Activist And Designer Sky Cubacub Says ‘Every Day Is A Performance’
The business of self-expression.
Fashion. Few words conjure felicity and fear in equal parts. Like its two-syllabled brethren “anal,” you’re either into it or you’re not. It’s divisive.
Some believe fashion to be the height of self-expression — the clothing you don serves as a physical homage to your inner workings and ideals (politically, sexually, or otherwise) — while others believe that sartorial concerns are shallow, constrictive, pretentious, and tiresome.
Rebirth Garments — designed by Sky Cubacub — exists in a kind of technicolor hintersphere; her bespoke garments both embrace and defy the world of fashion. Using iridescent plastics, intricate chainmaille, nipple cut-outs, and ‘80s-pop geometric spandex all wrapped up in a rainbow-ed grin of “I fuck with gender,” the line is nothing short of a movement.
A Queercrip Dress Reform Movement, to be exact.
Cubacub just successfully raised $27,884 with 445 backers on Kickstarter, but her clothing line is but one manifestation of her art and activism, which includes sculpture, makeup, performance, and a pending Radical Visibility ‘zine dedicated to teens. Her designs are undeniable, and by that I mean you cannot dispute them. They’re confrontational and they demand to be seen, to be interacted with. They make the wearer bigger, louder, braver; it’s aesthetic alchemy. Rebirth Garments are for every body, regardless of size, ability, or gender, arming marginalized communities — especially the disabled — with clothes that celebrate human variation, instead of what has been “made simple for the machine to produce.”
Cubacub herself is a sprawling panoply of identities that inform her design and the way she navigates the world around her. Half Filipina and half white, Cubacub is also genderqueer, polyamorous, highly allergic to all kinds of things, anxious, and depressed. Her obsession with creating chainmaille started at 13 as a means to mitigate said anxiety; she considers it a “prosthetic for the communication of my inner world. My body, my identity, and my prosthesis are one cohesive being.”
Rebirth’s manifesto (lengthy but brilliant, read it!) discusses the nature of “The Stare,” detailing the myriad ways that bodies, eyes, judgement, and perception interact. If your body isn’t “normal,” people feel inclined — righteous even — to stare at it. As an “anomaly,” you are supposed to take up less space, to demand less attention. Cubacub’s lascivious, psychedelic designs turn that Stare — that desire to consume while shaming — right on its damn head.
Rebirth invites attention, but doesn’t need your acceptance. It repossesses The Stare, and puts the power of the ogle squarely in the hands of those wearing it.
“I love playing on people’s perceptions of me, always trying to break the schema. It is my ongoing social experiment . . . Everyday is a performance where I bring my body as a kinetic sculpture into the consciousness of the people I interact with in passing and on a daily basis. I get stared at or stopped on the street everyday. Because of being a stareable person through the way I present myself, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s Staring: How We Look helped me solidify my thoughts on the power and meaning of these stares I get . . .
What is most interesting to me is that people are always touching my chainmaille headpieces. I am not being complicit to this system, I am actually trying to subvert it through building community with strangers. I am always thinking of strangers as potential friends, instead of potential dangers, so I don’t lose sight of their humanity like many people do.”
The Establishment caught up with the effervescent Cubacub to talk about society, spandex, stigma, and anti-fashion.
Katie: Sky, what was the catalyst behind creating Rebirth Garments? How can a physical garment help alleviate stigma or shift a social narrative?
Sky: There have been a lot of different catalysts to Rebirth Garments. I first dreamed of this collection when I was in high school and couldn’t find a place where I could buy a binder or other gender affirming garments as a person who was under 18. I had been doing chainmaille since I was 13 and the repetitive patterns really clicked with me and calmed my anxiety. That was the basis for everything that came after and everything I wanted to create.
During my last year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) I started writing a “Queercrip Dress Reform Movement Manifesto” that became the basis for the whole line. I read a ton of books that year and was so thrilled to see that other people were thinking the same things I was, and had already written them down in a way more academic way! I spent a lot of time researching queer and disability activists and I really love the writing of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Alison Kafer, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Kate Bornstein, and Audre Lorde.
The way you look and the way you present yourself can have a huge impact both on your personal feeling and on society as a whole. It changes how you present yourself and how you relate to the world — it’s very personal, but also very radical. That’s the concept of Radical Visibility: standing out and highlighting the things that society usually shuns. It’s a refusal to assimilate and it is very empowering.
Katie: On your Rebirth page you’ve crafted a manifesto that goes to great lengths to discuss your own disabilities — both invisible and visible — as well as your identities. Why is this imperative to the project or your own experience? Do you believe sharing stories has the power to change society?
Sky: I feel like it is important for me to share my identities so that you all know my reference point, my context that I live in, and therefore you might understand the obstacles that I have had to come from and/or my privileges. It also shows that I am a person who is personally having some of these problems with mainstream fashion not satisfying my gender expression or emotional body.
