University of Southern Indiana

Can Do: a Made-in-America Spirit

By C. L. Stambush

It’s difficult to imagine the tall, slim, winsome woman—eyes genuine—once lacked confidence. It’s difficult to imagine others taunted her to the point she was homeschooled from fourth through seventh grade. It’s also difficult to imagine Kelsea Slade ’09, owner and designer of K.slademade, a line of boutique leather handbags, being anything but successful.

“All my life my father told my sisters and me, ‘You can be anything you want to be,’” she said. “At the time I didn’t know what that meant, but now I feel it’s what brought me here.” 

While “different” doesn’t work when you’re a kid, as an entrepreneur and designer of a product tens of thousands already make, it pays to stand out. Slade’s select elements set her purses apart: luxurious leather, rich tones, and upscale hardware, all impeccably stitched. They are classic, clean, simple, and sophisticated, with a signature tassel.

The Question

The first time Slade asked herself, “Is this what I want to do?” she was working in human resources for a physical rehabilitation provider. She’d secured the position a few months after graduating from USI with a bachelor’s degree in communications. “I loved my job and thought I wanted to keep doing it,” she said, “but I also wanted to do something more creative.”

The question worked at her: if not that job, then what? While wandering in an antique mall with her sister Erin Little, Slade confided she wanted to start a business making purses. She’d learned to sew from her mother, she understood how to engineer purses, and, unlike clothes, one size fits all. Her sister, also nourished on their father’s mantra, told her, “Follow your dream.” The idea scared and thrilled the newly married Slade, and when she told her husband Hunter, a former USI baseball right-fielder, he offered cautious support. After all...a house, a mortgage, a dog named Monty.

Setting Up Shop

Slade borrowed her grandmother’s sewing machine for a month and, after brainstorming designs with younger sister Hannah, “got busy” stitching cross-body bags constructed from duck cotton or upholstery fabric. She bought materials locally from national fabric stores, always keeping a sharp eye out for inspiration. “I was in Rural King when I stumbled across this leather thing for horses,” she said. “It was a nice, thick piece of leather, and I wanted it for the straps.”

Her husband bought her a sewing machine, and she established a “store” on Etsy, an e-commerce website for budding entrepreneurs and hobbyists. Consumers search by product on Etsy rather than designer name, and Slade had to wait for them to find her. She looked for ways to increase her visibility, and learned of a local craft fair. “My goal for the craft show was to take a lot of orders, since I didn’t know what people wanted,” she said. With a red sample purse and a stack of order forms, Slade secured 10 sales. “At the time I thought it went exceptionally well. If I could make $600 a day…,” she said. “Of course, the next day I didn’t get any orders.”

Growing Pains

When her work outgrew her small guest room, she moved to a larger one. She sewed eight to 13 hours a day to keep up with Etsy orders. “I was sewing non-stop because at my price point everyone could afford to buy,” she said. “I didn’t know what to charge for labor, so I wasn’t charging for my time. I didn’t give myself value.” That’s when she asked herself for the second time, “Is this what I want to do?” 

She reassessed her business and made major changes. Driving around town purchasing materials wasn’t productive, even though she liked to feel the material before buying it. Additionally, she wanted her purses to last, and cloth wasn’t durable enough for her taste. She decided to switch to leather and scoured the Internet for suppliers who’d mail samples. “Altogether it made more sense to transition to leather,” Slade said. “Besides, I love leather, even though it’s unforgiving. You can’t make mistakes because you’ve already punched a hole in it.”

Slade’s purses caught the attention of Ree Drummond, aka The Pioneer Woman (a blogger sensation, best-selling author, and Food Network personality) who posted on her site “Hold the phone. I’m in love with these. Help,” and included photos of the saucy-colored clutches with contrasting zippers. “That one post really boosted my sales,” Slade said, “and took my purses to a whole new audience.” 

The Beast

Slade was cutting and stitching leather all day, but needed to focus on increasing sales now that awareness of her purses had grown. She’d been searching for a manufacturer to take over production, but no one wanted to work with a company her size. Until she secured one, she needed an industrial sewing machine, which she found and bought online. “It weighed a ton, and was delivered in a thousand pieces with no instructions,” she said. “I had to put my engineer brain to work to put it together, along with the help of my husband. There were a few pieces left over, but it works great.” Shortly after “The Beast” arrived, Slade relocated to the basement.  Samples from leather, zipper, and hardware dealers poured in. Purses piled up. “I’ve taken over every place in the house,” she said. “Eventually I’ll be kicked out of it.” 

Other changes were afoot, too. It was time to leave Etsy and independently brand her stylish merchandise. “I wanted to speak to a higher-end client directly,” she said, “rather than be one voice among many.” She bought a domain name and a URL for $10, and designed a website using Shopify’s built-in web-design tools. 

The Häagen-Dazs® Experience

Maybe it was The Pioneer Woman’s blog post or some other fan who tipped off Häagen-Dazs about Slade’s purses. Whoever it was, the ice cream giant came knocking. It was launching a new line—gelato—called “L’artista Della Serie,” (Artisan Series), and had selected Slade as one of seven craftsmen to design a luxury item in their craft media that matched one of the new flavors. “They wanted my foldover,” she said. Asked to submit a proposal for the time and effort to design and make 25 purses exclusively for Häagen-Dazs’ gelato line, she did, and was assigned the flavor Sea Salt Caramel. 

Slade and her sister Erin, who by then worked for her, were flown to Italy and immersed in the culture for a week. The goal: soak up the feel of Italy and infuse it into a unique creation. Originally, she thought Italian leather might be best, but later found the perfect shade and texture from a U.S. supplier—one that mimicked the swirl of rich caramel with licks of salt. It was so perfect she momentarily questioned using it. “We’d signed a contract stating we could never use the exact materials again,” she said. “But we felt they deserved the best so we gave them the one we loved the most.” She married the rich leather with a satin sea-green lining, and added her signature tassel, this one with rustic brown, teal, and navy leather wisps. 

Outsourcing the Labor

Last year, Slade found a pair of manufacturers in Chicago to produce her three main styles: Heather Crossbody, Brooklyn Foldover, and the Tip Pouch. In the past, she had to remove styles because she was unable to physically keep up with demand. Now that she contracts the labor, she’s interested in expanding her line to include new styles, in addition to smaller, more affordable items such as a pencil pouch or coin purse.

Two manufacturers work well, she said, in case workloads overlap. But more importantly, they’re American manufacturers. “I’m passionate about this country and all it’s given me,” she said, “I want to give back by supporting other U.S. businesses.”

Both manufacturers are owned and operated by women, and even though they “get her,” Slade said strong communication skills are necessary to get her ideas across. “I use my USI education all the time,” she said, “and not just with the manufacturers, but with stylists, photographers— even my sister.”

Turn the Page

In two years, K.slademade has grown—from $600 in craft-fair orders to a six-figure gross. She’s added a bridal consultancy to her enterprise, and commissions a sales consultant on the east coast to place K.slademade purses in boutiques around the world. The farthest location to date is Russia, but her designs also sell in Florida, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Indiana, and Minnesota. As demand for her brand grows, it’s only a matter of time before one of those grade-school girls is among the many carrying a K.slademade purse. 

Contact Web Services


Send Email to