"I've now come to see the company as our tribute to her," Spade's Frances Valentine business partner and confidant Elyce Arons shares with PEOPLE in an emotional first-person tribute

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June 05, 2019 03:34 PM
Business partners and best friends Elyce Arons and Kate Spade in the mid '90s.
Courtesy Elyce Arons

One year after Kate Spade’s death, the designer’s best friend and business partner Elyce Arons reflects on their enduring relationship and how she honors Spade daily through the brand they built together in 2016, Frances Valentine.

Katy and I had been best friends since our freshman year as journalism students at the University Of Kansas. We stayed up late those first nights telling each other all of the things we had never told a soul: the tragic death of my older sister, the pain Katy had gone through when her parents divorced. We decided that we were going to start a business together, although we had no idea what form that idea would ultimately take. We bonded over our love of practical jokes and music. No one could make me laugh like Katy.

We arrived in Manhattan in the ’80s after graduation. She traveled Europe for the summer and turned up with five dollars in her pocket, crashing in the tiny apartment that I barely afforded waiting tables. We imagined ourselves to be like Mary Tyler Moore in her show – the single woman who moves to the big city and makes it on her own — strong and independent, yet pretty and vulnerable. Her goofiness and ability to laugh at herself were qualities we most related to. In the year Katy and I launched our first company. We were thunderstruck when Mary Tyler Moore visited our first showroom by herself. We told her what an inspiration she had been to us both. She was so gracious and lovely; Katy and I were glowing for a month.

A few years after moving to the city, Katy married her college sweetheart Andy Spade — a rising star in the advertising business at the time. Andy really provided the encouragement for Katy to start the business. That was when she became Kate Spade, merging both of their names, although she would always be Katy to me. The three of us and our other partner, Pamela Bell, would constantly shift between being silly and pranking each other, and being super serious. We were young and full of hope and energy, anything was possible. Katy’s eye for color and style, Pamela’s business acumen, Andy’s marvelous ability to tell our story. Though we had difficult moments, I’ll never forget the joy of our team working together in those early years.

Business partners Pamela Bell, Kate Spade and Elyce Arons pose in front of the iconic Kate Spade nylon bags at the designers New York City showroom in the mid '90s.
Courtesy Elyce Arons

From the start, Katy’s simple square nylon bags caught on with the important buyers and editors. There was nothing like them and they were priced correctly. We worked out of Katy and Andy’s industrial live/work loft in Tribeca. Orders would rattle in from Barney’s and Saks Fifth Avenue on an old fax machine that Pamela got used from a friend. It was such an exciting time. While much of fashion was grunge inspired in those years, Katy’s ideas were fresh, not trendy or cool. Her style was really timeless. Classics were her jumping off point, and we made the bags and shoes we wanted to wear. She would mix pieces of costume jewelry, always with her up-hairdo and a bright, colorful, quirky outfit. Always different, always original. It was amazing to watch that sense of style which came so naturally to her develop and mature.

After 15 years of growing the business, we ended up selling the company at the perfect time, which allowed us to spend more time at home raising our kids. Two years ago, we launched a new direct to consumer brand together called Frances Valentine. We were back to collaborating on shoes and handbags — the ones we wanted but couldn’t find at a reasonable price point. I’ve now come to see the company as our tribute to her. We’re going to continue to bring her designs and vision to the world. Katy lit up every room she ever entered, and so do the designs she has created. We intend to keep them alive at Frances Valentine. With each collection, we design, Katy is always in the forefront of my mind. We want to continue to create the bags and shoes that Katy loved for women who are inspired by her.

Kate Spade in her office.
Courtesy Frances Valentine

It’s difficult to talk about a loved one who’s taken their life, and hard not to be angry with my friend who has left me so heartbroken. I am constantly thinking of her family and think of her everyday. I hope that anyone reading this who needs help will know that loved ones are there for them, I pray that they will seek that help. Most of all, I hope that people will remember Katy, the best friend that anyone could ever dream of having — the funny, intelligent, sweet, sophisticated, whimsical, gracious woman I knew.

Frances Valentine Sag Harbor store.
Courtesy Frances Valentine
Elyce Arons and friend outside Frances Valentine store.
Courtesy Frances Valentine

This Spring we have honored Katy by creating the Gratitude Collection of Katy’s favorite handbag styles and colors and by opening a Frances Valentine store in Sag Harbor, New York — one of Katy’s favorite towns. Spring was Katy’s favorite time of year to design and peonies were her favorite flowers. Since its opening, we’ve had such wonderful customers coming in and reliving their moments of what her designs meant to them — her spirit lives on.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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