Business of Design

Kate Spade suicide defies a lighthearted, all-American style that forever changed fashion

Key Points
  • Kate Spade's rags-to-riches story began by her making handbags in an apartment attic and resulted in one of the most innovative American design brands.
  • Simple yet fun, quirky and all-American, her eponymous style changed women and the fashion industry.
  • The CEO of Bloomingdale's and other style experts reflect on Kate Spade's legacy after her tragic suicide earlier this week, at the age of 55.

Designer Kate Spade poses for a portrait in her new handbag store on Newbury Street in Boston on June 25, 1999.
Boston Globe | Getty Images

The polka-dot studded handbags of the Kate Spade accessories line weren't always in the glamorous storefront windows of SoHo; for the namesake designer, her luxury handbag business began in an apartment attic. Spade's accessories line was known for its quintessential pop of color and bright patterns, and it was the originality of Spade's business model that allowed the entrepreneur to carve out a foothold in the well-established world of luxury handbag brands.

The 55-year-old designer was found dead Tuesday in an apparent suicide, hanging from a red scarf on a bedroom door. Although she is best known for her quirky handbags, Spade was also remembered in the fashion industry for her business model and rags-to-riches origins.

Spade's eponymous brand skyrocketed after establishing its standout qualities; in the era of classic European luxury brands, she became a fashion icon through accessories that were both visually appealing and affordable. Spade built the brand with her husband Andy Spade in the early 90's, most recently starting a new accessories line called Frances Valentine.

"When Kate introduced her line back in the 90's her approach was drastically different from anything else on the market in both aesthetic and price point," Bloomingdale's CEO Tony Spring said. "At the time the handbag industry was dominated by European luxury and Kate entered with a simple yet fun design sensibility, high quality and approachable pricing. She introduced a levity into the fashion space that I think the customer found refreshing. She also shared her personality as the face of the brand. Her lighthearted quirkiness and all-American style was relatable to many women."

A model poses at the Kate Spade New York Fall 2012 presentation during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at 137-139 West 26th Street on February 10, 2012 in New York City.
Eugene Gologursky | Getty Images

But Spade wasn't always a big player in the handbag industry—she began designing handbags after quitting a magazine publication and finding herself scrambling for income. She scoured Yellow Pages and became a de facto apprentice to a homespun pattern maker, using supplies of clipped sheets of paper and fabric samples to practice designs. She didn't make profit for the first three years, and when the Barneys and Fred Segal retail chains found her at a trade show, the first batch of bags were exported from crammed cardboard boxes in the Spades' Tribeca loft.

"As a woman entrepreneur, in an industry that still has glass ceilings for women in its leadership positions, she was one of its pioneers," Fashion Institute of Technology Professor Eileen Karp said. "She was a hands-on designer who understood the nuances of what was involved in actually making bags—how the selection of fabrications, the balance of the designs, the structure and engineering of the bags affected their ultimate quality and appearance. Besides having a strong creative vision, Kate Spade understood the business of fashion."

Spade's brand became known as the symbol of the quintessential American woman; she re-vamped what most women simply glanced over, according to Parsons Fashion Studies Professor Hazel Clark. Spade brought the handbag back into focus after the trend dipped in the '50s; she was the first to bring color and function to American accessories, making even the diaper bags fashionable to carry, Clark said.

"Kate Spade's designs reached all ages, often serving as a rite of passage for many, a milestone marker – for a girl becoming a young woman, a young woman becoming a career woman, and, for others, a bag to be savored for use on special occasions," Karp said.

Models pose at Kate Spade New York Spring 2017 Fashion Presentation at Russian Tea Room on February 10, 2017 in New York City.
Cindy Ord | Getty Images

Spade's designs not only caught the eye of American women; just as she was about to give up the company, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus discovered Spade's bags, quadrupling her business and taking her platform to large-scale retail. Later, other fashion giants caught on, including Macy's and Bloomingdale's, and her company ultimately sold to Coach (now Tapestry) in a $2.4 billion deal.

Bloomingdale's CEO reminisced on Spade's debut at the store: "Bloomingdale's has a long history and friendship with Kate Spade extending back to the early days of the brand," Spring said. "Her designs injected refreshing originality into the accessory industry which resonated deeply with women. Bloomingdale's continually seeks to offer products our customer feels a connection to and Kate's designs provided just that."

But Spade stayed true to her small-attic roots; her winning business tactic was preserving the brand in dedicated stores even after being picked up by retailers, according to Clark, developing the small-shop experience to be as visually appealing as her handbags.

Display at the Kate Spade flagship store in New York City in 2006 for a Kate Spade & Jack Spade spring accessory collection.
Rob Loud | Getty Images

"I remember being very struck by the shops, that visual presence," Clark said. "There was a real coherence. I was just struck by the stores; they were just a really stunning place to go and look around. They were such a range and delight. That was really one of the great successes."

For a designer who started from cutting fabrics in her New York City attic to studding the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue, Spade continues to serve as a fashion and business inspiration, capturing the idealism of the American businesswoman. For fashion corporations and young entrepreneurs alike, her legacy carries on with the millions of handbags still on the arms of many.

"Kate Spade was a true innovator," Spring said. "She was immensely talented, passionate about her brand and introduced a product line that was unlike anything else at the time. Quality, unique product coupled with creative marketing was Kate's winning formula. She leaves behind an indelible mark on women's fashion."

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