Kate Spade: Fashion designer who arrived in New York with $7 and built an empire on her must-have handbag

‘I said to myself, where’s a 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?’

Matt Schudel
Wednesday 06 June 2018 16:49
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Fashion designer Kate Spade has been found dead in her apartment, according to police

Kate Spade was the American designer best known for her simple, colourful handbags, which became favoured accessories of professional women in the 1990s.

New Yorker Spade, who police believe took her own life at the age of 55, began her career at Mademoiselle magazine, where she worked her way up from an entry-level to senior editor for accessories. Often disappointed at the selection and prices of handbags available for fashion photo sessions, she decided to start a business and design them herself.

The designer bags from Prada and Louis Vuitton were too precious, in every way, to suit Spade, who preferred a simple woven bag with no zippers or flaps.

“I said to myself, ‘Where’s a 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 said in 1997.

With no training in design, she went to work in her apartment, using construction paper and Scotch tape to find the right dimensions. Her first handbag was made of burlap, the cheapest material she could find.

“I sat down with some tracing paper, and I knew immediately what the shape should be – a very simple square,” she said in 2003. “At the time no one was doing anything that clean. The shape gave me a real flexible canvas for applying all the ideas I had for a lot of colours, patterns, and fabrics.”

She took her designs took to a manufacturer in Brooklyn and showed her first six models at an accessories show in 1993. She sold a few, but not enough to cover the cost of the booth at the exhibition hall.

Then unmarried and still known by her maiden name, Kate Brosnahan, she searched for the right brand name, trying out several before taking the advice of her boyfriend, Andy Spade.

“Andy kept saying the whole time, ‘Kate Spade, Kate Spade – listen to how it sounds,’” she said in 1999. The Kate Spade company was formed one year before she and Andy Spade were married in 1994.

She had another stroke of inspiration the night before another accessories trade show in New York.

“There was something missing,” Spade admitted in 1999. “We needed something for the eye to go to.”

She decided removing the small black labels written in lowercase lettering – “kate spade new york” – from inside the handbags and put them on the outside. She stayed up all night, hand-stitching them to the exterior or her bags, giving them just the visual texture they needed.

Whether made of leather, nylon, canvas, tweed or other materials, a Kate Spade bag had a distinctive look, with almost an architectural solidity. It was easy to carry and didn’t overwhelm the rest of a woman’s ensemble. Her bags often came in bright hues or pastels, with vibrantly contrasting linings and simple handles.

“I don’t like really long straps,” Spade said in 1996. “You might as well have your bag on a leash and drag it behind you.”

Her handbags were picked up by Barneys and other department stores, and Spade began to be recognised as one of the fashion world’s top designers of accessories. Vogue and other magazines featured her creations, and celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow were spotted carrying Kate Spade bags.

Her husband, who is the older brother of actor and comedian David Spade, left his job in advertising to become chief executive of the Kate Spade corporation. By the late 1990s, their simple but chic handbags had become especially popular with upscale, working women.

“I like things to endure because that’s the way I shop,” Spade said. “If I buy a cashmere sweater I want it to be something I wear for a long time. That’s how I feel about this company. I want it to be like a fashion version of LL Bean, never in or out.”

In 1998, she and her husband sold 56 per cent of their company to Neiman Marcus for $33m but retained creative control over the products.

“They are the most unlikely people that you expect to find in the fashion world,” Leonard Lauder, chairman of Estee Lauder, said in 2002. “Kate is the girl next door. I’ve been acquainted with so many fashionistas over the years, and she is the anti-fashionista.”

Spade’s personal design aesthetic owed little to the passing whims of the fashion world.

“People would come in and want aubergine because it was the colour of the season,” she said in 2003. “They would say, ‘Everyone’s doing it!’ And I’d say, ‘Well, you’re probably covered then.’”

In time, Spade expanded her design offerings to paper products, sunglasses, shoes, luggage and clothing. She even designed flight attendants’ outfits. In 2002, she appeared on an episode of Just Shoot Me, a sitcom starring her brother-in-law, and branched out into writing books and general lifestyle advice. Kate Spade specialty stores opened around the world.

Critics said the quality of her materials declined, and the value of genuine Kate Spade items was undercut by a flourishing market of counterfeit bags. By 2007, the Spades had sold their remaining interest in the company to Neiman Marcus for $124m. The Kate Spade line was sold in turn to Liz Claiborne and is currently owned by a corporate entity called Tapestry.

Katherine Noel Brosnahan was born on 24 December 1962, in Kansas City, Missouri. Her father owned a construction company, and her mother was a homemaker.

She followed few fashion trends, other than shopping for brightly coloured items at thrift stores, to stand out from her sisters.

While attending Arizona State University, she worked in a department store, where she met Andy Spade, a fellow student. She graduated in 1985 and later settled in New York, reportedly with only $7 to her name.

Through an employment agency, she found an entry level job at Mademoiselle, where she spent eight years. When she launched her design company, she had an agreement that she could return to the magazine if the venture failed.

In recent years, Spade launched a new accessories line, Frances Valentine, named in part after her daughter, featuring new lines of handbags, shoes and other items.

Survivors include her husband and their 13-year-old daughter.

Known for her whimsical, slightly old-fashioned sense of style, Spade offered this fashion advice in a 2006 interview: “Dress for yourself. It’s so much more fun.”

Kate Spade, American fashion designer, born 24 December 1962, died 5 June 2018

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