For Art’s Sake

A champion for traditional craftsmanship, Chicago designer Lisa Kingsley pumps the breaks on fast fashion with artisan-quality accessories and fragrances.

By Elise Hofer Shaw

Portrait by Anthony Tahlier

May 10, 2019 10:00 AM

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These days, “style” is too often defined by the steady stream of media that barrages our brains on the daily. And when we do attempt to sift through the masses to find morally responsible labels, there are so many brands throwing around words like “fair trade” and “organic,” many without merit, that it’s hard to know what’s really worth the investment.

Enter Lisa Kingsley, the Chicago designer making artisan-crafted accessories and scents the old-fashioned way: slowly and meticulously by hand. However, when asked what her eponymous brand stands for, she’s lightning-quick to respond: “Kingsley is about the connection one can have with a truly beautiful, handmade object. We have an imperceptible part of ourselves that can be identified through something solid,” says the Evanston-born designer during our interview over Vietnamese coffee at Le Colonial. “The products we make have stories behind them and, more often than not, end up eliciting an emotional response that resonates on an intangible level for our clients.” From an ethical standpoint, Kingsley ensures that traditional artisanship is thriving. She maintains a zero-waste policy in her work and buys leathers only from conservation-forward farms.

Take, for example, her jewelry collections that she developed in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the home of Kingsley’s flagship brick-and-mortar store for the last four years. Necklaces made from upcycled African, Indian and Egyptian trade beads in ceramic and silver; hand-molded rings made by a third-generation master jeweler… each piece is a work of art. Her Village rings were designed to mimic the old-world cobblestone pedestrian streets in Oaxaca, melding sterling silver and yellow brass into petite pebbles that run in succession along the band. “The Village ring has different meanings for different clients—the widow who wears the edition embedded with Swarovski crystals because it reminds her of the romantic trips to Italy that she took with her husband, or the Cuban artist that dons the original version because it reminds him of Havana. We’ve had a lot of marriage proposals made with the Village rings, too,” says Kingsley proudly. And then there are her aged pewter Mantra rings inspired by Tibetan prayer wheels. “With every spin you can put a positive intention out into the world,” she says.

Kingsley’s original flagship store in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Her story, the Kingsley narrative, began 10 years ago. “I drove across central Mexico with an idea for a new kind of brand—one where traditional craftsmanship could intersect with modern design and offer people authentic goods with meaning,” says Kingsley. With the help of two brothers she befriended there, Antonio and Chuy Collazo, whose family métier is sewing leather, she started making handbags in a small garage. “We had one sewing machine and rustic tools. Street puppies would run in and out, and we’d listen to a transistor radio while we worked. I didn’t speak any Spanish at the time, so my drawings were how we communicated.” Today, the Kingsley brand is produced in a workshop in the Central Highlands of Mexico that employs more than 85 artisans who craft Kingsley clutches in antique French linen with rubbed-brass hardware, sustainable ostrich crossbody bags, gorgeously soft lambskin satchels and a forthcoming line of sandals with soles made from recycled airplane tires.

In 2015, Kingsley moved to San Miguel full time. “I gave myself a five-year plan to expand my product lines and open a retail store where an international clientele could have a thorough sensory experience of the brand.” Her premiere store, a ramshackle bodega that she transformed into a gallery-esque storefront, stopped visitors from the Netherlands to NYC in their tracks. The allure? Locally crafted designs that would universally translate to a customer’s life back home. It was also in San Miguel that Kingsley rolled out her line of unisex, wild-crafted scents that boast vibrant essential oils culled from small growers around the world (Italy, Madagascar and Japan). There’s Good Willing, showcasing key notes of wild oranges, pepper and wood; and, my personal favorite, Mysticizer, a moodier bouquet of vetiver and anise. Customers of her fragrances are diverse, and include Hanya Yanagihara, the editor-in-chief of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and American Pickers host Mike Wolfe. They can also be found at the kitschy-cool Bunkhouse Hotel San Cristóbal in Todos Santos. 

Kingsley’s all-natural Scent collection is created with wild-crafted essential oils from Madagascar, Italy and beyond.

On any given day, her soulful shop would attract an eclectic—and oftentimes influential—array of visitors on holiday, from Enrique Olvera of Pujol to legendary fashion industry veteran Bethann Hardison. Sure, Kingsley has more than a few devoted celebrity clients, but her beauty is that she chooses to focus on the guts of the brand and the process of making things with heart. “Living in Mexico taught me to be free, follow my intuition and to trust that I could touch people from all walks of life by imparting the message of artisanship. With this foundation, the brand is ready to expand while keeping its integrity intact.” Kingsley closed her beloved San Miguel store earlier this year to move back to the States and focus on e-commerce, a pop-up tour and new retail locations.

For summer, check out Kingsley’s new Baby Strap sacks, her fresh, minimal take on a day-to-day carryall, and her City clutch swathed in vintage Japanese ikat. “Textiles have a big place in the collection now,” says Kingsley. Starting June 7, she’s joining forces with space519 on Chestnut Street for a highly anticipated collection reveal. “I’ve known Jim and Lance [the owners of space519] for years, since their Jake days,” says Kingsley. “I admire their fresh vision for Chicago retail. It’s a fun, layered concept from fashion to food and art under one roof, and I’m honored to work with them.” And keep an eye out for an entirely new beauty and wellness brand from Kingsley coming down the pike this summer called Kindred Spirits, which includes a signature face oil that flew off the shelves for four years at her store in Mexico and is being introduced to the U.S. for the first time. 

“It’s been a road of adventure, learning and growth,” adds Kingsley, reflecting on the last decade. “I believe the future is comprised of an audience seeking items that not only look good, but feel good to own.”  

The Kingsley collection will be available at space519, located at 200 E. Chestnut St., June 7-16. Meet the designer in-store on June 7 and 8 to shop one-of-a-kind Kingsley items while sampling Mexican dishes and Mezcal margaritas from The Lunchroom.

City clutch in antique French Linen circa 1900 Provence
Mexico City necklace in black matte chainmaille with abstract angel discs
Playa sandals in leather with soles made from up-cycled airplane tires
Warm Weather strap sac with leather piping, detachable handle and cross-body strap