Kate Spade, 1962–2018
The fashion designer who built a handbag empire
In 1995, Kate Spade was certain that her handbag business was doomed. Although big department stores were placing orders for her brightly colored, sharp-cornered bags, she wasn’t breaking even, and the personal savings that had kept the startup afloat were running low. “I remember thinking we should shut it down,” Spade later recalled. Yet within a year, she had won a rising-talent award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Saks was selling her handbags, and sales had quadrupled. Aspirational and comparatively affordable—at $200 to $350, the bags were far cheaper than those of Prada or Fendi—Spade’s designs soon appeared in Vogue and on the arms of starlets such as Nicole Kidman and Gwyneth Paltrow. “There was a moment,” Vogue editor Anna Wintour said of Spade, who committed suicide last week at age 55, “when you couldn’t walk a block in New York without seeing one of her bags, which were just like her: colorful and unpretentious.”
Born Katherine Brosnahan in Kansas City, Mo., to a construction worker father and realtor mother, “she did not grow up obsessed with fashion,” said The New York Times. She studied journalism at Arizona State University, where she met her husband-to-be, Andy Spade, and after graduation she headed to New York City. There she took as job at Mademoiselle magazine, rising to become accessories editor. Often disappointed with the luxury handbags used in photo sessions—they were too expensive and too fussy—“she decided to start a business and design them herself,” said The Washington Post. “I said to myself, ‘Where’s the bag that I can afford, that’s simple, that’s not saying too much, and that I won’t be embarrassed to pull out every season,” she recalled in 1997. A design novice, Spade handcrafted prototypes out of paper and Scotch tape, creating shapes that she described as “boxy, clean, sharp-edged, but not dizzy.”
The business grew slowly at first, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.), but accelerated after she ripped the “kate spade” logos from inside the bags and sewed them to the outside, “creating an instantly recognizable name brand.” Her bags became a rite of passage into adulthood for many young women, and in 1999 Neiman Marcus bought 56 percent of the firm for $34 million. It snapped up the rest of the business in 2006 for $124 million.
Spade had struggled with depression for years, said The Times (U.K.), and admitted this year that she was enduring sleepless nights following the launch of her new brand, Frances Valentine. Spade had said in 2004 that the one thing she hoped to achieve in life was “happiness.” Such moments were fleeting in her high-pressure existence, but one occurred recently when she walked into a Kate Spade store in New York with her young daughter. The shop assistant didn’t recognize Spade and asked, “Are you on our mailing list?” Smiling, Spade said no. “And I remember thinking, ‘You know, no, I’m not on your mailing list, but I think I helped create it.’”