The founder of Frances Valentine on Coach’s acquisition of her eponymous brand, using frugality in business, and more
She’s still got it in the bag.
When Kate Valentine Spade started her eponymous handbag brand in 1993, the fashion world was decidedly different. That was way before “See Now, Buy Now” was a thing and when Zara didn’t mean anything to the American consumer. The former Condé Nast fashion editor thrived in that environment—her whimsically colored and relatively inexpensive accessories were synonymous with a downtown Manhattan insouciance and quickly found themselves on the arms of “it” girls like Gwyneth Paltrow, who were sick of dowdy Coach designs. Neiman Marcus acquired 56% of the brand for $33.6 million in 1999, before later buying her out entirely.
Now 54, Spade is marking a year and a half back in the business with Frances Valentine, an accessories brand she launched with her husband Andy after a near-decade long hiatus to raise her daughter. The designer’s second shot at stardom coincides with Coach’s purchase of the Kate Spade brand earlier this year for $2.4 billion. But Spade appears nonplussed at the loss of her name. “A lot of people didn’t realize that 56% of it had been sold in 1999,” she tells Moneyish, adding that she wouldn’t trade the time with her daughter “in a million years” for her brand back (Spade still has “reserve rights” to use her name in certain product categories.)
Spade is not the first designer to have sold off her name: Jil Sander had a famously tempestuous relationship with Prada after the luxury giant bought a controlling stake in her brand in 1999. Italian fashion emperor Valentino auctioned off his label a decade before he retired. For her part, Spade says she’s “proud” of the Kate Spade brand “but it I do see a difference with what I’m doing now,” she says. Most of the time, she only thinks about Kate Spade when her 12-year-old asks why there are shoes with her mom’s name in them.
More challenging for Spade is adapting to the digital economy. “I’m quite a Luddite and still like shopping in stores,” she says. “I like the idea of fast fashion being accessible, but I think you should buy things you want to wear forever. I’m trying to figure this out without making too many expensive mistakes.” Privately-held Frances Valentine doesn’t disclose its financials, but Spade deliberately kept the business small, noting that “frugality and a common sense approach to business” worked the last time (Andy Spade emptied out his 401k in the 90s to buy fabric.)
Despite plenty of investor offers, “we didn’t borrow a dime,” Spade says, adding that she “might as well have gone back to Kate Spade and worked for somebody else” if she did. There is no physical boutique: Frances Valentine bags and shoes, most of which retail in the low three digits, are sold online or at department stores like Bloomingdale’s. Spade has just under two dozen employees in New York and Milan, many of whom previously worked with her.
Aficionados of 90s-era Kate Spade will find plenty to like in Frances Valentine. “I can’t say I’ve changed my entire design philosophy,” she says. “Anna Wintour used gave me great advice—since you have an identity, believe in your guts and stick to your guns.” For instance, all Frances Valentine designs tend to be in simple, geometric shapes because the designer doesn’t like complicated designs. But there are some changes: Today Spade uses thicker heels in her shoe designs (though she admits that she’s still riding the stiletto wave).
While she’s considered growing Frances Valentine into other categories—they did a small eyewear run—Spade says that’ll only happen slowly. Besides, she notes that most people don’t dress head-to-toe in one designer anymore. “That was a really 90s phenomenon and we’ve broken away from that,” she says. “People have a greater sense of personal confidence now.”
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