Designer Katie Kalsi made her first handbag in 2003 after years of expressing herself on canvas. She combined her painting and sewing skills to produce 23 hobo-style bags that were set off by handpainted, interchangeable leather straps. The versatility of each bag encourages individuals to express their personal style.
Today, the Katie Kalsi label is a familiar one, from small boutiques to well-known retailers to celebrity wardrobes. We’re thrilled Katie joins us today as our FACE of Memphis!
Have you always called Memphis home?
Yes. Memphis is such an inspirational place. I loved growing up here, being in a city with so many great stories and now sharing the stories with my girls. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. There’s nothing like being in my parents’ old barn in Germantown (just outside of Memphis). There’s just something peaceful about designing next to a nice, Southern landscape and knowing that my family is so close. What better place to be creative?
When did you begin on the path towards a design career?
As a child, I was always making things. I designed jewelry and painted. Art is my passion … it always has been. A dream that began when I was six has definitely become a reality.
One of my first memories as a designer was crafting earrings for my friends at school. I used magnets so that you could wear them even if you didn’t have pierced ears. So, my fashion mind has always been turning. Who knew it would turn into a career?
Name three benchmark moments that you feel turned you in the direction of becoming a handbag designer?
1. Promoting my art. About seven years ago I began focusing on selling my art. I realized that women not only love to look at art, they love to express themselves through it. That’s where the interchangeable strap concept began.
2. Seeing my passion. I needed and wanted to do something that excited me. Painting and designing were stress relievers and very therapeutic for me. As a creative person, expression is a big deal to me. With my handbags, I’m able to share my passion of creating with women through wearable art. It also gives them a way to express themselves.
3. Making my first 23 handbags at the kitchen table: Often the best ideas start with a small kernel and grow from there. I drew a design of a bag I would use, took my most popular painting and decided to use that pattern as my first strap. I bought some fabric, some leather and some hardware to connect the strap to the bag. I taught myself to sew. I made about 20 bags at my kitchen table and asked friends and family to use them around town. Within months, I was getting calls from local stores. Katie Kalsi, LLC was born.
Describe your family and how your job as a mom coordinates with your work as a designer.
I am very fortunate to have my two girls, my parents and friends who support my vision and dreams. Having two girls who adore fashion makes coordinating my mom job and my designer job so easy. My girls always ask to see my new sketches and give me ideas for new straps. My first two bags were named after my daughters – the Sophie and the Sadie. The girls have a sisterly competition to see which bag is outselling the other.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Everything! From design to manufacturing a prototype to the finished product, I enjoy every step of the process. When I see someone carrying one of my bags, I always stop to introduce myself. I love hearing them tell me that it is their favorite bag. They love changing their straps depending on their outfit, their mood or just because they love switching them around. It’s nice to see women express their personalities with my bags.
It’s a very humbling and a very incredible feeling to know women love my ideas.
Describe your first handbag or collection. How do the original designs compare to your present collections?
My first bags with handpainted straps are similar shape-wise to today’s bags. The difference is that you can now change the straps. I have always designed with an artistic, Bohemian flair. I have also added a more classic line without interchangeable straps. They still reflect my Boho personality!
Do you intend to concentrate on handbags, or will you expand into creating other fashion or lifestyle products?
Designing handbags will always be my first love and the cornerstone of my business. If you look at some of the biggest names out there, they all have ventured into other areas of design. I definitely want a piece of that market, too, and ultimately, my goal is to expand into a lifestyle brand and offer a variety of products that reflect a woman’s unique style.
Who are some of your celebrity customers, and what bag(s) did they pick out? Any anecdotes or memorable comments from your high-‐profile clients?
It’s been so great connecting with celebs and seeing my designs on their shoulders. The ladies of Little Big Town recently picked up a blue suede Nicole and a grape leather Sophie with my Night Owl strap. The strap was a perfect choice because it ties into one of their new songs, which happens to be called Night Owl! Taylor Swift, Pat Benatar, Naomi Judd, Bai Ling and Britney Spears are just some of the celebrities carrying my bags.
