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Kate Spade, the fashion designer behind the eponymous label, is confirmed dead at 55. Sources tell the Associated Press that she took her own life; a housekeeper found her in her Manhattan apartment Tuesday morning. She reportedly left a note.
The designer started the beloved Kate Spade brand in the early ’90s with her husband, Andy Spade, and sold the company in 2007. She started her most recent retail venture, an accessories company called Frances Valentine, in 2016.
Born Kate Brosnahan and later changing her name to Kate Valentine, the Kansas City native attended Arizona State University, where she met her husband and business partner. She was working as a senior fashion editor at Mademoiselle magazine in 1993 when she decided to start her handbag company. Her husband encouraged her to step outside of her editing career and pursue her own line, despite her lack of design experience. Spade’s personal style was “sassy but classy,” as Cosmopolitan wrote in 2005, and she took inspiration from icons like Katharine Hepburn, Jackie O., and Björk to create her company.
Her first prototype for what she thought was the perfect handbag was a square bag with small handles, made with burlap material she bought from a potato-sack manufacturer she found in the Yellow Pages. Spade saw success bringing the bags to several New York City trade shows, where stores like Barneys and Fred Segal agreed to buy them; a few months later, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, and Saks Fifth Avenue took orders too. Spade went on to create the billion-dollar brand with a feminine and whimsical aesthetic.
As her line expanded into other categories, like home goods, fragrance, shoes, and then menswear with the label Jack Spade, Spade became known as a bona fide tastemaker. The New York Times joked that “if Dorothy Parker were a product, she would be a Kate Spade clutch.” Spade took pride in the world of fashion and entertaining; at one point, she gave every employee of her company a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette. Spade also wrote her own books on style, manners and home decorating.
The Spades sold 56 percent of their company to Neiman Marcus in 1999, which went through several owners over the past decade. The couple left their brand in 2007, citing family obligations. Spade told Racked last year that during that time, she “got to go home and be a full-time mother, which was the greatest thing I’ve ever done.” She said she started her second brand, Frances Valentine, in 2016 because she “just had an itch to do it again, to create, to design.”
Spade’s fizzy flair for feminine style — something fans came to love about her — is seen in Frances Valentine. The company is named after Spade’s daughter, Frances Beatrix Valentine Spade, by whom Spade is survived, along with her husband.
“I don’t think anyone’s coming to me for banal design,” Spade told Racked in 2016. “I think they’re looking for something that has an emotional appeal to it.”
Reta Saffo, Spade’s older sister, told the Kansas City Star that the designer had struggled for many years with mental illness and that she found her suicide “not unexpected.”
“I’d flown out to Napa and NYC several times in the past 3-4 years to help her to get the treatment she needed (inpatient hospitalization),” Saffo wrote to the local paper via email. “She was always a very excitable little girl and I felt all the stress/pressure of her brand (KS) may have flipped the switch where she eventually became full-on manic depressive.”
Saffo said she tried pushing her sister to get professional help but was not successful.
“We’d get sooo close to packing her bags,” she said, “but — in the end, the ‘image’ of her brand (happy-go-lucky Kate Spade) was more important for her to keep up. She was definitely worried about what people would say if they found out.”
Spade’s husband Andy later told the New York Times in a statement that “There was no indication and no warning that she would do this. It was a complete shock.” He went on to say that she “was actively seeking help for depression and anxiety over the last 5 years, seeing a doctor on a regular basis and taking medication for both depression and anxiety. There was no substance or alcohol abuse. There were no business problems. We loved creating our businesses together.”