Smile Politely

Work your quirk with Fabrikate

If you’ve been to Urbana’s Market at the Square this year, you’ve probably seen a bright white tent with a display of colorful, spunky bags. Maybe you’ve even gotten a shout out from the spunky lady behind the table. Maybe you’re already a die-hard Fabrikate fan, like I am. Or, maybe you’re a Fabrikate newbie, about to read about the most badass bag you can get your hands on in Champaign County.

This week I had the pleasure of speaking with Fabrikate owner Kate Kobak about her life and business.

A view of Kobak’s bag display at Urbana’s Market at the Square. Colorful bags hang on black racks and hooks against a white tent background. Photo by Kate Kobak.

Photo by Kate Kobak.

Kobak was a crafty kid. The daughter of a seamstress, she grew up watching her mom sew and accompanying her to the fabric store. She laughed telling me how she was kicked out of Brownies for being “outspoken” against the paper-bag-and-yarn vest-making activity. “What a waste!” she told me, exasperated. “I could have led a sewing class then and there to make real vests.”

In its first iteration — its former, pre-bag life — Fabrikate was a home furnishings business in New York. Originally from Pittsburgh, Kobak would travel to New York for summer dance classes. Later, after seven years of running her own dance company in Pittsburgh, she moved to NYC — danced, taught Alexander Technique, bartended, and explored the “jaw-dropping” Garment District, where she befriended the fabric shop owners. In 2007, after her son was born and she quit bartending, Kobak started Fabrikate.

When the family moved to Champaign-Urbana in 2009, Kobak wanted to try something new — with the creation of an intricate 3DS case for her son’s birthday, Fabrikate 2.0 was born! The joy and encouragement she found in those early bag-making days led to great success at the 2019 markets and then to the creation of Fabrikate’s website. It also inspired Kobak to quit her restaurant job and leave the service industry for good. While the pandemic was a setback to Kobak’s grand 2020 market plans, the website kept Fabrikate afloat. Now she’s full-time at markets again —Urbana’s market is her home base, supplemented by arts fairs all over the county and shows in Bloomington and Chicago.

Kobak’s family is integral to the business. “They’re my support system,” she says. Tech and general mental support from her husband (credited for Fabrikate’s “punny” name). Website maintenance, ad and card design, and fantastic blog initiation / co-writing from her son. Booth setup, sales support, and tons of fun product ideas from her daughter. “Those chameleons with the bendy tails are her idea,” Kobak told me proudly, “and the dragons I made for [Champaign-Urbana] Adventures in Time and Space were, too.”

Small chameleon-shaped pouches (gold, golden brown, and purple) hang by their tails from a white display rack at Fabrikate’s booth at Urbana’s Market at the Square. On the rack below, bunny pouches. Photo by Dani Nutting.

Photo by Dani Nutting.
Small dragon-shaped pouch with scaly red fabric, leathery black wings, and shiny black eyes, against a plain white background. Photo by Kate Kobak.

Photo by Kate Kobak.
Interior of dragon-shaped pouch with flame-patterned fabric and a purple and green Fabrikate logo, against a plan white background. Photo by Kate Kobak.

Photo by Kate Kobak.

Kobak loves making these little critters. “They take so much time, lots of hand sewing, but I love when they’re all lined up, my sewing machine covered with chameleons, lobsters, possums, or an army of armadillos. I make them talk. My husband looks at me like I’m a lunatic because they all have different voices. But the kids get it.” Beyond totes, purses, backpacks, and the like, Kobak sells face masks, pencil and earbud pouches, wine totes, fanny packs, glasses cases, lunch boxes, cat toys and bandanas, and more.

If Kobak’s products are quirky, the fabrics are even quirkier. There’s something for everyone, from sushi doing yoga, vomiting “party bots,” and costumed cats to Star Wars and Schitts Creek, Fauci and RBG, the exploding TARDIS, and calligraphed profanity. Her booth is a true “color explosion”! Kobak sources fabric from all over: local artists (namely Jill Miller from Hooey Batiks and Judy Lee from Made in Urbana), designers at Spoonflower, friends from back home, even her clients. “Some clients just send me their fabric for custom orders and say, ‘keep it and do what you want with it.’”

Lee’s “doodle” of Kobak’s daughter, who she fondly calls “The Wee Viking,” became the fabric for the delectable Wee Viking bags. “Somebody bought one,” she told me. “She walked straight to it, her eyes were enormous, and she said, ‘I must have this.’ She held it up like the Lion King. Turns out, this woman travels to Iceland and studies Vikings, and she found this freaking bag with my daughter on it!”