One of my favorite memories is of Lisa Marie Presley buying several of my bags and calling me “the guitar strap girl” when she saw my interchangeable, handpainted straps. She said if her dad were alive today, he would have loved my straps for his guitars. That meant a lot to me!
What must-have fashion item is in your closet (or on your mind) for summer 2013 (that complements your Katie Kalsi bag, of course)?
My go-to items year-round are tanks and flare jeans. It’s a simple, classic and comfortable combination. Plus it’s easy to pair with a Katie Kalsi handbag! I always have a fun pair of earrings to match–the bigger and funkier the better. It’s my thing.
Do you have a specific mentor? How has that person influenced you?
My father. He has always been my greatest fan and my champion. He has always been there for me and supported me in anything I have ever wanted to do. He’s never told me, “No, you can’t,” but instead has always said, “Give it a try! What have you got to lose?”
Best advice you have ever received? Favorite quote?
How do you unwind/recharge your battery?
I don’t do it as often as I want to, but exercise and working out are my favorite ways to relieve stress. When I’m at the gym, I empty my mind of everything and just focus on the burn. After a great workout, my batteries are recharged and I am a better mother, designer and business owner. I can think clearly. It’s so important for women to take care of themselves and remember to make themselves a priority.
Favorite escape or travel destination? (If there’s one place in the world you’d suggest someone visit, where would that be?)
My favorite escape is anywhere tropical, especially Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. I love the warm weather and the bright colors. I have drawn inspiration from beautiful ocean and cool sand.
My go-to spot in the U.S. is Destin, Florida. My family has a condo there and we love relaxing on the beach, eating the fabulous food and doing a little bit of shopping. The best part is that it is my home away from home. It’s warm, artistic and a great way to relax.
Are there any charitable organizations where you volunteer your time or support? What’s meaningful about this outreach to you?
I work with many nonprofit organizations, both local and national. Two of the groups closest to my heart are Anna’s Closet and the International Down Syndrome Coalition. We’ve created special straps for both organizations and donate 25% of the proceeds to each organization. It’s been an honor gaining so many friends through my charitable partnerships. Diane, the founder of IDSC, is such an inspiration to me. What she has done to promote awareness and understanding of Down Syndrome is awesome.
What books are you reading, or have you most enjoyed reading lately? Do you prefer a Kindle or e-book, or just good old-‐fashioned paper?
I haven’t had time to read much lately, unless you count the backs of paint containers and Excel spreadsheets! I suppose the most reading I get to do is with my girls. I do try and keep up with the latest fashion magazines to stay on top of the trends. When I have time, I prefer good old-fashioned paper.
Do you have a playlist of favorite music for a dinner party or a workout that you can recommend?
I’m not a dinner party kind of girl. I prefer sitting around the pool with friends, cooking out and listening to fun music. My playlist is the same when I exercise, fun and upbeat. I love 90’s pop, especially Britney Spears.
What three lighthearted things could you not live without?
1. My computer, for sure. It was out for the count last week, and I was completely lost.
2. My phone, so I can stay in touch with my girls when I am away on business.
3. Of course, I keep paints and brushes handy. You never know when you’ll see something inspirational!
Favorite beauty products you can’t imagine not using?
Any special events or Katie Kalsi happenings you’re especially looking forward to in the next few months?
We are getting ready to expand to additional retailers and share our Fall 2013 collection at Belk. I always look forward to sharing our new “Color of the Month” on my online boutique. This month it’s turquoise, which is perfect for summer! We have a discount code, JUNE20, that customers can use at checkout to save 20% on select styles!
Thank you Katie! Follow her online at www.katiekalsi.com
All photos taken for today’s FACES of Memphis are by Whitney McNeill of Moving Screens Inc. (except for the first image, which is part of Katie Kalsi’s media images collection). Contact Whitney at [email protected].