Cobalt Street is at the intersection of design, local production, and environmentalism.
Launched in August 2019, owner Nadya Nguyen envisioned Cobalt Street as a salve to the collateral damage of fast fashion. Rather than pumping out as many of a product she can as quickly as she can, Nguyen is focused on creating products that are made from materials that are high in quality, functional, minimalist in style, and manufactured by local sewing studios that provide healthy, responsible work environments for its employees.
Despite having no real experience in apparel design or product manufacturing, Nguyen held a lifelong dream of launching her own clothing line, eventually finding the opportunity to map out and test out her business concept.
“Fashion is something I’ve always been interested in, ever since I was little,” says Nguyen. “It was basically a childhood dream. In 2019, between my last job and launching the business, I had time to reflect on what I wanted to do and determine whether or not I could actually pursue the idea of Cobalt Street.”
After investing heavily in developing her design acumen, Nguyen found what she describes as her own perspective as a designer––essential for standing out among the competition.
Self-taught industry style
“I didn’t have a design background prior to Cobalt Street,” says Nguyen. “I taught myself how to sew, how to sketch, and how to create patterns. I’ve developed my point of view as a designer––almost like a personal style of sorts.
“I think for me, a lot of design is about finding my own point of view and developing the artistry in that. That’s something I’m very passionate about. The way I’d describe our style is it’s 80 percent sleek and tailored, usually black, and 20 percent street style statement pieces. I enjoy working on a black canvas for our staple pieces and for our statement pieces they have something that stands out, whether it’s color or the design. That usually comes from the street style.”
Nguyen designs every product herself. After finalizing the design of potential pieces, she takes the concept sample to one of her manufacturers––which varies depending on the piece, but is always a local sewing studio in Chicago––to dig into the specifics of bringing her ideas to life.
“When I started the business and was searching for local production options, I looked for anyone––whether it was a small studio or a larger company––that was manufacturing clothing in Chicago, and I met up with all of them,” says Nguyen. “I toured every facility. It was quite similar to searching for suppliers.
“Working with local manufacturers in Chicago has meant working with small businesses. As a small business ourselves, working with manufacturers has meant growing together. One of the sewing studios we’ve worked with for the past four years has grown with us––which has been really exciting to see.”
Sustainability takes directed effort
To ensure all materials are ethically sourced, Nguyen has spent and continues to spend countless hours combing the internet for potential fits.
“Sustainability is something that’s constantly evolving and is always a work in progress,” says Nguyen. “I have to always be learning. A lot of it comes from being mindful of what we source––which takes a long, long time. Often, when looking for sustainable fabric choices, the things that I’m looking for are usually not found on the first Google page; it’s usually closer to page 13 or 15.”
Cobalt Street’s manufacturing process is very time-intensive. Creating the product requires hand-sewing as well as manual operation of sewing machines, which limits the types of sewing studios Nguyen can work with. On the flip side of this process is the quality of the product as well as the opportunities for local workers to be paid fairly for their labor.
“One of the reasons we manufacture the way that we do is we’re creating jobs in Chicago and supporting local manufacturers,” says Nguyen. “It feels really good to be doing this. One of our primary manufacturers started her sewing studio as a way to create positive work environments for her seamstresses, most of whom are women. She puts a lot of thought into organizing and managing her place so that it can be an enjoyable job experience for her employees.
“The second reason is we can keep a closer eye on quality control. If something goes wrong, we’re able to catch it and troubleshoot it in real-time. That said, manufacturing in the U.S. is very tough. Sourcing manufacturers in the first place is not easy and when we do find a manufacturer in the area they might not have the equipment or skill that we need. And it’s likely going to be more expensive. But for me, it’s still worth it.”
Cobalt Street’s production runs are usually around 100 units but have reached 700-800 during peak product seasons.