Kate Spade's Groundbreaking Career: A Look Back at the Designer's Most Major Milestones
Kate Spade, who in 1993 founded her wildly successful namesake label Kate Spade New York, died in her N.Y.C. apartment on Tuesday of an apparent suicide.
Police say she was found hanging from a red scarf Tuesday morning in her bedroom at her Park Avenue home in Manhattan. The scarf had reportedly been tied to her door.
According to a police source, Kate was discovered by a housekeeper, and she apparently left a suicide note, though its contents are not known at this time.
Born Katherine Noel Brosnahan in Kansas City, Missouri in 1962, Kate studied journalism at Arizona State University before beginning her career in the accessories department of Mademoiselle magazine in the early 1980s – “tying models’ shoes on a photo shoot…that or getting hairstylists Snickers…it was a lot of work, I’ll say that,” she said on NPR’s How I Built That podcast.
She left the magazine in 1993 as Accessories Editor to embark on her next venture — fashion design.
Despite having no prior design background, she wanted to create her own line after being frustrated with the lack of function in the popular handbags of the time. “I wanted a functional bag that was sophisticated and had some style,” she told The New York Times in 1999.
The designer and her then-boyfriend Andy Spade (the brother of David), with whom she’d moved to New York after meeting at their men’s clothing store job back in Arizona, teamed up with friend Elyce Arons to launch the brand, combining her first and his last name. “My Catholic parents…I told my mom and honestly, she burst into flames,” Kate recalled in NPR’s How I Built This podcast of the moment she told her parents the name of their brand. “She said, ‘But you’re not Kate Spade! Oh, now you’ll never be Kate Spade, now you’ve jinxed it. And why would you name it Kate Spade?’ And I said, Well, it’s my first name, his last name, it’s like Dolce & Gabbana, and she goes, ‘Who the hell’s that?'”
Despite early wins – Barneys bought some of their bags when she showed at booth at an accessories show at Javits Center – Kate told NPR that they were “still not making any money, nobody was making a salary,” in those early days.
“Andy was funding everything,” Kate said. “I just remember thinking, ‘I think we need to shut it down.’”
But her accessories editor’s attention to detail was what propelled the brand to massive success. According to The New York Times in 1999, she was up all night before her second showing, and suddenly decided to take the label on the inside of the bag and sew it on the outside, “deciding they needed something to attract the eye.”
Before long, her signature boxy nylon handbags, now identifiable by that square nameplate stitched to every design, were ubiquitous, seen on everyone from young girls to massive stars including Drew Barrymore, Cindy Crawford and Sandra Bullock, who in 1996 told People the brand was “an obsession.” Under Kate’s supervision, the brand capitalized on its immense popularity to expand into clothing, shoes and fragrance.
Friend and former Executive Director of the CFDA Fern Mallis told PEOPLE that Kate was “as adorable as her accessories were. She was always dressed fun and was always perky. She was very spirited. She was just a delight.”
By 1998 the company made $28 million in sales and in 1999 Neiman Marcus bought 56 percent of the company. In 2006, it was sold to Liz Claiborne, Inc. (which renamed itself after Kate Spade New York), then to Coach, Inc. (now known as Tapestry) in 2017.
The couple sold their shares in the company in 2007 to spend time with their daughter, Frances Beatrix Spade (who was born in 2005) and to pursue other ventures; Kate became involved with philanthropy, and Andy went on to create a line of loungewear, Sleepy Jones.
“I wanted to leave on good terms, it was the perfect time to leave,” Kate told NPR. “I wanted to spend time with my daughter. I’d heard so many horror stories about people who sell and then they stay and then they fight and they sue…so I thought ‘Oh, that’s too ugly for me.’ So it was seamless. It was a very quiet exit.”
She told PEOPLE in 2016, “I needed a break and I really wanted to raise my daughter [Frances],” Spade said. “People asked me, ‘Don’t you miss it?’ I really didn’t. I mean, I loved what I was doing, but I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I might.”
Kate Spade, 55, Found Dead in N.Y.C. Apartment from Apparent Suicide
After 10 years away from the retail industry, the couple launched a brand new accessories brand, Frances Valentine, in 2016, noting that they worked well together despite having different personalities (she told PEOPLE he is “relaxed more of a risk taker” while she was “more detailed and uptight neurotic”).
“We’re both very creative,” Kate told the NYT in 1999 about their working dynamic. ‘”But he has a calm approach and I tend to get very nervous. I worry a lot. And he says, ‘It’s just handbags. Jeez, Kate, it’s just handbags.'”
In order to set her new label apart from the old, Kate legally changed her name to Kate Valentine Spade. “I thought it was important to distinguish who I am now,” she told PEOPLE. “I’m the same person, but there’s a difference.”
She told InStyle at the time of the brand’s launch that she wanted to make this new brand completely separate from her first business. “I definitely went into this not wanting to repeat what I’ve done or what’s being done through my namesake,” she says. “I respect what they’re doing and what I did then, but it’s important that there’s a distinction and that you can feel it.”
During her 2016 PEOPLE interview, Kate identified the piece of advice she’d give her younger self: “Don’t rest on your laurels. The end result isn’t as important as the effort that goes into it. Jump all the way in. Don’t be afraid. And don’t worry so much,” she said.
But before launching Frances Valentine, she tweaked her approach. “My dad always says ‘Just float.’ He’s very zen,” she said. “Not every little pebble is a boulder. And it’s kind of how I approached [my new brand]. I feel a little less nervous. I should be more nervous, but I’m not going to take it so crazily, hopefully.”
From the early days of her boxy Sam bag (so beloved that Kate Spade New York relaunched it this year) to her namesake label’s many famous faces and red carpet appearances, Kate and her fun-loving, festive aesthetic had a major impact on fashion, and many celebrities shared memories on social media.
“Kate Spade was more than a designer,” Lena Dunham, who had worn Frances Valentine pieces, wrote on Twitter. “She had a quirky visual language that captivated Bat Mitzvah girls and artists alike. She was also a staple of NYC who spread good will. My heart breaks for her family. Thank you, Kate, from one of the millions you made feel beautiful.”
Chelsea Clinton recalled that her grandmother gave her her first Kate Spade bag when she was in college. “I still have it. Holding Kate’s family, friends and loved ones in my heart,” while Jenna Bush Hager similarly wrote, “I will never forget the first Kate Spade bag I got for Christmas in college. She was a trailblazer. Her life and death are a reminder that pain doesn’t discriminate. Sending love to her family.”
Throughout her career as an accessories designer, she was recognized for her achievements by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, winning “America’s New Fashion Talent in Accessories” in 1996 and taking home the CFDA Award for “Best Accessory Designer of the Year” in 1998.
Ultimately, what made a Spade a Spade was its namesake’s commitment to doing what she loved every day. “I do things that I actually love and understand,” she told the Palm Beach Post in 2002. She reiterated that statement in her 2016 PEOPLE interview: “You’ve got to be fearless. Don’t feel like, ugh, I have to buy that bag because that bag is in. I love it when someone is like, ‘What is that?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t even know!’”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).