The fan comments on Memphis handbag designer Katie Kalsi’s company Facebook page are effusive, enthusiastic and frequently punctuated with energetic exclamation points.
“I love my bag!!!”
“I want a Stella bag!”
“Just opened my first Katie Kalsi handbag & I love it!”
“The Simone bag is fierce!”
It’s rewarding feedback for Kalsi, who recently has seen the most explosive growth in her business since its beginnings in 2006, when she launched a distinctive line of handmade Bohemian-style hobo bags with interchangeable hand-painted leather straps featuring her own artwork.
Memphis designer Katie Kalsi has been receiving attention for her line of interchangeable strap handbags, which recently started being carried in select department stores.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)
“The first boutique to carry them was Lola’s in Germantown, and the response was amazing,” said Kalsi, a lifelong artist who kicked off her career selling her contemporary paintings at festivals and art shows, followed by a successful stint in jewelry design. “The store ran an advance ad and they sold out before the bags even hit the shelves.”
She eventually expanded to other boutiques and quickly developed a cult following of handbag aficionados, art enthusiasts and celebrity customers such as Britney Spears, Pat Benatar and LeAnn Rimes.
The years that followed, however, were challenging at times, Kalsi said. She has two daughters, Sophie, 9, and Sadie, 4, after whom two of her best-selling bags are named. For a brief period of time it was difficult juggling motherhood with made-to-order boutique shipments, she said, so she took a break for about a year-and-a-half, later returning to the business when she realized she missed it.
Her transformation from boutique best-seller to department store sensation began in August 2011, when her handbags caught the eye of David Neri, executive vice president and general merchandise manager for Belk department store, a Charlotte, N.C.-based chain of more than 300 stores, mostly in the South.
The company placed an initial order for 4,000 bags and in March introduced the Katie Kalsi line, which included a variety of bags with Kalsi’s signature interchangeable straps as well as higher-end crossbody and satchel styles in snake leather. In one day, Belk sold 120 of Kalsi’s purses, and within a month, several colors had sold out.
The handbags, which currently range from about $200 to $500, receive rave reviews from Belk’s customers, who express their appreciation for the bags’ quality, design and regional roots in feedback they leave on the store’s website. Belk executives say Kalsi’s purses are selling just as well, if not better, than some top-name handbag designers.
Now, Kalsi hopes to reach a worldwide audience on her newly revamped website, katiekalsi.com, which debuted in late November.
“Belk only carries a limited selection, so we wanted a place where we could offer our customers more variety,” she said. “The new site has only been live for about two weeks and sales are already coming in, so we’re excited that people are responding to it.”
In addition to its new online store, the site also features Kalsi’s blog, a photo gallery showcasing some of her celebrity customers and a list of retail locations throughout the South.
Kalsi has come a long way since her early days of handcrafting small batches of bags and giving them away to friends and family members.
Her journey has taken her from experimenting with scraps from Tandy Leather and hinges from Lowe’s to overseeing production factories in El Paso, Texas, and managing a local team of about 15 people who paint Kalsi’s designs on the straps. The straps are eclectic, colorful and abstract, with a variety of patterns and styles created to reflect a variety of women.
“My bag is a happy bag, and for the woman who buys it, it’s meant to be an artistic expression of her personality,” said Kalsi, who names Wassily Kandinsky, Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell as just a few of the artists who inspire her.
Next on Kalsi’s agenda is expanding her brand to include bedding, jewelry and other lifestyle products. She’s also working on a kit for young girls that will enable them to paint their own purse straps.
Her immediate and lasting goal, however, is to continue to exceed her customers’ expectations.
“I love reading all the comments on Facebook,” she said. “I want to make sure all my customers are thrilled with their bags. I just want to make people happy.”
Kari Kapp Ware of Collierville is one of those happy customers and Facebook commenters.
“I saw an ad for Katie Kalsi purses in At Home Tennessee magazine and I was hooked,” Ware said. “After that, any time we were out of town, I’d check to see if there was a Belk store that carried her purses. Finally while we were in Hilton Head for fall break, we walked into Belk and there they were. I was thrilled!”
Ware said she’s extremely picky about the purses she buys, and Kalsi’s bags meet her “purse snob” standards.
“The thing I love most is that it’s like getting two purses for the price of one. You can change the strap and instantly have a brand new look.”