Kate Spade’s Legacy Extends Far Beyond Handbags

The legendary designer paved the way for American women in fashion

Kate Spade poses in her Boston store on Newbury Street in 1999. The designer died on Tuesday at age 55. Getty Images
Headshot of Diana Pearl

Kate Spade, the designer who rose to fashion fame in the 1990s with her eponymous handbag and later, accessory and clothing line, died on Tuesday of an apparent suicide. She was 55 years old.

Spade was one of the first designers to recognize the possibilities of the lifestyle space. Her brand is best known for its brightly hued bags that manage to be both whimsical and practical, featuring zippers, interior pockets or multiple straps. First launched in January 1993, Kate Spade New York products went on to become omnipresent on city streets across America. Today, it’s a full-blown fashion empire worth billions.

“These bags were cute and fun, and everyone looked like they walked out of a fairy tale,” fashion writer Christina Binkley said. “And then she translated that quirky aesthetic into shoes and accessories. It was almost like you were stepping out of reality into another dimension.”

"It was almost like you were stepping out of reality into another dimension."
-fashion writer Christina Binkley on the Kate Spade aesthetic

Despite the tremendous growth, at its core, Kate Spade New York still remains known for fashion, functionality, and simple joy. In fact, Spade is so synonymous with the brand that many might not realize that she hasn’t been associated with it in over a decade, after she and her husband-slash-business-partner Andy sold their remaining 44 percent stake in the brand to Neiman Marcus in 2006. (The brand released a statement after Spade’s death was announced: “Kate Spade, the visionary founder of our brand, has passed. Our thoughts are with her family at this incredibly heartbreaking time. We honor all the beauty she brought into this world.”)

Perhaps that’s because Spade herself always seemed to be the personification of the Kate Spade brand. She always wore a pair of large-lensed glasses and her deep brown hair piled on top of her head, a few strands escaping the elegant-yet-haphazardly assembled style. If she wasn’t dressed in Kate Spade itself, she looked like she could have been, in embroidered collars, printed jackets or embellished shoes.

A Kate Spade storefront
Getty Images

“When you think Kate Spade, first you think of the bag, and then you think of her beehive hairdo,” said Binkley. “She had the total look.”

Before our current era of celebrity-launched lifestyle brands, she was one of the first American designers to pioneer the concept—but Spade did it without the boost of a prior Hollywood career.

“That’s why she could do all the line extensions that other brands had trouble with,” said Bob Phibbs, CEO of the Retail Doctor. “She was the brand. You knew her aesthetic if you saw it. We treated her and that name as a personal friend. That’s what every brand wants.”

"We treated her and that name as a personal friend. That's what every brand wants."
-Bob Phibbs, CEO of the Retail Doctor

And what set her apart from those other brands—which portrayed, yes, a lifestyle, but an aspirational one that would forever be a bit out of reach—was relatability. The Kate Spade woman was a young professional, who was ambitious in her career (but not too serious) and loved great style, the brand’s fusion of color and utility.

“For many other brands, it was like a dream, [like] you were buying into some fantasy you were never going to live,” Thomas Ordahl, chief strategy officer of branding agency Landor, said. “She wasn’t a fantasy. She was real, and you could relate to her. She was like that big, successful, older sister or your cool young aunt.”

Her backstory only served to make her more accessible. Spade was born Kate Brosnahan, the daughter of the owner of a construction company in Kansas City. For her college years, she headed west to Arizona State University. There, while working at a men’s clothing store near campus, she met her future husband, Andy Spade (brother of the actor David Spade). After graduating from ASU, the couple moved to New York, where Andy landed a job as an ad agency copywriter, and Kate, as an assistant fashion editor for the now-defunct Mademoiselle magazine.

Kate and Andy Spade together at an event in May 2001.
Getty Images

She worked her way up the corporate ladder at the publication, eventually becoming senior fashion editor, in charge of the magazine’s accessories coverage. It was during this job when she discovered a gaping sartorial hole: She couldn’t find a handbag she truly loved.

“I wanted a functional bag that was sophisticated and had some style,” Spade told the New York Times in 1999.

