Duluth artist Natalija Walbridge is the perfect example of an independent artisan who is also well grounded in her community. Under the name of her business, Dock 5, Walbridge works out of her Park Point home, fashioning everything from messenger bags to meditation pillows that are screen-printed with her hand-drawn designs.
A Duluth native, she traveled the world during her 23-year career in the fashion industry. “Originally, I moved from Duluth to San Francisco, thinking I’d finish my art degree there. My first job was working for a knit designer. I’d layer the fabric, measure it and cut it, then bundle it up and take it to the factory. There was something about the hands-on production part. It just clicked for me...I distinctly remember feeling like this is it; this is my medium.”
Photo by Jon McCoy
Natalija Walbridge returned home to
Duluth to find a rebirth of interest
in locally made artinsal products.
She spent 10 years working for small, locally owned companies, where she became proficient in sewing, screen-printing and garment dyeing. In 1995, she joined Levi-Strauss, eventually becoming a senior designer. She loved the challenge, but saw ominous changes occurring in the fashion world. “The whole industry has changed during my career lifetime, from being locally owned small factories to being done mostly offshore. Even when I started at Levi’s in ’95, we were still doing a significant amount of production in the US.
"By 2000, it was almost completely switched to offshore except for some really classic pieces like the 501s. For me as a designer, the ultimate trade-off was being continually asked to make things cheaper and cheaper for the sake of ‘staying competitive.’ It was like I was being forced to walk away from making the best thing I could. On a personal level, for me, it just wasn’t very satisfying.”
About this time, Walbridge experienced a sea change in her own life, including the unexpected death of her mother at a young age. “I had to take a step back and really look at my life. I left Levi's and became an instructor, teaching fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. I worked there for four years and then made the decision to return to Duluth in 2008.”
Walbridge realizes that a connection to the community is the backbone of quality craftsmanship. “Durability is something I insist on. I want something that will hold up over time. At the same time, I’m always looking at versatility and what it is people might want or need.
“I’m currently working with a close friend and partner to create an adaptive travel bag for wheelchair users. I want to expand the collection to include functional bags for all types of mobility devices, from wheelchairs to walkers and even canes.
“I think what makes me feel like I’m in the right place at the right time and so glad to be back here is that there’s an openness in the art and small business communities to all these people working together and supporting each other. Whether you’re talking about the brewers, the Vikre, the Duluth Bread Company, or all the various art galleries around town, I see a much bigger trend and market for crafts and artisanal-made things here in the Twin Ports.”