Women reflect on the late designer’s work as a symbol of adulthood, financial freedom and empowered elegance
Carrying a Kate Spade bag was more than just a fashion statement — it was a rite of passage, and a status symbol of financial independence for many working women who own one.
Fans paid tribute to the loss of New York fashion designer Kate Spade, who took her own life Tuesday inside her Park Avenue home, by sharing heartfelt stories of buying their first Spade handbag, an affordable and exciting luxury.
“Having a Kate Spade bag was an emblem to the world that you had succeeded,” Emyrald Sinclaire, a 32-year-old Colorado Springs-based entrepreneur, told Moneyish. “For years, I envied all my colleagues with their Kate Spade crossbodies and totes. To me, they had succeeded. They looked glamorous.
“Then the time came where I had finally reached the point of income in my business where I felt as though I could splurge on a $300 purse for myself,” Sinclaire said. She purchased a black pebble-grained leather crossbody bag, and later a wallet to match. “When I bought that purse, I told the world: ‘I have arrived,’” she added.
A black quilted “Whitaker Place Nisha” wallet with gold hardware was a reward for Amelia Ables, 28, of Memphis, Tenn., who gifted the $100 money holder to herself when a tiresome job search gave way to her dream job in public relations.
“I had a fresh master’s degree and spent the better part of the past year searching for my first job and receiving rejection after rejection. At my lowest, I felt stupid and worthless,” Ables recalled. “I kept applying. Then I landed my first job. The day I accepted my now-position was the day I made my first Kate Spade purchase.”
Spade began her career as an accessories editor at Mademoiselle magazine before starting her own handbag line in New York in 1996. The Kansas City, Mo.-born writer took the fashion world by storm when she opened up Kate Spade New York in the Soho District with her husband, Andy Spade. The brand quickly became known for its bright, electric colors; cheerful prints; and artsy window displays. Spade launched with just six purses made of linen and burlap before eventually evolving into more durable nylon bags in neutral colors like black and navy — and by 1998, the business was making $28 million a year in revenue, establishing itself as the quintessential brand for the New York woman.
At the time, competition was scarce. Aside from Coach, there weren’t many other handbag brands at an affordable price point — between $100 and $400 — catering to women in different stages in their lives, from teens to working single girls and stroller moms. Many young girls growing up in the ’90s equated a Kate Spade bag with entering womanhood.
“I vividly remember getting my first Kate Spade bag. I was 12, and right at the age of bar and bat mitzvah season,” said Jena Luckman, 29, of Delray Beach, Fla. “I was just beginning to understand what ‘designer’ items were. My mom had her own, but thought it was too much to spend on a 12-year-old.” After a friend surprised her with a satin black square-shaped mini tote bag for her birthday, Luckman added, “I suddenly felt older, more elevated. I wore that bag until it was run into the ground.”
Helen Zhang, 29, who grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., remembers practically begging her mother to buy her a black nylon handbag when she was younger.
“Like every other girl at my suburban junior high at the time, I had to have the bag. It was the quintessential first ‘designer’ handbag purchase of every teenage mall rat during that era, Prada backpacks be damned, and ushered us into the beginnings of adulthood,” she recalled of gawking at the window display in Nordstrom.
Spade became an early pioneer of a lifestyle brand long before anyone knew the term, branching out with accessories, clothing, home decor, kitchenware and stationery. It’s impossible not to spot one of Spade’s colorful looks, whether it’s a scarlet-red over-the-shoulder handbag, playful “Eat Cake For Breakfast” tote or polka-dot print or signature black-and-white-striped dress. Spade’s ladylike looks were equally tailored to a dressed-up day at the office or night out.
“They were a little quirkier; they were a little more fun,” said Los Angeles-based celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch of Spade’s eccentric designs that radiated off the shelves. “They had a sense of humor; they were a little retro and a little vintage. It was (a) ‘pizza with champagne in a plastic cup’ kind of vibe.”
Spade proved her ability to attract a mass appeal — to the working woman and celebrities alike.
I am heartbroken about the news of Kate Spade. I have worn her clothes many, many times. They were colorful, bold, cheerful, and encouraged women to find the twinkly person inside them. You couldn’t walk into her boutiques and not smile. Rest In Peace, Kate.
— Mindy Kaling (@mindykaling) June 5, 2018
“I have worn her clothes many, many times,” Mindy Kaling tweeted in a tribute to Spade. “They were colorful, bold, cheerful, and encouraged women to find the twinkly person inside them. You couldn’t walk into her boutiques and not smile.”
Other stars, like Viola Davis, praised Spade’s ability to appeal to folks seeking stylish simplicity.
As "unfussy" as I am, I still loved my Kate Spade bags. Practical, classy, and elegant… Praying for her family…her husband and 13 yr old daughter.
— Viola Davis (@violadavis) June 5, 2018
“As ‘unfussy’ as I am, I still loved my Kate Spade bags,” the actress tweeted. “Practical, classy, and elegant… Praying for her family…her husband and 13 yr old daughter.”
Even though Spade and her husband walked away from the company in 2007, when it was acquired by Liz Claiborne Inc. for $125 million, industry experts say her brand continues to resonate with all women.
“Kate Spade identified a niche for stylish yet more affordable bags that young women could wear on their first job out of college, or to show their financial independence,” said Adriana Gorea, an assistant professor of fashion design at Syracuse University. “The lack of frills or overdone details made them more modern; grown-up. The streamlined look made her style a versatile, functional yet classy combination that many consumers understand and desire.”
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