Spunky, bright, irreverent and cheeky – the label Kate Spade is all-American and quintessentially New York, quite like its founding designer. Hours after news emerged that Kate Spade, 55, had ended her life in an apparent suicide at her Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan, NYC on June 5, social media platforms were flooded with teary tributes and speculative stories. But what stood out in the outpouring of grief and spouting of armchair psychology were posts where hundreds of women shared images of the first Kate Spade bags they’d bought.
For most American girls, and arguably young women all over the world, buying a Kate Spade handbag was a coming-of-age ritual. As the designer’s New York Times (NYT) obituary said, Kate’s bags “carried women into adulthood”. “The purses she made became a status symbol and a token of adulthood,” it said.
Whether you own a Kate Spade or not, chances are you’ve heard of the brand that perfected the art of creating the entry-level luxury handbag. Colourful, clever, functional, yet fashionable were the hallmarks of a brand that stood for affordable luxury. And to think it all started with a line of black nylon bags.
It was in 1991 that Spade, then Brosnahan, an accessories editor at the now defunct Mademoiselle magazine in Manhattan, decided to quit her job and launch her own line of handbags with then husband-to-be and creative partner Andy Spade. “I wanted a functional bag that was sophisticated and had some style,” she told NYT in 1999.
The couple launched Kate Spade New York, an amalgam of their names, in January 1993 and one of their first creations, a boxy and functional nylon tote, which was christened “The Sam”, soon went on to gain iconic status and spearheaded the label into a different league. Today, the brand boasts of a stable of handbags that are quirky, bright and youthful, along with chic clothing, footwear, jewellery, journals, etc. Her fashion accessories empire found favour with stylish women like Kate Middleton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Anna Wintour and Gwyneth Paltrow, among others.
And while the iconic it-bag The Sam saw a reprisal recently and made a triumphant comeback in the brand’s Spring 2018 line at New York Fashion Week, not many know that the Spades had exited the business a while ago. After they sold the business to Neiman Marcus in parts in 1999 and 2006, it changed hands a few times, and the brand is now a subsidiary of Tapestry Inc. (earlier known as Coach).
But that didn’t spell the end of Kate Spade’s designing career. In 2016, a decade after she took a sabbatical to raise her daughter Frances Beatrix, she launched a new brand called Frances Valentine and, in her inimitable style, took on the surname Valentine. The new brand, claimed Kate Valentine Spade, was a reflection of the last ten years of her life. In 2017, Fast Company even named her one of the Most Creative People in Business.
Even as new details surrounding her reported suicide emerge, with husband Andy admitting that the designer was battling depression, Kate Spade New York’s tribute says it succinctly: “We honour all the beauty she brought into this world”. In a 2002 Glamour Women of the Year interview, Spade told the magazine she wanted to be remembered “not just as a good businesswoman, but a great friend… And a heck of a lot of fun.” As a quote attributed to her and her label goes: “She who leaves a trail of glitter is never forgotten”