The designer, who died at 55, built up a female-led lifestyle brand that held an accessible appeal across generations.
JUN 5, 2018
A trip to the mall wasn’t a trip if it didn’t include a stop at the Kate Spade store. Teenage me would insist that, after the requisite stops had been made, my mother and I do a quick walk-through—just a minute, mom, I promise—to assess the jewel-box store filled with bright-pink bags, orange-and-white striped coats, and golden-edged Bakelite-esque bangles. It didn’t matter that I never left with anything, because it wasn’t what Kate Spade was selling that drew me in—it was the idea.
As a teen, it seemed to me that Kate Spade—both the brand and the woman—embodied what it meant to be both feminine and feminist. You don’t need to choose, say the nylon bags big enough to carry both your work laptop and a makeup pouch filled with six different shades of lipstick. It’s okay to be structured and Type A and a perfectionist, say the floral-patterned planners. It’s also fine to have a little bit—or a whole lot—of whimsy, say the oversized sunhats embroidered with the word lovely in curly pink cursive.
Kate Spade, who was found dead of an apparent suicide Tuesday morning, was a designer who did more than support the notion that it was okay for women to have multifaceted lives. She also wholeheartedly endorsed it through the clothes, bags, and accessories she began selling via her eponymous brand, founded in 1993 with her then-boyfriend and future husband, Andy Spade. For years, she worked at Mademoiselle magazine in the fashion and accessories departments. After growing annoyed with all the spangled and ostentatiously decorated purses she was seeing, Kate Spade quit in order to make “a functional bag that was sophisticated and had some style,” she once told The New York Times. By 1998, those bags and the products that followed had led to a $28 million company.
What Spade was doing back then, and what the label has continued to do after her departure from the company in 2007, was creating a lifestyle brand by women, for women. Working in an industry largely run by men, Spade didn’t invent the idea of the professional woman who also cared about style; she was just responding to the reality of what women were already doing. Spade was a designer, as Vanessa Friedman put it at The New York Times, “who thought about what other women (like her) would want in their closets (and later, their homes) and who solved that problem without elitism.” The aesthetic of Kate Spade mirrored some of the feminist tendencies of the early 1990s: The brand was for women who had careers and families, and who didn’t think that clashed with wanting to look, simply put, pretty.
Looking back, I think what Kate Spade was selling teens like me was an idea that many young women around my age were brought up to believe. We were told that one day we could be doctors, lawyers, and journalists; we could have a family; and we could have a Kate Spade bag that would help us out with all of it. Many of us saw Kate Spade as a kind of introductory brand to the lives we hoped to have in a few years. Sure, it wasn’t the fantasyland of Chanel or Gucci or Valentino (which are all very nice, but see: journalist). But the label epitomized the accessible, only-slightly-off-in-the-distance world of being a full-fledged adult woman. Because a $298 satchel bag seemed a much more reasonable thing for 30-year-old me to own than a $5,900 chain-link Chanel.
Spade was making products for the women of her time, and for the girls of the future. Although it’s possible to view some of her designs as too of-a-bygone-era, with their air of 1950s femininity and Audrey Hepburn sophistication, Spade spoke to a version of adulthood that many women bought into, and in doing so laid the foundation for an empire that would surpass $1 billion in revenue in 2014. Her line allowed for the possibility that women appreciated clothes and accessories with both style and substance, which helped to catapult her into the spotlight and paved the way for other female-led lifestyle brands like Tory Burch to succeed. By tapping into a taste that wasn’t “too luxe, too hip, too retro, too fashionable, too fast,” in the words of a 2002 Vanity Fairprofile, Kate Spade flourished over the decades. It grew in ubiquity as the young girls who fell in love with the line’s wares years ago continued to carry the brand’s bags, wear its outfits, and buy its stationery.
As remembrances of the designer started to pour in on the internet, Chelsea Clinton wrote on Twitter that she still has her first Kate Spade bag, which her grandmother gave her when she was in college. This past Christmas, my mom gave me my first Kate Spade wallet, after all of those years of coerced visits to that store in the mall. In some ways, I’ve become the adult I thought I would be back then. And in many ways, I haven’t, yet. But I can see it still, closer in the distance now, growing up the way Kate Spade helped me imagine.