Accessories

Ransack Leather

Lisa Nihiser’s Vintage Global Cowgirl Goth

Based in the “City of Big Shoulders,” as Carl Sandburg described Chicago, Ransack Leather is a one-woman bag-making outfit. Ransacker Lisa Nihiser produces unique, one-of-a-kind creations using new and recycled leather and accented with buckles, conchos, appliques, and other features.

By Gene Fowler

For Lisa Nihiser of Chicago’s Ransack Leather, it’s all about creativity. The one-woman, bag and clutch company lives up to its pirate-punk moniker – with one-of-a-kind designs that pack a wallop of swagger and style. Most of her creations are made with a combination of newly purchased and recycled leather. She may ransack, pillage and plunder for materials, but she pulls it off with an edgy élan.

Nihiser has been “reinventing leftovers since 2004.” Ransack, she says, is a place “where fresh ideas bloom from vintage inspiration.” Her bags provocatively mix and match leopard and zebra prints, snake skin, metallic fabrics and cowhide with studs, recycled vintage ornaments and appliques of patterns, hearts, critters, flowers, and flames…and so much more.

Like many leather artists I’ve interviewed, Lisa has always been creative. “As a child,” she recalls, “I designed toilet paper couture for my Barbie dolls. I’ve been sewing since I was 12 years old. Both of my grandmothers sewed, and they taught me. And my first job was in a fabric store, so it’s kind of in my blood.” She also began her entrepreneurship early, making prom and wedding dresses while still in high school. Living in North Carolina for a time, she enhanced her sewing skills by working with materials from the many upholstery and fabric stores in the Tar Heel State.

She received a crash-course introduction to leather, while working for the Dr. Martens shoe and boot company in Seattle. “Leather was a whole new subject for me,” she explains. “I saw the way it got broken in and how it holds up and lasts. I really developed an aptitude for working with it.”

Nihiser’s Instagram posts include a few of her earliest bags from 15 years ago. While those are sleek, but perhaps a bit more sedate, it wasn’t long before her imagination began to percolate and her creations started to walk a little more on the wild side. We talked recently about some of the bags in her Etsy store and elsewhere.

One bag is described as a “Small Olive and Zebra Crossbody Bag,” made of “washed olive leather” and “zebra-striped hair on cowhide.” Designed in a “rock-and-roll style,” the bag includes a concert phone pouch. “A photographer friend who had done some work for a furniture company brought me rolls of this leather,” Lisa notes. “But I thought it was too smooth and shiny. I like it rustic and wrinkled. So I threw it in the washing machine three or four times and let it tumble dry for texture. While it was still damp, I twisted it and let it dry with the wrinkles.”

Another bag constructed with washed leather is the “Double Metallic Scorpion Shoulder Bag with Horn Button.” Lisa says that tossing the black cowhide for this bag in the washer and dryer resulted in a “thick, soft and wrinkle-textured leather that looks great now, but will look even better over time.” (She is careful to add, “Please do not do that to a finished product!”) The color of the hand-cut metallic scorpion appliques, which are machine stitched to the bag to keep them secure, is “a really cool pewter-rose-lavender-silver.” A Scorpio herself, in astrological terms, the scorpion is a recurring theme in Lisa’s appliques, along with pythons and other snakes.

Another bag constructed with washed leather is the “Double Metallic Scorpion Shoulder Bag with Horn Button.” Lisa says that tossing the black cowhide for this bag in the washer and dryer resulted in a “thick, soft and wrinkle-textured leather that looks great now, but will look even better over time.” (She is careful to add, “Please do not do that to a finished product!”) The color of the hand-cut metallic scorpion appliques, which are machine stitched to the bag to keep them secure, is “a really cool pewter-rose-lavender-silver.” A Scorpio herself, in astrological terms, the scorpion is a recurring theme in Lisa’s appliques, along with pythons and other snakes.

The tip of a naturally shed horn or antler serves as the bag’s clasp. And like many Ransack bags, the adjustable strap is made from a reclaimed belt. Lisa will often use newly purchased leather for the base of a bag and reclaimed leather for lining and appliques.

The “Olive and Grey Metal Medallion Bag” uses more of the olive leather, set against a backdrop of metallic leather in a style the artist describes as “Unique Hobo Boho Hippy Ethnic Global.” Highlighted by a salvaged silver plate buckle, the bag is made of half new and half recycled materials. “Totally exotic,” says Lisa.

