A child’s dress by Cozbi
Cozbi Cabrera in her Court Street fashion and doll factory
Threads and yarns at Cozbi
Cabrera illustrates books, as well
Cozbi’s shop features her paintings and famous dolls
Hidden on a once-desolate stretch of Court Street, down near West 9th, a designer works furiously at her sewing machine. She’s well-known across the country for her handmade dolls–Oprah collects them for display in her home. But what this lady is doing now, when she’s not preparing her limited edition line of dolls, illustrating books, building quilts or painting canvases, is drawing, cutting, sewing and tailoring dresses, shirts, pants, skirts and suits for women of all sizes.
Cozbi Cabrera is a force of nature. From her little shop, thick with lush fabrics and yarns, she is designing and selling her own line of women’s clothing. Her collection features classic, timeless items; fresh yet familiar, clean and smart. She also designs dresses and clothes for children and babies, and novelties such as quilted bibs. Each item gives a modern spin to designs that capture a sweet nostalgia for a more elegant era.
But that’s not what Cozbi is known for. Cabrera has been featured twice on Martha Stewart Living and on the Oxygen Network and elsewhere for her collectible, handmade black dolls; Cabrera calls them Muñecas in honor of her Honduran background.
It can take months for Cabrera to complete a doll, as the bodies, hair and clothing are designed and sewn using natural linens, cottons, wools and vintage textiles. The dolls range in size from 13 inches to 46 inches, and in price from $175 to $1,500.
Country Living said the creations “are fueling a renewed interest in traditionally made cloth dolls, not only for their fine handwork but also for the cultural pride they reflect.”
Cabrera has been quoted as saying she was moved to create the dolls when she noticed, while shopping at antiques markets, that black dolls very often were not made with love and affection.
Vintage black dolls are “ludicrous,” Cabrera says, and often made in ignorance to poke fun at people. She wanted to create something different, something precious that could be handed down through generations.
“I wanted to express something that was really beautiful,” Cabrera said.
Despite their popularity, the dolls are no longer the focus of Cabrera’s business. She will only make 30 this year, she says, in order to make time for her current passion: hand-designed clothing.
In her tiny fashion factory, sewing machines buzz in the back room, and the display of dresses and clothes for women, children and babies is constantly updated.
I talk to Cabrera on a recent Saturday at 8 a.m.
“I crawled in to work today,” she said. “We have so many orders it is beyond reasonable.”
Cabrera describes her clothing as “whimsical, quirky, classic and well-made.”
“They are pieces you can use to build a wardrobe over years, not just for the moment,” Cabrera says. “They are not going to go out of style.”
A lot has changed since Cabrera opened in 2004. Soon after, the large apartment building at 505 Court, across the street, began to push out renters so that it could convert the building to condos. A shop next to Cozbi closed.
“It was unforeseen desolation. It was myself and a 24-hour taxi stand,” Cabrera says. “It was the feeling of being the only flag on a lunar surface.
“People were not conditioned to look or walk there.
“Now, it’s great. There’s a vibrant, creative environment.”
The restaurants Prime Meats and Buttermilk Channel helped to usher in a renaissance.
“It’s been remarkable,” Cabrera says. “It’s a really exciting time.”
Cabrera grew up in Brownsville and East New York and went to Catholic school in a traditional Italian area. She attended Parsons School of Design, where she majored in communications. She was a design director for Sony Music for 15 years, creating album covers, before leaving to pursue her dream of creating handmade, all-natural dolls.
The dolls were an immediate hit. As time went on, doll clients began to ask for clothing. “They’d respond to the costuming for the dolls and say, ‘I’d love a dress like that.’ I kept hearing it again and again. One of my customers created a mailing list for me: real people clothing. And customers kept signing up.”
Dresses for special events is the primary draw. The dresses range in price, beginning at $165.
Cabrera is proud of the fact that she’ll design for any body size. Some might be intimidated by the beauty of the window displays, but, Cabrera wants people to know, “We’re accessible.”
“You can pick something off the rack, and it can be pinched and altered to get to your perfect fit. The clothes are made for the body, instead of the body having to be contorted for the clothes.
“A lot of human bodies don’t fit the standard. We’re short-waisted and long-waisted.”
The fitting can be an intimate experience.
“Someone stopped in yesterday. She didn’t epitomize our typical customer. She lives in Red Hook and said it took her six years to work up the nerve to come into the store. She wanted a skirt. She’s not a standard size. We started talking, and she told me that her mother had 21 children. Only 10 survived. There are so many amazing stories. She wanted a skirt, but she came in to tell her story. It’s a great opportunity to share.
“It’s an opportunity to love that person.”
“It’s critical to everything that I do. I do it out of love.”
530 Court St., between Huntington and W. 9th St.
Tues. to Sat., noon to 7 p.m.