How Kate Spade Changed Women’s Fashion—and Made Us Smile
Chelsea Clinton and Lena Dunham are among those recalling Kate Spade’s influence in the wake of her death. Spade’s career was both inspirational and a cautionary fashion lesson.
Kate Spade’s handbags were cheerful and quirky: They came with polka dots, were shaped like typewriters, a Dalmatian, a vintage car, and candy wrapper, or a pair of mirrored sunglasses with the New York battle-cry “Taxi” issuing forth from them.
They came in hot pinks and oranges, and with red polka dot bow ties on the front. They were roomy and bucket-shaped, and had even more bold patterns on their innards. One was designed in the shape of a heart.
The bags had style, but they were also designed to make you smile. They were fashionable, but encouraged you to have fun with whatever your definition of fashion was. They were a zippily placed pin in the balloon of aesthetic pomposity—even if, for all that she became known for this playful whimsy, Spade’s first popular bag was the simple black “Sam” bag, which in its color and functionality was so-very New York.
In the next few days and weeks, speculation about what led to the designer to die by suicide may intensify. Perhaps there will be some answers, perhaps —as in many cases of suicide—not. Police have confirmed that the designer left a note. The 55-year-old Spade has a husband, Andy (also her business partner, and brother of actor David Spade) and daughter Frances, both very likely in deep shock.
Customers have been reportedly weeping at the stores which bear her name —even if, at the time of her death, she did not have any ownership stake in them. She had lost all commercial control over her name some time ago; at the time of her death she was a partner in a relatively new fashion business, Frances Valentine. (The Daily Beast has reached out to comment from the company.)
At around 2 p.m. on Tuesday, the Kate Spade brand (since last year owned by Coach Inc., now known as Tapestry) posted the following message to Twitter.
On social media, the same message, alongside the contact details of suicide-related organizations, echoed: Just because you are successful it doesn’t mean that depression cannot do its worst. Whatever the outside appearance of someone’s life, whatever their income and wealth, they can still be stalked by the most disabling of mental demons.
Also online people, famous and not, are sharing their memories of buying their first Kate Spade bag, or having it bought for them; a cheering entry marker into adulthood.
Chelsea Clinton (who serves on the board of IAC, The Daily Beast’s parent company) recalled her grandmother buying her her first Kate Spade bag in college. She still has it.
For Lena Dunham, pictured in 2017 in a pair of Frances Valentine pompom shoes, Spade “was more than a designer. She had a quirky visual language that captivated Bat Mitzvah girls and artists alike. She was also a staple of NYC who spread good will. My heart breaks for her family. Thank you, Kate, from one of the millions you made feel beautiful.”
Spade’s name stood for a distinctly modest kind of American glamour. Not for the high-priced shores of haute couture and crazy excesses of Fashion Weeks. If you think of her name first you may think of her first line of handbags, and then the logo, “Kate Spade New York” which was carried on the front of the bags, priced between $200 and $400.
Kate Spade made accessible accessories, and the branding and popularity of her bags led the label to become a lifestyle brand, encompassing stationery, shoes, coats, eyewear, beauty products, and homeware.
In a statement Tuesday, Diane von Furstenberg (who is married to Barry Diller, chairman of IAC) and Steven Kolb, CFDA chief executive and chairwoman respectively, said, “The CFDA is devastated to hear the news of our friend, colleague, and CFDA member Kate Spade’s tragic passing. She was a great talent who had an immeasurable impact on American fashion and the way the world viewed American accessories.
“We want to honor her life and her major contribution to the fashion business and express our most sincere condolences to the family.”
It is a strange dovetailing of events that brings Spade’s apparent suicide together with the 20th anniversary of Sex and The City. (Charlotte’s Kate Spade purse famously wouldn’t hold her tampons.) The Spade “New York” of the late ’90s and early aughts was a real life mirror of style and urban confidence as exuded by Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte. Kate Spade made New York her own on her own terms, just as much as the dearly cherished quartet of friends did.
Spade’s entrée to the city predates “the girls,” by a few years. She grew up in Kansas City, Missouri (her niece is actress Rachel Brosnahan). She and Andy met at Arizona State University, later moving to New York together. After working in the fashion department of Mademoiselle magazine, she designed and sold her first line of bags in 1993. The Barney’s buyer wanted the Kate Spade name tag on the inside of the bag, but the brand’s followers demanded it on the exterior.
