It all started when Kisa Williams failed her sewing class–decidedly problematic for the fashion designer hopeful at Houston Community College.
“The professor came to me and said, ‘Maybe this sewing part is not for you,’” Williams recalled. “Needless to say, I was crushed.”
Crushed, but not defeated. Williams switched her major to fashion merchandising and took a handbag elective–“I’ll buy a handbag before I buy a pair of shoes,” she mused.
The professor issued one final exam directive: “Think outside the box.” A familiar refrain to be sure, but one that left Williams vexed. She doodled potential designs, crossed them out and repeated the process, her professor’s missive echoing in her brain: “I want you to make a handbag that I’ve never seen before. If I’ve seen it at Macy’s or I’ve seen it online, you’re going to fail.”
Eventually, Williams landed on an unexpected design choice: A circle. After posting a photo of herself holding the bag on a night out, the emerging designer was flooded with inquiries.
“Where did you get that bag? Oh, that bag is so cute; oh, it’s so unique,” Williams heard from friends and followers. It wasn’t until later, though, at dinner with a friend, that the significance of Williams’ unassuming design choice dawned on her.
Clutched in hand, the bag is a semi-circle; a vibrantly adorned empanada. Open it up, and the full shape is revealed.
“This is your sickled cell,” Williams’ friend told her. “When you open the bag, it’s a whole red blood cell, but once you close [it], it’s a sickled cell.”
The realization was astounding in its simplicity. Suddenly, Williams found meaning in her subliminal attraction to circles whole and half: She was born with sickle cell anemia, an inherited disorder of the red blood cells that contorts the oxygen-delivering units into C-shapes that die early, causing a laundry list of symptoms including pain, fatigue and infection.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute estimates life expectancy at 40-60 years for a person with sickle cell, for which there is no cure. Williams’ sister, also afflicted, died at 32.
As such, all KisaKisa bags are inspired by friends and family both departed and surviving. A vivid red faux leather, the Jesse is named for Williams’ father, “strong, prudent and reserved,” who died when the designer was 14.
The Springer’s origin story is more lighthearted. A graphic orange design punctuated with a single blue and white stripe is reminiscent of ‘60s mod, and the tri-color scheme betrays its namesake: yes, Clutch City’s own World Series MVP.
The Springer sold out in a hot minute, but Williams’ other offerings are no less popular, made all the more lust-worthy by the fact that no two bags are alike. From fabric to tassels, every inch of every bag is local, made in-house by Williams’ production team once a design is borne of a pattern that speaks to her. A portion of each sale benefits the Sickle Cell Association of Texas Marc Thomas Foundation.
Williams’ favorite bag is the Rosetta, designed in memory of her late mother. Illustrative black-and-white peonies and hummingbirds burst from a pastel background, representative of the namesake’s personality–“bright, vibrant, funny”– and childhood memories of baking hummingbird cakes together. On her website, Williams described smelling her mother’s trademark Oil of Olay when the two would embrace; the same scent in a Walgreens’ aisle today elicits a smile.
One day, an older woman approached Williams at a photoshoot, recognizing both the designer and her distinctive handbags from social media.
When Williams went to hug her, the woman whispered in her ear: “I wear Oil of Olay, just like your mom.”
She made a bag for her, too—it’s called Geneva.
KisaKisa bags are available for purchase online, in four area boutiques and at a pop-up on December 17 at the Midtown Arts and Theater Center of Houston.