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Hot pink handbags, floral day planners, sparkly flats, polka-dot tableware.
These aren’t just the items that made up the billion-dollar Kate Spade empire. They also embody the whimsy and wit that Kate Spade the person infused into her designs.
The 55-year-old fashion designer took her own life Tuesday and was found in her New York City apartment. She is survived by her husband and business partner Andy and her 13-year-old daughter Bea. Her death has sent the fashion industry and fans reeling.
Spade will forever be etched in many shoppers’ memories as the woman who made their very first designer handbags. Those who entered their teenage years in the ’90s and early aughts might have saved up money to buy one, or received one as a special gift.
“The first bag I ever coveted and saved up all my babysitting money for was the black Sam bag,” one fan wrote to eulogize the designer on Instagram. “You were adored and loved by so many. Thank you so much for your inspiration.”
Part of Spade’s legacy will doubtless be bringing designer bags to the public via a more accessible price point. Kate Spade bags are priced at around $400 — not cheap, but certainly a fraction of the price of bags sold by European luxury brands. Her handbags became a much-coveted status symbol among upper-middle-class Americans and eventually helped lead to the birth of an entire mid-priced sector: affordable luxury, which now includes other billion-dollar American fashion brands Coach and Michael Kors.
But for most fans, the thing they will cherish most about the designer was her ability to bring unabashedly fun femininity to fashion, regardless of a shopper’s age; her work was beloved by mothers and daughters alike. She was not afraid to inject color and cheer into a world that so often favors staid and neutral minimalism.
Before starting her namesake label in 1993, she was Kate Brosnahan, working as a fashion editor at Mademoiselle magazine. She had a quirky, signature sense of fashion, and was a fan of chunky costume jewelry, brightly colored clothes, and playful patterns.
When she started her line, she was bored of all the handbags on the market, like the stiff classics of Prada and Chanel — bland styles she called “the nothing black bag.” Ever the Midwesterner, Spade wanted a handbag that had more charm. She found herself thinking about her mother’s closet, which, she described as full of “clutches, oranges, pinks, chocolates, huge pearl buttons.” She told the Boston Globe in 1999 that she wanted accessories that “assume the personality of the wearer, not the reverse.”
Spade’s first handbag designs were functional but still fun: Made of nylon, they came in different colors and had small handles. Even the small quirk of the “Kate Spade New York” tags sewn on the outside of each piece instead of the inside — Spade spent hours sewing them on herself the night before her first trade show — nodded to her playful spirit as well as her desire to bring an air of celebration to women’s accessories.
As Spade expanded her empire, she took her eccentric brand and turned it into a full-on lifestyle, complete with home goods, shoes, and linens. Her eye for bright patterns and pops of color led to products filled with a winking sophistication. Her aesthetic was original and “applicable for party girls as well as suburban housewives,” as one blogger noted. Spade always wanted to serve these types of women — the ones that other designers might not think of as cool.
Because Spade had such a specific and authentic sense of style, the company she founded has been able to preserve her point of view since she left the brand in 2007. In the past decade, the Kate Spade brand has expanded into clothing and furniture, and now has more than 140 stores around the world. (Last year it was bought by Coach and merged under a new umbrella company called Tapestry.)
Spade’s latest venture, the shoes and accessories line Frances Valentine, reflected this distinguished sense of eccentricity: The line’s furry flats and straw handbags represented her style (although the designer did openly talk about the balance of making it look different from her established namesake line).
Kate Spade, the person and the aesthetic, was never interested in inviting a shopper “to join a club,” Mary Beech, the brand’s chief marketing officer, told Racked in 2016. “We’re not saying this will give you status. We’re acknowledging her dimensionality.” Spade had a genuine interest in bringing the fun in fashion to life with her designs, and it was always a welcome difference to shoppers who enjoyed the colorful world she painted.
“I owe my love of color and whimsical wardrobe to the woman who created that simple bag I fell in love with back in the 1990s,” Julia McCrank, a longtime Kate Spade fan and blogger, wrote Tuesday. “Thank you Kate Spade (later Valentine) for your ideas, your love of color, and your dream to bring beautiful treasures to the world. You will be missed.”