My first Kate Spade handbag was a fake. I bought it on Canal Street during my first visit to New York City, a mother-daughter weekend bestowed as a 16th birthday present. In my excitement I planned the weekend down to the minute, using travel guides that I checked out from the local library, but most of the trip is now a blur of pre-Google Maps cardinal confusion: a bumpy taxi ride in search of Ethiopian food; a brief glimpse of the World Trade Center; and a dollhouse-sized hotel room somewhere off Times Square, overlooking an air vent.
But I remember the bag. It was a worthy fake, in Kate Spade’s signature shape. Instead of black nylon, the exterior was a soft gray-and-white tweed, with fake leather straps. Walking the halls of my tony public high school in the Chicago suburbs with that bag on my shoulder, I felt both less invisible and achingly normal. It was like magic.
In the nearly 20 years since, the Kate Spade brand’s moment of primacy slowly faded, even as the colors in its designs grew brighter, preppier, more fanciful, and more bejeweled. Along the way, founding designer Kate Spade herself moved on, selling the minority stake she owned with husband, Andy Spade, in 2006 for roughly $60 million. She then left the fashion stage for nearly a decade, to raise her daughter, Bea, before returning in 2016 with a shoe and handbag line dubbed Frances Valentine in honor of her two grandfathers.
That new chapter came to an end this morning, when Spade was found dead at age 55 in her Park Avenue apartment. She had hanged herself in her bedroom and was discovered by her housekeeper, police said.
“We are all devastated by today’s tragedy,” the Spade family said in a statement. “We loved Kate dearly and will miss her terribly.”
Born Kate Brosnahan, Spade grew up in Kansas City, the fifth of six children in an Irish Catholic family. She attended Arizona State, where she met Andy. After graduating, she moved to New York and took a job at Mademoiselle magazine as an editorial assistant. By 28, she was a senior fashion editor focused on accessories—a seemingly plump post.
But frustration with magazine work prompted Andy to suggest she launch her own accessories line. She had no design experience, but she had style and a strong instinct for women’s desires. For two years, they used Andy’s salary to make sample handbags, selling bright linen versions to Barneys and attracting positive coverage in Vogue. In 1996, Spade won a CFDA award for her designs, and sales skyrocketed. Three years later, they were selling handbags in premier department stores nationwide.
It may be hard to imagine today, when handbags in every shape, size, and color are available to purchase on Instagram, but in the early ’90s women’s handbags were predominantly made of black or brown leather in traditional shapes. Spade introduced color, sophisticated fabrics, and the idea that a handbag could echo a woman’s personality or mood. Her timing could not have been better: By the late ’90s, Sex in the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw had further popularized the idea of accessories as scene-stealing signifiers.
An explosion of loud and colorful “it bags” soon filled fashion runways. But Spade steered clear of trendy looks, instead focusing on classic styles with a whimsical twist. While other American brands, like Ralph Lauren, envisioned aspirational Americana as a dynastic enterprise, Spade invited individual women to be ladies on their own terms. Over time, she added shoes, clothing, home goods, and more to her portfolio (for years, I was loyal to the “snail mail” stationary).
Other designers, including Tory Burch, soon adopted her preppy-chic formula. At the same time, fashion began veering back to “basic,” with brands like Everlane and Cuyana courting customers interested in simple, versatile wardrobe staples. Spade’s brand, which she had departed in 2006, began to look dated alongside its new, internet-born rivals. By 2015, the brand was forced to close all of its Jack Spade and lower-priced Kate Spade Saturday stores. Last May, Coach snapped up the umbrella Kate Spade organization for $2.4 billion.
Amid the ups and downs, Kate herself always appeared equal parts elegant and retro-fun, with her ’60s-style updo and oversize jewelry. In pictures, she often seems to be playing the role of expert hostess, welcoming but professional. That’s why I keep returning to the picture that her fledgling brand Frances Valentine posted on its Instagram page this past Mother’s Day, featuring Spade with her daughter. Here she is not hostess, but loving mom, her hair mussed and her guard down. She will most surely be missed.