I am a person who is making things for the communities I belong to. I wear the clothing I make, and I see how it personally affects my mood. I do think that sharing stories has the power to change society. The words we put out into the world and our intentions shape the world we live in. I was very fortunate that the high school I went to (Northside College Prep) had art teachers who listened to the ideas I had and encouraged me to do more, and that gave me the feeling that I alone could change the world.
I then had the discouraging college teachers who just kept saying “this is how things are,” “this is just how you have to do things in order to be in the fashion industry.” I’m so thankful that I had the idea I could change the world implanted in my head first; it made it easier for me to stand up for the things I believe. Now I want to be that beacon to other people, and be that motivation that tells them that they can make their own way in the world. Things don’t have to be a certain way, and everyone, even people who are very young, have valuable ideas that are worth sharing.
Katie: In your manifesto you also talk a lot about the disabled body or “being” as a “stareable” entity — you address the many ways in which individuals address this phenomenon of being consumed by the public eye. They shirk from it, they confront it, they confound expectations, etc. Can you talk a little more about that exchange?
Sky: I had always been really interested in playing with the stares I get on the street, in stores, and on the train. The first disability studies book I read was Staring: How We Look by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. I was so drawn to the title and the concept of the book, I had this whole stack of disability studies books, but this one just called out for me! Being stared at was an experience I was used to, because I have always been radically visible in some way.
When I was younger I had very very long hair that went below my butt, and other kids would try to cut it. I guess it was disturbing to them, because it was different, and they wanted to normalize me. In early high school I started wearing makeup that looked like a face tattoo, which I still wear today. When I first started dressing the way I do, I had a lot of people being upset by my presentation, but I also had creepy guys coming up to me and trying to hit on me. The jewelry, the clothes, and the makeup became my armor or war-paint. When I started wearing my headpieces, people then always wanted to touch me, which used to bother me at first, and I don’t recommend people just going up and touching anyone without their permission.
But I get a lot of positive feedback from it too. People in different places react in different ways. Lots of people are interested in the chainmaille and ask questions about it. I am naturally very shy, but having this interesting look can act as a conversation starter and help bring me out of my shell.
I started chainmailling when I was 13 years old. I was drawn to the texture and the kinetics of it. I was really fast and good at it starting off, and the repetitive movements calmed my anxiety because it kept my hands going and producing. This is and always will have been my first love.
Chainmaille is an interesting material because it is strong and metal like armor, but also malleable and fluid. It’s cold when you first put it on but it warms up when it is in contact with your skin. It has a weight and a presence to it; when you wear it, it kind of feels like it’s hugging you and wrapping around you. It’s a combination of powerful feelings and conforming feelings, which is what I need to navigate the world.
Katie: You quite beautifully articulate why QueerCrip fashion is “anti-fashionable,” as the origins of being fashionable are highly problematic, since fashion is predicated on being molded to certain standards in order to be valuable, desirable, or in vogue . . . so how do you design clothing in shape, texture, and color-scheme to confront this notion?
Sky: In my manifesto I talk a lot about the power of color. Bright and neon colors have long been associated with Queer communities and movements. Color is bold, it stands out, it makes a statement. A lot of undergarments, packers, and prosthetics come in “skin” colors which are usually only geared toward white people. Breaking out of these expectations with bright and exciting colors and patterns not found in nature is much more freeing.
Radical Visibility is about standing out, but in a defiant way. It’s an aesthetic rooted in the commitment to being bold and brash and not giving thought to if you are making others uncomfortable. That being said, I always want people who wear Rebirth Garments to feel affirmed in what they are wearing, and everyone has their own unique sense of style. That’s why it’s important to me that all of the pieces be custom, so people can present themselves in the world in a way that feels empowering to them personally. It rejects notions of beauty that are very sizeist, ableist, and racist. It rejects “beauty” all together as an important or desirable trait.
Katie: Lastly, you quote Toni Morrison: “What intellectual feats had to be performed by the author or his critic to erase me from a society seething with my presence, and what effect has that performance had on the work?’ What are the strategies of escape from knowledge? Of willful oblivion?”
Sky: From my experiences of working with other fashion designers and attending the School of the Art Institute with the intention of going into the fashion department, the industry seems to be brainwashing and assimilationist. Ideas that benefit thin, beautiful, abled-bodied white people are being perpetuated by teachers, by industry members, and by Fashion Week itself.
There are countless examples in popular culture: The choice to have a white actor in blackface portray a black person, the choice to have trans people portrayed by cis actors, or, as was done in the movie Stonewall, a POC trans woman completely whitewashed and exchanged for a gay white cis man. Recently, Vogue Brazil did a photoshoot during the Paralympics, of models with photoshopped amputated limbs and prosthetics.
Micro-aggressions add up. And even though fashion, TV, and film don’t seem like they are important, they are being streamed into people’s heads at every second of every day. They can change people’s perceptions, and shape their worldview. Queercrips are in the world doing amazing things but there is not enough record of it in mainstream society. I am recording and publishing these movements as much as I can and sharing them online. Creating this record of my ideas and the stories of the people I work with solidifies them and makes it so they can’t be denied or erased.
Stick to your beliefs. People will respect you for it.