Details like the silver buckle, an occasional concho and other metal accents really set off Ransack pieces. The “Brindle Cowhide Clutch accented with glazed oxblood leather” and metal studs makes a dramatic setting for a small antique sword. “I love that piece,” Lisa says, “because it’s kind of like a mix between a handbag and jewelry!”

A belt buckle also anchors the “Little Black Reclaimed Leather Bag.” As the name suggests, this one is made entirely of the raw edges of a recycled black leather hide. “I love using edges,” Lisa explains. “I wash the edges to get them more distinct and make them look more rustic.” It’s also, of course, a reference to the classic little black dress. “Just like the dress,” Lisa adds, “everyone needs one of these.”

Sometimes, she makes a recycled belt that serves as the strap, the focus of a bag. A hand-tooled belt with a scorpion image definitely set off one such. “I buy a lot of belts from a resale shop here in Chicago,” she explains. “And you’ll find a lot of woven belts and hand-tooled leatherwork from Mexico there because we have a large Mexican population in Chicago.”

Lisa’s designs often incorporate Native American, Southwestern and Mesoamerican elements. She also favors religious iconography, producing a whole series of “Sacred Heart” bags. One, seen recently on Etsy, featured glazed olive leather with a heart of black and reddish brown. Other styles embody what she calls her “creepier side,” like the “Metallic Silver Python Snake Print” with an “Olive Crescent Moon.” But, it’s all “huge fun,” she explains. “I love horror movies, and the witchy style is popular now. Some of my customers are goth cowgirls.”

Ransack Leather has customers everywhere, but a lot of them seem to be in Texas and throughout the South. Lisa thinks it could be the country or Western aspects of her pieces, such as the fringe and the studs. She keeps a personal connection with customers through social media. “Getting photos of customers with my bags is like waking up on Christmas morning and finding a Red Ryder BB gun under the tree,” she says. “I love seeing the faces of the people that use my bags, and the way that the bags fit with their own distinctive sense of style. Holy smokes, I’ll say, that’s exactly how I imagined it!”

Houston rock singer Allison Gibson, known as @alicesin13 on Instagram, found her Ransack bag fit perfectly with her look – described by a Houston paper as cut-off jeans, fishnet stockings and “star-spangled cowgirl boots.” In a photo on Lisa’s Instagram, the Texas rocker slays onstage wearing a Ransack fringed convertible waist bag adorned with a yellow rose applique. “It’s my favorite accessory!!!!!!” posts @alicesin13. “So beautiful and handy as heck!!!!!”

For International Women’s Day, Lisa made three posts with five images each of “fave photos of gorgeous, stylish women with my bags.” And while it may seem that her tastes and products run more to the tattooed and multi-colored-hair demographic, many of her creations appeal to a perhaps more demure set. “My mother even uses my bags.”

Often, obtaining a custom Ransack bag will be a deeply personal experience, as customers will ask Lisa to recycle a treasured leather garment or item into a new purpose. “For Christmas one year,” she says, “a woman found her grandmother’s suede coat in the attic and commissioned five clutch purses with zip pouches to be made from the coat for her granddaughters. I like projects like that, where what I make reminds the customer of someone special.”

For her friend Melissa Banks, proprietor of Rapt in Maille jewelry – with whom Lisa has collaborated not only on sales, but also on giveaway projects of bag-and-jewelry sets – she repurposed a beloved old motorcycle jacket into a one-of-a-kind bag. “That was a really wonderful project,” she says. “She and I had grown up at the same time and had similar leather jackets. We danced to the same bands in the same jackets. So the project reminded me so much of my teen years. The only materials on the bag that were not recycled were the rivets, thread, a couple of spring hooks and suede lining. I even used the original zipper from the front of the jacket. I included a few pieces and parts that are removable or adjustable, so Melissa can alter the bag as she likes.”

Talking to Lisa, it’s hard to imagine someone who has more fun performing their job. In addition to the creative aspect, there’s the adventure of finding materials on and off the beaten path. She recalls especially fruitful excursions to Arizona towns like Prescott and Jerome. And, this fall she will trek to Spain and Morocco to explore their leather traditions.

But it always comes back to the people and the personal connection of providing something for someone that is so them. “This purse is my SOUL,” posted one bag’s new owner. “I love it so much. I haven’t splurged on a new bag in about three years because I couldn’t find ‘the one’. This is ‘the one!’ It even came in a lovely handmade tote that is also my style. Thank you thank you!”

Reclaim. Reuse. Reinvent.

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