Fashion & Beauty

Designer Kate Spade: An Appreciation

Kate Spade at the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards, 10/19/01, NYC / Shutterstock

I REMEMBER it well—buying one of Kate Spade’s square-ish black nylon bags with a bright pink gingham lining in the mid-‘90s. It was affordable, especially compared to an “it” Fendi.

In 1993, the Kansas-City born Spade, née Brosnahan (aunt to Rachel of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel“), founded her company with her fiancé, then-husband Andy Spade, whom she met at Arizona State University. After graduation, as an accessories editor at Mademoiselle magazine, she was uninspired by the handbags of the time, judging them overly embellished. It then became her mission to design something that was functional as well as stylish. Showing her outside-the-box smarts, she cleverly distinguished her brand by switching the label from the inside to the outside. Celebs took notice and the label took off.

Spade, who forged the path for the likes of Tory Burch and Jenna Lyons, had a look all her own, with her retro bouffant hairdo, geeky glasses, quirky, kind of hip, grandma way of dressing and an infectious smile. Not to mention a genius for recognizing business opportunities. Spade won a CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers) International Award in 1996 and 1998.

In addition to handbags, she designed a variety of other accessories like those coveted calendar pages everyone wanted for their Filofax, of-the-moment sunglasses, lively dinnerware and clothing (I was the proud owner of a pair of menswear-inspired, white cotton pajamas edged in pink that I purchased from the newly opened Kate Spade store in Georgetown some 25 or so years ago).

Neiman Marcus Group bought the business in 1999, but the Spades remained on until 2007 after the company was sold to Liz Claiborne. Kate Spade & Company was acquired in 2017 by Coach, Inc., which became the holding company Tapestry (it owns Coach and Stuart Weitzman).

Spade left the fashion world for ten years to raise her daughter, but I was hoping she was on her second act when she started a new accessories label called Francis Valentine in 2016.  The Francis Valentine heel was inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, “designed to be an intrinsically stable structure.” How very Kate.

And how very sad that she died at 55. It’s hard not to think of that other famous handbag designer Judith Leiber, whose long career gave us so many over-the-top crystal-encrusted minaudières to remember her by.

Kate Spade was found dead in her NYC apartment June 5 of an apparent suicide.

—Janet Kelly

One thought on “Designer Kate Spade: An Appreciation

  1. Nancy says:

    This is so sad. I’ve always loved her designs.

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