“This is deeply personal to a lot of us who came of age in the ’90s and early 2000s,” said Elizabeth Shobert, director of marketing for fashion analytics company StyleSage, of Spade’s death. “I remember it—that KS tote—as the first ‘designer’ item I saved up and bought for myself. Not only were her bags aspirational, accessible in price point, and practical, but she herself was a story of someone moving to the big city and making it there (in fashion). She was the embodiment of ‘new luxury.’ She was cute, quirky, a little retro, and it was just right.
“Furthermore, if you look at the Kate Spade brand in the historical perspective of both luxury and how American designers have been positioned within that market, hers was one of the first new ‘affordable luxury’ brands of our generation—markedly less formal and overtly labeled as such (luxury), which I believe is a very American kind of persona.
“The petite label was there, but it was much more subtle than the logos of many the luxury handbag brands we all knew. I think her success, in one part, paved the way for today’s emerging luxury brands like Mansur Gavriel, for example, to embrace a younger, less stuffy approach to luxury.”
By 1996, with Kate and her husband Andy now married and running the company together, sales were at $6 million; by 1999, when Neiman Marcus acquired a controlling interest in it, it was $50 million. There followed stores and licensing deals; the brand kept diversifying (even into music). Sales hit $200 million in 2005.
“I think what really differentiated Kate Spade is that they’ve kept close tabs on who their customer is,” said Shobert. “That she’s dripping in personality is a constant. But as she evolves and matures, what kinds of products might she be interested in? She wears the bags but what else completes the outfit? That equaled an opportunity for apparel. And she’s a person who likes to entertain friends and family, so she would probably be interested in tableware for entertaining guests in style at home. Hence the decor and interiors products.
“Essentially, they’ve kept the brand personality consistent and intact as they’ve grown into new product categories, and that is key to them maintaining their relevance.”
In 2006, Neiman Marcus bought the rest of the brand from the Spades, then sold the brand to Liz Claiborne. Last year, Liz Claiborne sold the Kate Spade brand to Coach for an estimated $2.4 billion. No longer financially linked to the company bearing her name, Kate Spade saw not one cent of that.
Her exit from her own company was “very quiet,” Spade said. For a period of time she devoted herself to parenting and philanthropy (particularly for the New York Center For Children).
“I needed a break and I really wanted to raise my daughter,” she told People in 2016. “People asked me, ‘Don’t you miss it?’ I really didn’t. I mean, I loved what I was doing, but I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I might.”
In 2015, she, Andy, their good friends Elyce Arons and Paola Venturi launched a new accessory collection, Frances Valentine (named after their daughter, Frances Beatrix), with a price point higher than the original Spade bags. Kate renamed herself Kate Valentine.
In a 2016 Business of Fashion interview, Kate said: “The biggest difference with the bags this time is that we’re doing fewer. I’m not in any hurry. It’s not fun for me to have a business that is not a business.”
“We’ll start out with the shoes and bags, and then once we get that established we can do other things,” said Andy.
The quartet were “doing it 100 percent ourselves,” said Kate.
“No outside investment allows us to take our time,” Andy added. “A lot of investors want return, and we’re basically looking at this as our next 20 years, so it might not build up so quickly.”
“The new company was formed to represent the four partners’ passions and values,” a 2017 press statement read. “Kate brings her American take on chic to design, Andy his conceptual ideas, Paola her unwavering attention to detail and craftsmanship, and Elyce her unpretentious instinct for what works.
“The four friends have set out to create a spirited, independent company that people will love to work for and be proud of. Frances Valentine is about modern, beautifully made design for the woman who wants something truly special.”
As for what happens next to Kate Spade, the brand as owned by Tapestry, and the future of the Frances Valentine brand, Shobert said: “I believe ‘Kate Spade’ has a very bright future indeed. Tapestry has specifically mentioned that KS’ millennial customers, and all the data they have on them, was one of the key strategic advantages of the acquisition.
“Moreover, being part of the larger family of Tapestry means that hopefully they have more power to leverage and control their wholesale relationships and can have a faster, more responsive supply chain to get products to consumers faster.”
If Spade was the key creative visionary at Frances Valentine, then now—in the wake of her passing—“there is certainly real cause to worry about its fate,” Shobert said.