Kahlil Johnson | Creating Art with Leather

The wallet bag. | Priya Hutner

If you have lived in Tahoe long enough, you probably own or know someone who owns a Kahlil Johnson leather bag. Named after the poet Kahlil Gibran, Johnson is one of five artists who own Riverside Gallery in downtown Truckee; they represent more than 25 artists. Working with leather, Johnson designs bags, wallets and belts; she is undeniably the handbag goddess of Tahoe.

Johnson got her start making leather shoes for fun and as a creative outlet while working in the dot-com industry. Eventually she quit her day job, moved to New York and worked for a footwear designer.

“While there, I took every class F.I.T. [Fashion Institute of Technology] had to offer in handbag construction,” says Johnson. She soon realized that handbags were less labor intensive than footwear and she started creating bags.

Johnson considers herself a production artist. She creates a design that can be replicated. Raised in a commune as a young child, her world was somewhat loose and untethered. Johnson found a need for structure in her life in order to create and design.

Kahlil Johnson at Made in Tahoe. | Priya Hutner

“It’s an oxymoron to have structure in art,” says Johnson, who adds that most people think of most artists as flowing instead of linear.

The designs of the bags Johnson creates boast an array of colors, unique styles and textures. She changes and adds new designs three times a year. Once a design is sketched out on paper, she creates a sample and then determines how it wears, what works and any changes and improvements that might need to be made before she puts it into production.

One of the local favorites is her wallet bag. I love mine. It is small and compact and holds the essentials: credit cards, phone and cash. Johnson said that particular piece started with a zipper back, which woman would overstuff to the point of breaking. This along with the growing size of smart phones led her to change the design to a magnetic clasp.

I asked her about the rumor she was going to stop production on this particular design. “Designs change as our lifestyles change. The phone designs change faster than I can change the pattern of the bag,” she says confirming the rumor. “My lifestyle has changed and what I need to carry with me has changed.”

She is currently working on a line of fanny packs and belt bags — both are great for festival season. Her designs are functional and born from what inspires her.

“It might be the mountain range, trees and nature,” she says.

Kahlil Johnson bags hanging at Riverside Gallery. | Priya Hutner

Her new line of bags are canvas with leather depictions of the mountains and trees aptly entitled the Mountain Bag; the series includes a tote bag, overnight bag and toiletry bags for men and women.

“Inspiration comes from where I am in the moment. How do I bring nature into my work, as well as functionality in my work through my art?” she says.

In addition to her mountain collection Johnson is also introducing a fur collection.

Describing her craft and art as a linear process, she says that choosing elements for her leatherwork are about a feeling and intuition: what she would use personally, what type of leatherwork with what bag, how much the bag weighs and the zippers and straps.

“The elements I think about are functionality, the feel related to shape and size of the bag and the leather I use based on how the bag will be used,” says Johnson. | riversideartstudios.com