Spade—who was, then, still a Brosnahan, though she and Andy were still dating—decided to fill this void herself. She created models with Scotch tape and paper (six in total) before finding a manufacturer in Brooklyn to make her vision come to life. She and Andy were partners in this venture, so they decided to name the company after themselves: Kate for her, Spade for him. Andy withdrew $35,000 from his 401K account to fund the black nylon bags that later became synonymous with her brand. She added a special, last-minute touch that would become a brand signature: A small, all-lowercase label reading “kate spade new york” sewn on the outside of the bag.

Spade toted the bags—which ranged in price from $100 to $400—to NYC-area trade shows. At one of those shows at the Javits Center, Barneys placed an order. A Vogue editor also saw the bags, and three months later, the magazine featured them. It snowballed from there: Major stores like Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s placed orders, and influential names like Julia Roberts and Anna Wintour carried them in the street.

“That was the first ‘it’ bag, and I think a lot of it had to do with that tiny little label on the front,” said Binkley. “Everyone wanted one. … There was nothing else like them out there.”

Even as the brand grew and grew, her ethos stayed the same: Provide women with a bag that’s both stylish and practical. “I don’t think you need to neglect the style of something that’s functional,” she told Time in 2004, three years before she sold the company.

Kate Spade New York’s midrange price point, sitting in that $100 to $400 range, hit a sweet spot between aspirational and obtainable that had been difficult to find in a pre-Kate Spade world.

An embellished Kate Spade handbag

“In the past, it was more binary,” Ordahl added. “[E]ither you were going to get the most functional, affordable bag you [could] get, or you were going to go way upmarket and get something from Gucci. She created a third path.”

In the wake of Spade’s death, there was an outpouring of nostalgia as women took to social media to talk about what the brand meant to them. For many, a Kate Spade bag was their first designer purchase, or a treat after saving up portions of their paycheck from their first jobs.

“They weren’t cheap, but they were affordable,” said Binkley. “You could aspire to it without having to save for six months and not tell your mom you did it.”

That price tag helped create the Kate Spade craze. By the late ’90s, the company was enjoying millions in sales and attracting interest from potential buyers. Neiman Marcus bought 56 percent of the brand in 1999, and the rest from Spade and Andy themselves in 2006. The brand has changed hands a few times since: that same year, Neiman Marcus sold Kate Spade to Liz Claiborne Inc. (later Fifth & Pacific, and after that, Kate Spade & Company), and Coach (now under the umbrella company Tapestry, Inc.) bought Kate Spade for $2.4 billion in May 2017.

Kate Spade discusses her new line, Frances Valentine, in April 2017.
Getty Images

Since Spade and Andy left their namesake brand, Spade took some time off from the fashion world to focus on raising her daughter, Frances. In February 2016, she made a much-anticipated return with a new accessories line: Frances Valentine. Though Spade told InStyle that she didn’t want to “repeat what I’ve done”—so much so that she said she legally changed her last name to Valentine to further associate herself with the new brand—the mindset behind her new line rang familiar for fans of her original one.

“I didn’t want to do anything too basic or conservative, and I’m not interested in fleeting trends,” she told InStyle in 2016. “I was looking for something modern, architectural and sophisticated, but with a personality to it without bordering on silly.”

The Kate Spade brand may be one of the most illustrious in the world, but Spade’s own personal legacy will be even more influenced by her status as one of history’s best-known female fashion designers who paved the way for the next wave of American women in the fashion industry.

“That may be her most important legacy,” said Binkley. “She’s probably motivated two generations since she came along, in a ‘you can do it too’ way. You can start something out of your living room, with your friends and family helping you ship the first product. It’s the sort of pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story that we love in America but have generally been led by men.”

"She created it all herself, and that founder story gave people a sense of who she was. That's the definition of icon."

In its 25 years, Kate Spade New York has become not only a gateway to adulthood, but a brand that will carry you through it. And as it’s grown from a start-up to a major fashion player, the brand has become more than a place to get your first bag. It’s where you can outfit your entire life: your bedspread, your stationary, your clothes, your keychain, your dishes.

And while the Kate Spade brand has operated without its founder for quite some time—it’s been over a decade since she was at the helm—she’ll forever be tied to the company.

“It’s hard to separate the two,” said Binkley. “She created it all herself, and that founder story gave people a sense of who she was. That’s the definition of icon.”

If you are in need of help, or know someone who is, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can help. 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

@dianapearl_ diana.pearl@adweek.com Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.