by Aiden Kent
One warm May evening, Cubacub, who uses gender neutral pronouns they/them, invited more than 30 artists and friends to their small studio space in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood.
Outside, a rusted chain link fence glimmered as the spring sun set. A tarnished ramp led up to Cubacub’s front step. An old wooden door was cracked open just enough. Inside, dim lights threw romantic shadows onto furrowed brows and wondering faces.
Cubacub had been having extreme daily panic attacks. With faint hope, they lay down on the concrete studio floor and shut their eyes.
Thousands of linked small steel rings piled onto them like snakes, slithering icey and slow down their body. Their metallic grave encircling them, Cubacub’s chain-mailed body was scooped from the concrete and carried through the curious audience.
Cubacub’s former self had died.
In the next room, a new Cubacub slipped into a shimmering silver unitard. They crawled under a large, warm, pink knitted dress and into the arms of the person who had removed them, ready to re-enter the performance. Chanting filled the room, a slow and steady build which became a thunder. From between knees spread wide, Cubacub inched out.
The rain began. Thousands of loose metal jump rings baptized Cubacub as they emerged. Under the falling rings, they removed the silvery film around them to reveal a bright jumpsuit. They had been reborn, and a fashion empire had been conceived.
“I wasn’t sure if I would feel different. But then I didn’t have a panic attack for six months,” Cubacub said.
The event is the namesake of Cubacub’s line of inclusive clothing for all gender expressions and body types, Rebirth Garments. Cubacub handcrafts each neon spandex piece with the help of their friend, Compton Quashie, who also uses gender neutral pronouns.
All Rebirth garments are made in Cubacub’s corner studio. Inside, an electric blue wall is lined with psychedelic paintings by Cubacub’s father. A wall of mirrors, courtesy of their mother, a professional dancer, form a junction hinged by a clothing rack of mingling bright fabrics. Tucked into this corner, Quashie is camouflaged in a neon jumpsuit. They build a particular puzzle of angular stripes. The sewing machine whirs loudly.
“I grew up among artists, and I was really interested in my body and adornment,” Cubacub said, their chainmail gloves jingling with each gesture. Cubacub began chain-mailing when they were 13 years old.
Every ring of Cubacub’s metal work is open and closed by hand. A short series of interconnecting loops takes half an hour to make. More complicated chainmail pieces have taken hundreds of hours to construct.
“I’ve met big macho chain-mailer guys in Wisconsin and Michigan. They dismiss me right away for my size, even if I’m wearing my chainmail,” Cubacub said. They are stout with cropped black hair and glittering eyes. They sit with their back to Quashie, their arms hugging their knees.
“Then, they’ll really see my work and say, ‘Oh, I just ate my feet completely’,” Cubacub said.
Blatant disregard is not new for Cubacub. Recently, they gave a talk at the University of Utah. The faculty were shocked to learn Cubacub was 24.
“They dismissed me, treated me like a child. Then I showed them my work. They were completely confused and blown away,” they said.
Now Cubacub is 25 and graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a degree in fiber and materials studies. They have made it their mission to produce vibrant gender reaffirming clothing and accessories, “like (chest) binders or (crotch) packers,” they said.
“I have been dreaming about making gender reaffirming lingerie since I was in high school. What I could find was black, white, peach. I thought, this isn’t my skin color, and it looks like medical equipment,” they said.
So they set out to stand out. Over the last ten years, Cubacub has produced hundreds of garments featuring their signature look: neon, spandex and unapologetic.
“I really like not passing (as a specific gender). I didn’t want to hide. I just wanted to wear a sculpture in my pants,” Cubacub said.
THE MISSING LINK
Cubacub draws inspiration from all around.
“I didn’t realize how obsessed with the same colors as my dad I am until recently,” they said. Among other inspirations: Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes and the performance and presence of the late performance artist and designer Leigh Bowery.
“I spoke to them through a psychic who said Lee makes clothes through me,” Cubacub said, smiling.
While many designers scorn the equality of color and geometry, Cubacub is a master of unity.
“Color is seen as feminine, emotional, and foreign. Lines are masculine, logical, and right. I want them to work in harmony,” Cubacub said. Similarly, they see their craft as a tool for connection.
“My work is armor, but it’s also what draws people to me,” Cubacub said. “I also like to think of the rings as being queer and polyamorous and intersex. They work together like a community, they penetrate and are being penetrated, and there are so many of them.”
RADICAL SELF LOVE
Self care in the form of walks, mini epsom salt baths in a plastic storage bin, and daily garlic intake (“Garlic is anti-everything,”) help keep Cubacub above water amid a busy schedule. Though they don’t have much free time, Cubacub makes room to love themselves in a discriminatory world.
One morning, Cubacub and Quashie wandered into a sewing machine shop to check out some new tools. The saleswoman, with a kind smile, asked Cubacub and Quashie about their work. When they told her they were using stretch fabrics, the woman sneered:
“Spandex is great, but you can’t put a big person in that.”
Cubacub rolled their eyes. Quashie followed with an exasperated sigh.
“I hope people will be more accepting of fat folks because of our work,” Cubacub said as they stood up to grab a few garments from across the room.
“That’s the most disturbing part of getting so much publicity. People making fun of my models. We’re all people, and we need to remember that,” Cubacub said, fiddling with the elastic string a small party hat.
As they replaced it onto a mannequin wearing a chainmail vest, which was custom-made for Cubacub’s mother, the words “Happy Rebirthday!” were visible in bright red lettering.