Kobak’s “Wee Viking†bag against a plain white background. Fabric is bright turquoise with small, red-haired Vikings standing in various poses. Some have a helmet & weapons; all are wearing a pink or red cape. Photo by Kate Kobak.

Photo by Kate Kobak.

Kobak thrives on these “aha” moments, so, custom orders are particularly fun. “My all-time favorite thing is when somebody orders some crazy bag that they’ve just got in their mind.” She told me about a customer who wanted a remake of her favorite tote. “It was her dream bag,” Kobak described. “She’d taken it all over the world, it was beaten and ripped up, with all kinds of crazy pockets.” The customer finally just sent Kobak the bag itself. “It was like a mind puzzle,” she said, wide-eyed. “I finally got it all together, sent her the pictures of the fabrics, and we came out with this beautiful thing that she loves. Helping somebody make something that they’ve designed, that we’ve worked on together — that’s the best.”

All that said, Kobak is so much more than a bag lady. “Costumes have always been my real favorite,” she admitted. “I freaking love costumes.” In Pittsburgh, Kobak made costumes for drag queens. “I danced backup with them for years and they would say, ‘Oh, you can sew! Help me make this crazy-ass peacock costume!’” She also freaking loves Halloween. Kobak laughed hardest telling the story about her daughter in the 2017 Champaign Farmers Market costume contest, decked out in Daenerys Targaryen’s blue dress complete with cape and hood, Dad in all black carrying a paper mâché dragon. “We were getting Dragon Fire Pizza and my husband was talking to the pizza guys, holding this dragon. My daughter’s posing to be judged, she sees him over there, and yells out, ‘Oi, Dad! Dracarys!’ . . . That was freaking hilarious. And she won that contest. She was on the front page of the paper.”

Kobak’s daughter and husband in Halloween costumes. Her daughter is dressed as Daenerys Targaryen in a royal blue dress and cape, long white wig with braids, and leggings with brown boots. Kobak’s husband is dressed in all black holding a paper mâché dragon attached to a chain, which the daughter is holding. Photo by Kate Kobak.

Photo by Kate Kobak.

At its core, Fabrikate is about so much more than bags. “We all need a little more joy in our lives,” Kobak says. “If I can make something utilitarian that you can carry with you, that carries all the shit you have to walk around with all day, and it makes you happythat’s the best.” After years in the service industry, burned out and losing faith in people, Fabrikate is refreshing. “Now, I sit at the market, people come visit me, their eyes light up when they find the right bag, they surprise somebody dear to them…It restores my faith that there is good.”

A close-up of Kobak’s table display. Wooden display shelves and white wire racks hold various sizes of colorful bags, on top of a black tablecloth. Two lamps provide ambiance on the table and a Fabrikate banner hangs behind, featuring the purple and green Fabrikate

Photo by Kate Kobak.

Kobak is excited about Fabrikate’s growth. This coming year, she hopes to sell in Indy, St. Louis, Michigan, or even back in Pittsburgh. She’s thinking of ways to work with more local artists. “There are a few whose stuff I really like. I’m trying to convince them to let me make it into fabric and put it on bags.” She’s also just stoked to meet more people. “Nothing makes me happier than when somebody buys something and comes back bringing somebody with them. That’s the most badass thing.”

Kobak loves seeing her work out and about, too. She told me about a time she and her kids were in the car, and they saw a guy on a bike with a Fabrikate bag. “My kid rolled down the window and started screaming, ‘Fabrikate! Fabrikate!’ The guy stopped and waved. I just want to see more of my stuff riding around town on people’s backs or at the store. I want more pictures of people’s cats playing with the crazy cat toys. Everything’s so wacko these days. If I can spread a little happy, and if what I’m doing to occupy my time makes me happy, then I feel like that goes out into the world.”

The author’s tortoiseshell kitten stares threateningly at one of Kobak’s “FabriCAT†sushi toys (white and pink), laying on a hot pink blanket. Photo by Dani Nutting.

Photo by Dani Nutting.

That’s the power of Fabrikate. Kobak is a ray of sunshine, creativity, and spunk, and her work carves out space for people to be their most authentic selves. These values are sewn into her bags, and those bags are out walking around in the community. In a sense, Kobak’s bags are not just fun, good quality products — they’re fierce and empowering. A Fabrikate bag is like a license to work your quirk. To “carry your shit around” in style. To embrace your chaos. “Just a little crazy!” Kobak says. “Chaos and crazy.”

You can follow Kate’s business on Facebook and Instagram @fabrikatespot. (And by can, I mean should.)

Top photo by Dani Nutting.

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