Fashion ID: Kate Spade – biography, journey to success and creations

On June 5th this year, Kate Spade – a renowned fashion designer, creator of iconic ,,Sam” bag, was found dead in her Manhattan apartment. She committed a suicide by hanging. It is known that she suffered from depression and anxiety, but refused to receive treatment. Her family said that she was afraid of disappointing her fans and losing the identity of a cheerful, always optimistic entrepreneur.

How did she take her brand from manufacturing bags using burlap fabric sourced from a potato sack maker to an international company worth $2.4 billion?

Katherine Noel Brosnahan was born on December 24 in 1962 in Kansas City, Missouri, where her parents owned a road-construction company. Back in her childhood she wasn’t passionate or even really aware of the fashion world. She attended  St. Teresa’s Academy, an all-girl Catholic high school. Then the designer became a student of the University of Kansas. Later, she transferred to Arizona State University, where she joined the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, and graduated with a journalism degree in 1985. It was then, that she met Andy Spade – her future life and business partner. Together they moved to New York, where Kate got a job in the accessories department at esteemed Mademoiselle magazine. She left it after 5 years with the title of Senior Fashion Editor/Head of Accessories.

While working for the fashion newspaper, she was constantly surrounded by bags in every shape, color and size that one can imagine. She wasn’t impressed by stiff classics from Chanel and Prada, nor the staid brown and black leather options from Coach and Longchamp. She couldn’t pick even one garment that she found both practical and mesmerizing. That’s why she decided to establish her own company and create a clutch from her dreams. She searched for inspiration in second hands (here’s my article on why you shop in thrift stores) and flea markets. Without any professional courses in design, with only Andy’s money, she fulfilled her goal in 1993.

She had an idea, but lack of experience didn’t make it easy to gain trust and support from industry and potential clients. Manufacturers didn’t want to work with her and when the end seemed inevitable, she found a potato-sack maker that agreed to supply her with materials. Simple, square bag made from burlap and raffia was so obvious, yet so intriguing, especially in New York. Maybe that’s why famous Barney’s noticed the young brand.

Company had to face another problem – its name. „Kate Brosnahn” didn’t sound too splendid,  „Olive” or „Alex Noel” were also rejected. Since it was then, that Andy Spade started to be the main investor of Kate’s idea, he wanted to have something to say when it comes to how it will be called. he proposed a combination of pair’s names. They agreed on ,, Kate Spade”, which became even more substantial when the couple got married a year later.

Kate Spade New York debuted with a collection of 6 bags, ranging in price from $100 to $400.  At the center of its inaugural collection was the ,,Sam” bag, a boxy handbag that would become one of its signatures. Brosnahan combined sleek, utilitarian fabrics and colourful palettes with the simple goal of creating the perfect handbag; something timeless, yet personal. The concept was to create pieces that were the antithesis of the fashion excess that had been seen in the 80s – and which spoke to the emerging minimalist mindset of the 90s. Who was Spade’s client? She was a classic New York working girl, a student of private school in Manhattan, from upper middle class, a dedicated customer of Barney’s. She wanted to be elegant, but certainly not too mature, not old lady-like.

The second collection also became an instant success, however it probably could be attributed to the last-minute changes. The night before the grand reveal, Kate ripped out company’s logo from the inside and, notably to many, sewed it in lowercase, on the outside of the pieces. The scheme became a must-have immediately and just two months later, the bags were featured in Vogue, next to Gucci accessories.

The company didn’t turn a profit for three years, though, Andy was still funding everything. 1996 was a pivotal year for the brand. It’s when the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) awarded Spade the New Fashion Talent in Accessories prize(in 1998, she was honoured at the event, picking up the best accessory designer of the year award).  She also opened her first store, in New York’s downtown SoHo neighborhood. Plus, the company finally broke even.

American Vogue editor Anna Wintour and other influential style icons like Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow were fans. The purses became something of a handshake and so, when two women met and they were both holding Kate Spade bags, they’d nod at each other and understand that there was a connection between them.

The next seven years were packed with the kind of commercial success and critical acclaim that fashion designers only dream of. Between 1993 and 1995, sales jumped from $100,000 to $1.5m, and by 1998 reached $27m. It seemed virtually impossible to walk down a street in an American city without seeing that distinctive label swing past you. Together, the Spades had a rare gift for creating not just a product that you loved—the perfect, sensible-yet-stylish bag—but an aesthetic that you wanted to be a part of.

The couple sold 56 % of their company to Neiman Marcus, the high-end department store, for nearly $34 million in 1999. The label spent the next few years expanding into other retail categories by entering licensing partnerships with Lenox’s home goods, selling luxury diaper bags and strollers, dressing flight attendants and immortalizing its preppy Upper East Side aesthetic in coffee table books. Kate Spade always aimed to have one,just one, very specific client, but to be everything to him.

After Spade sold entire control of her  label to the Neiman Marcus Group in 2006, the designer took time away from running her own business to raise her daughter. She was officially not connected with her own brand in any way, except for holding the same name. Neiman sold Kate Spade for $124 million to retail giant Liz Claiborne, which was ramping up its portfolio by buying up companies like Ellen Tracy, Lucky Brand Jeans, and Juicy Couture. Liz Claiborne, Inc., would also undergo some changes in the following years: The company rebranded as Fifth & Pacific in 2012, then again to Kate Spade & Company in 2014. In 2017 Coach bought Kate Spade for a reported $2.4 billion; that fall it was incorporated into Tapestry, Inc.

The designer – Kate Spade returned in 2016 with Frances Valentine, a new fashion and lifestyle brand that took its name from members of her family. Spade then legally added the names to her own, becoming Katherine Noel Frances Valentine Brosnahan Spade. This project was supposed to be a bit more grown-up and appeal to older clients. Stores like Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom carried out her designs, but because of the tragic death of the creator, the brand certainly didn’t use its  potential to the fullest.

For me Kate Spade is the perfect example of somebody with vision, passion and courage to do what he believes is right. When she was starting her journey, getting into the industry dominated by fashion houses with years of experience, long and intimidating history, specialist in every field was extremely difficult and required unlimited amounts of strength and determination. She always stayed true to herself, even were some considered her work to be quirky, childish, tasteless. She was the first one to give a woman an item, that supplied her with power, that made her get her head up and feel confident. She made it possible for most young girls with big dreams, to start embodying, a person that they want to become in the future.

Kate Spade’s bag wasn’t just a fashion accessory, it was an investment… an investment in one’s self.

,,Live life colorfully” was her motto. Maybe she wasn’t always able to do so, but one thing we can do continue her legacy is to start implementing this mantra into our reality. I think that that was her goal, tomato others stand proud and just be happy…surrounded by glitter.

Martyna