The Life and Legacy of Kate Spade

Raeesa Ashique - 4A Electrical
Posted on: June 17, 2018

Designer and businesswoman Kate Spade, co-founder of the popular lifestyle brand bearing her name, committed suicide at her Manhattan apartment on Tuesday, June 5. She leaves behind thirteen-year-old daughter Frances Beatrix, husband and business partner Andy Spade, and a generation of women who worshipped her style.

Her family said in a statement: “We are all devastated by today’s tragedy. We loved Kate dearly and will miss her terribly. We would ask that our privacy be respected as we grieve during this very difficult time.”

Kate Spade New York issued a statement, confirming the “incredibly sad news” of their founder’s death. They said in a tweet: “We honor the beauty she brought into this world.”

Kate Spade and her husband founded the company, which is known primarily for its colourful handbags, in 1993, developing the lifestyle brand before the term officially existed and paving the way for other female designers in America. Her goal was to create “a functional bag that was sophisticated and had some style.”

Joe Zee, former creative director of Elle and former fashion director of W, admired her for being ahead of her time. “She knew what the fashion world needed before we did. Kate just did what she felt was right, regardless of what the industry would think.”

Token looks of the brand include bold colours, preppy stripes, polka dots, and fun silhouettes. With her big glasses, playful grin, and accessible personality, Spade embodied her brand; she too was “colourful and unpretentious”.

Over the years, the company expanded into clothing, home goods, china, and towels, among other products. They now have over 315 international locations, including over 140 retail shops and outlets across the US.

In 1999, the couple sold 56% of the brand to the Neiman Marcus Group for $33.6M, selling their remaining stake in 2006. A year later, Liz Claiborne acquired the company. It changed hands again in May 2017, with an acquisition by Coach. Although the Spades have not been affiliated with the company in over ten years, the original designs have been maintained; Kate Spade bags and other products still reflect their namesake’s demeanor.

Spade is also dedicated to philanthropy through the Kate Spade & Company Foundation which promotes economic equality for women.

Struggle with Depression

Andy Spade released a statement after his wife’s suicide, opening with, “Kate was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was the kindest person I’ve ever known and my best friend for 35 years.”

He continued to say that she had been actively seeking help for depression and anxiety for the last several years. The couple had been living separately for ten months, although they were still on good terms; co-parenting their daughter was a priority. He stressed this point: “We were not legally separated, and never even discussed divorce… We loved each other very much and simply needed break.”

This outcome was unexpected by the family, even considering her struggle with mental illness. “We were in touch with her the night before and she sounded happy. There was no indication and no warning that she would do this. It was a complete shock.”

Kate Spade’s older sister, Reta Saffo, disagreed. She also shared Kate’s struggle with depression with the media, saying, “this was not unexpected by me” in an email to The Kansas City Star. Aware of Kate’s struggle with depression, Saffo repeatedly urged her sister to seek treatment, but the designer was afraid that hospitalization would taint her brand’s “happy-go-lucky” image. “After numerous attempts, I finally let go. Sometimes you simply cannot save people from themselves.”

She also mentioned that Kate seemed obsessed with Robin Williams’s suicide: “I think the plan was already in motion even as far back as then.”

Spade’s brother, Earl Brosnahan, was in touch with the New York Times to call these statements “grossly inaccurate”, saying that Saffo has been on poor terms with the family, aside from Spade, for over ten years. However, Spade’s father, Frank Brosnahan supported Saffo’s decision to openly discuss Spade’s struggle. “Any talk that helps someone else, Katy would have liked that. She was always giving and charitable.”

Rise to Fashion Icon

Spade was never particularly interested in fashion, even early in life. She considered becoming a television producer while studying journalism at Arizona State University. While in school, she worked at a motorcycle bar, where she met her husband-to-be Andy Spade. Even then, her colourful personality shone through. “You’d walk in, and she was the only one in the pink crew-neck sweater,” he noted.

When she graduated in 1985, they moved to New York, where she worked as the assistant fashion editor at fashion magazine Mademoiselle. Five years later, she became the accessories editor. In this role, she was unimpressed with handbags of the era.

In a conversation with NPR, the Spades recalled discussing this idea. “So, Andy and I were out, honestly, at a Mexican restaurant, and he just said, what about handbags? And I said, honey, you just don’t start a handbag company. And he said, why not? How hard can it be? (Laughs) He regrets those words.”

When Spade was starting out, “everyone thought that the definition of a handbag was strictly European, all decades-old serious status and wealth”, according to Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue. “Then along came this thoroughly American young woman who changed everything.”

Spade began making prototypes and was able to find a manufacturer to take a chance on her start-up. In 1993, she had a booth at an accessories show where a few of the bags were picked up by Julie Gilhart, fashion director of Barneys New York. Gilhart called the mid-90s “the time of the handbag”, applauding Spade for bringing bags to young women with lower budgets. After this first show, the company grew, slowly but surely.

Her Legacy

Everyone remembers their first Kate Spade. The handbag bridges the gap between childhood and young adulthood; it is almost a coming-of-age ritual. The bags are accessible to a younger crowd, free of the cost or ambiance of a luxury brand, while still remaining classy and timeless. Clutches and dresses have made numerous appearances on the red carpet.

“Kate Spade had an enviable gift of understanding exactly what women the world over wanted to carry,” commented Wintour.

Part of her legacy is how she expressed herself through art. Cindi Leive, former editor-in-chief of Glamour magazine, said that Spade, “understood that women are going to respond to things that feel like they’re made by a human, that they are expressing someone’s personality.”

Walking down the street, one sees Kate Spade bags left, right, and centre. The brilliant designer lives on through her brand, bringing joy and colour and style to women the world over.

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