“I think it took people a while. Even my family — my sister was working at Gucci and actually called me and said, ‘We’re all pitching in for Mom for Mother’s Day to get her a Gucci bag,’ and I thought, What?! Are you serious? because they really didn’t think it would be much….” – Kate Spade
This past Wednesday, June 6, 2018, Kate Brosnahan Spade (legal name Kate Valentine) was found dead in her apartment in an apparent suicide. In the 72 hours since, rumors of depression and an impending divorce swirled, stinted only somewhat with news of today’s celebrity suicide, Anthony Bourdain.
I am not a real fashionista, nor am I a brand name enthusiast. Until Wednesday, I had no idea what Kate Spade looked like. If you dumped a bunch of bags in a pile with their labels covered, I would not be able to extract the kate spade. Yet, I am intrigued by her story — not the story of her suicide, but the story of her success. I have been so since this past January, a few weeks after falling in love with podcasts.
While visiting a dear friend in D.C., I mentioned my growing fascination (read: obsession) with podcasts. She recommended that I listen to NPR’s How I Built This With Guy Raz. I listened to the Kate Spade: Kate & Andy Spade episode second (after Ben & Jerry’s).
When I learned of her passing, I immediately remembered three things from her interview:
- Her making bags from burlap bags because they were cheap and with no design experience;
- Her mother saying it was bad luck to name her company with Andy’s last name, since they weren’t married at the time; and
- Her being asked, years later, whether she wanted to join the Kate Spade mailing list by a sales associate who didn’t recognize she was Kate Spade.
These make just the skeleton of her story as it gels together in my mind. What I don’t need to mention is how her success skyrocketed to a billion-dollar company. Even if you are like me (or worse) and don’t know a kate spade from a Coach or Birkin bag, you still know kate spade.
And that is fascinating to me. Particularly, because, like many of the stories Raz features, Spade crafted literally crafted a 90s icon from paper and Scotch tape. In a 1999 profile of Spade for The New York Times, Elizabeth Bumiller describes Spades’s success as “an irrestible girl-who-might-have-joined-the-Junior-League-makes-good story.”
Spade was 31 when she founded the company in 1993 with co-owner Andy Spade. She began with no design experience — it wasn’t a hobby, or even an interest until someone suggested it to her. She taught herself how to make bags, first out of paper and Scotch tape. Then started on cheap burlap material. So it is understandable that her family didn’t really understand at first.
“It really was just, kind of, a little bit of a snowball effect,” said Spade in her interview with Raz. It got a little bigger and a little bigger and a little bigger. And, I think, at the point where the larger department stores were picking us up, I think then we realized, we got a business here.”
A Google search of “Kate Spade” now nets articles, think pieces, and blog posts on the circumstances of her suicide, her marital issues, her mental health, her depression (and even a creepy photo of Andy Spade leaving his home in this eerie mouse mask). But few really dig deep to the roots of her success, to marvel at the history — how the tiny seed of her success germinated from a question over dinner at a Mexican restuarant. A success that still resonates with her name, over a decade after she walked away from the brand.
Although I am not a fashionista, and I don’t know a kate spade from a Birkin, I do love a sensible bag that is large enough to contain my life. This may be another reason I appreciate Kate Spade’s story. She had the vision of creating something practical and afforable for women like me and the wherewithal to create it even when success wasn’t instant.
This may best be articulated by Connie Wang for Refinery29, “[T]he name Kate Spade… contained fashion’s greatest secret: that you could have taste without being snobby, that you could love fashion and not its frills, that you could be the kind of person who needs to keep their papers on their person, to bring your lunch with you, and to require the constant accessibility of a day-planner, but look goddamn chic doing it all.”
This part. This is essence of Kate’s success. And I want more.