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Though I worked for Kate Spade the brand when I first moved to New York, I met Kate Spade the woman only once, many years later. I was photographing her and her husband Andy’s Park Avenue apartment for GQ, where I was an editor at the time. The sprawling prewar home was filled floor to ceiling with Hugo Guinness works, René Richard pieces, and family photos, and the pair graciously invited me and our staff photographer in after a little bit of a scheduling mix-up.
Kate sat in the living room on a striped armchair, disarming me with questions as we prepped for the shoot. She spoke as though she wanted to know everything about me, with uncommon charm and earnestness. I always remember that she asked me if I had children — it felt genuine, rare, almost shockingly so. We traded names of common friends and acquaintances as I sat in rapture of the woman who, in retrospect, gave me everything I have today. After all, were it not for what she built, where would I be?
But you didn’t need to be in the presence of Kate Spade to know her. Many people my age have known her by reputation for decades. Her sleek handbags, uniquely American masterpieces of sophisticated taste, style, and problem-solving, were a movement in themselves — a paragon of design, and a multibillion-dollar testament to what a woman could create. Whether you owned one, recognized them from the arms of the moneyed girls in your high school or the pages of a magazine, or saw them on Nina Van Horn from Just Shoot Me, you knew the bags at once. They had a casual elegance that’s rarely articulated, much less bottled and sold.
What is lost with the death of Kate Spade the woman is far greater than a handbag that some saved allowance for, or a store in SoHo. We have lost one of America’s great designers and assets, a woman who had a clever knack for knowing the future and who knew to follow her instincts with gusto rather than question them. And while the public has lost all of the aforementioned, her family has lost far more.
Rarely does a day pass where I don’t think of the company Kate and Andy founded. In the offices they grew into above that blue “Superior” sign on 25th Street, I sat at my first “real job.” Though Kate had exited the company in 2006 before I arrived, it was ruled in her stead by women who echoed the founder — ruthlessly creative and unflinchingly driven. Everybody there was committed to the mission she set out, creating an environment that was full of good humor.
She built a place where creativity was regarded as intelligence and where good taste was a means of language and expression. It was the environment that set me on the path to becoming a writer, encouraged by my colleagues and her spirit. It’s a debt I could never possibly repay.
As people share their stories of the remarkable woman, it’s clear that Kate had a gift for inspiring others. What she created paved roads for so many of today’s writers, artists, designers, and dreamers. Stella Bugbee of The Cut likens her time working in the brand’s first outpost as witnessing magic — “a dreamed-up world of creativity and old-fashioned wholesomeness.” On Twitter, Casey Neistat warmly shared how he was welcomed after he and his brother were hired to create the “Majorettes” video for the brand in 2004. There are countless tributes to be found, all from bright minds that Kate touched. All thankful to have witnessed even a flicker of her glow.
It’s hard to place where Kate Spade the woman sits in the pantheon of creative talent, because there is no talent to match her. Her skill was impossible to put into words. But you can perhaps liken it to the feeling of catching somebody’s eyes on the sidewalk, the sound of champagne flutes clinking amid chatter, or the smile you smile when you find a forgotten photograph in a drawer — fleeting moments of exhilaration and joy. Things that appear ordinary but inspire the extraordinary.
What she built was remarkably forward-thinking. Problems designers fumble with today, such as “content,” tone, and branding, are things she had seemingly effortlessly figured out and tucked away somewhere between a dry-cleaning receipt and a matchbook, or scrawled on a cocktail napkin.
At a time when fashion was growing ever more exclusive, she and Andy threw open the doors and invited the world inside, a practice best viewed in the long-ago archived “Behind the Curtain” site where the brand’s popular “Things We Love” series lived. This collection, which became a book in 2012, let you know that they loved Oxford commas, map dresses, crayon rings, Sesame Street, and the cha-cha. When you bought Kate Spade, you were buying into this whole world.
Perhaps this spirit of sharing is why, as the news of her death spread, so many of us reacted as though we’d lost a friend we catch up with every now and then. Those who were lucky enough to know Kate, to work in her name, or to own a piece of her legacy understood something about her, as though at one point you’d crossed paths and quietly acknowledged each other.
My current office sits directly across from the building that housed the offices on 25th Street, so close that my new colleagues used to trade notes with my old colleagues by window. Walking by that blue Superior sign each day, I always remember that’s where my life (and so many others’) took shape, and it was all thanks to a woman I barely knew. And, truth be told, I’ve been chasing what was there ever since I left, knowing I’ll probably never find it again. Because we’ll never have another Kate Spade.