead to organize “performances” where models of all races, genders, sizes and abilities dance in Rebirth clothing. Performances are typically held in spaces designated for queer dialogue and empowerment.

“They’re constantly telling you, ‘This is how the fashion world is and you can’t change it.’ It’s all very ridiculous.” – Sky Cubacub

The world beyond Chicago has begun to take notice of Rebirth. New York-based trans South Asian performance art duo DarkMatter has showcased Cubacub’s garments, and Cubacub will be showing Rebirth pieces at largely queer venues in Mexico, Italy, Armenia and Germany this summer.

As if this isn’t enough, Cubacub has a number of Chicago-based projects lined up as well: making free chest binders for residents of the Broadway Youth Center, starting an online magazine for queercrip teens and designing Rebirth Warriors, a children’s version of the clothing line.

When asked about plans for Rebirth Garments, Cubacub doesn’t miss a beat:

“I’m planning on doing this collection for the rest of my life.”

Photo at top: Cubacub sews a chest binder for a client. (Rebekah Frumkin/MEDILL)