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Three years after Kate Spade’s tragic death, her best friend is keeping her legacy alive

Frances Valentine was started by the iconic designer and her best friend, Elyce Arons. Today, Arons is growing the brand and keeping Spade’s memory alive.

Three years after Kate Spade’s tragic death, her best friend is keeping her legacy alive
[Photos: Frances Valentine]
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When Kate Spade died by suicide in 2018, people around the world mourned the loss of the designer, who’d become famous through her eponymous brand. Spade sold her namesake company in 2006, but in the years before her death, she’d launched another label, Frances Valentine, that expressed her quirky, ebullient aesthetic.

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Today, Frances Valentine is a bustling 6-year-old business that has found a way to double its revenue in the face of a pandemic that has pummeled the fashion industry. At its helm is cofounder Elyce Arons, Spade’s longtime friend and business partner. Every day, Arons channels her friend’s sensibilities into Frances Valentine’s clothes, accessories, and branding. The goal isn’t just to keep Spade’s legacy alive, it’s to capture the woman Spade might be today.

[Photo: Frances Valentine]

A brand built on friendship

When I speak to Arons over Zoom, she’s sitting in Frances Valentine’s offices in New York City’s Bryant Park, overseeing a photo shoot. She’s wearing a chunky cream-colored fisherman sweater that will appear in this fall’s collection. The sweater is an exact replica of one that Arons bought as a freshman at the University of Kansas in the late 1980s, where she first met Spade. She loaned it to Spade in college and didn’t get it back for decades. “Five years ago, Katy hands me a bag of clothes she’d borrowed over the years, and there was my sweater on the top,” Arons says. “Everything about it is exactly perfect to me. I guess we both loved it.”

[Photo: Frances Valentine]
Arons’s relationship with Spade continues to drive her work at Frances Valentine. In many ways, this brand is the logical extension of the first brand they built in 1993, together with Spade’s husband, Andy, and their friend Pamela Bell. After graduating from college, they moved to New York where they got jobs in the fashion industry—Spade as a fashion editor, and Arons at denim brand Girbaud. It was Andy who had the idea for a handbag brand. The four founders built the company in a tiny New York apartment. “It was probably the most exciting time of our lives,” Arons says. “We were the right age: just enough experience, not too innocent. Everybody in the room was so good at what they did.”

[Photo: Frances Valentine]
Arons and Kate Spade designed their products around what they believed was missing in the market. They wanted chic bags they could carry to work and brunch that weren’t as outrageously priced as luxury “it” bags from Chanel or Louis Vuitton. These products, coupled with Spade herself as the face of the brand, proved to be a winning formula. The products were picked up by Barneys and Fred Segal, and shortly thereafter the brand began opening stand-alone stores. In 2006, a little more than a decade after it launched, the company was acquired by Neiman Marcus, which later sold it to Liz Claiborne.

[Photo: Frances Valentine]
After selling their business, the friends stayed close, raising their children together, taking cooking classes, and “working out for the first time in our lives,” Arons recalls. But they also had an itch to build another business for the women they’d evolved into. They wanted bags that were practical, fun, and well-made, but that didn’t come with luxury price tags. So they launched Frances Valentine, named for Spade’s two grandfathers, whose names she also passed on to her daughter.

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[Photo: Frances Valentine]
Frances Valentine, which is sold online and in three stores in New York and Florida, is designed to reflect the original spirit of the Kate Spade brand. The clothes, shoes, and accessories are bathed in rich colors like red and gold. There are plenty of patterns, including caftans embroidered in bright floral designs and fabulous leopard print faux fur coats. Many pieces are also vintage-inspired. A trench coat pays homage to Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain. A series of sweaters references the Darlene pastel floral cardigans of the 1950s. “They are pieces that make you feel happy,” Arons says. “They’re designed to be heirloom pieces that you pass on to your kids.”

[Photo: Frances Valentine]
The brand often nods to Spade. Several months after the designer died, Frances Valentine re-created one of her favorite pieces, a wool sweater covered in floral embroidery. Spade had found it in a secondhand store, complete with a personalized label bearing the name of its previous owner. She wore it all the time. When it appeared on the Frances Valentine website, fans understood its significance, and it sold out immediately.

[Photo: Frances Valentine]

Winning over the original Kate Spade woman

Although Frances Valentine’s customers span a wide age range, the most common shopper is a woman in her 50s who fell in love with the Kate Spade brand decades ago but eventually outgrew it. This makes sense, given the founders’ approach. “We were designing things that were for us,” says Arons, who is also in her 50s. “And we are the original Kate Spade woman, but we’ve grown up a little bit.”

In the three decades since Kate Spade the brand was born, the entire retail landscape has changed. So when Frances Valentine launched, Arons and Spade decided to make it a digital-first, direct-to-consumer brand, much like the millennial-oriented fashion labels that have popped up in recent years, like Everlane and Reformation.

[Photo: Frances Valentine]
And while Frances Valentine’s customers have adapted to the times as well, they haven’t shifted entirely online. Many still crave old-fashioned approaches to shopping. For instance, when Frances Valentine began producing physical catalogs, the company saw a 40% spike in orders, a conversion rate that’s 275% higher than the industry average. Older customers also call the store frequently to ask about new products, sizing issues, and styling advice. Arons says these calls help build relationships with customers, giving store associates an opportunity to reach out proactively when something comes in that they might like. “This has kept our stores active even during the pandemic, when we were forced to shut down.”

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[Photo: Frances Valentine]
Arons is now focused on nailing the delicate balance between digital experiences and physical ones. She’s written hundreds of personal notes to loyal customers, inviting their feedback and thanking them for their support. It’s gestures like these that she believes will set Frances Valentine apart from other brands that cater to a similar audience.

It has now been three years since Spade’s passing. For Arons, it’s strange to run a company without her. At the same time, working on Frances Valentine every day allows her to feel close to her friend. “I think she would be very happy with where the company is now,” she says. “This morning, we shot a pair of earrings and my first thought was that Katy would love them. Every time I throw on this sweater I think of her.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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