Her bags made shoppers smile

Kate Spade started designing handbags in the early 1990s because she found those of the era to be gaudy and over-accessorised

NEW YORK •Buying a Kate Spade handbag was a coming-of-age ritual for a generation of American women.

The designer created an accessories empire that helped define the look of an era. The purses she made became a status symbol and a token of adulthood.

Spade, 55, who was found dead on Tuesday in what New York police characterised as a suicide by hanging, worked as an editor before making the leap to designing, constructing her first sketches from paper and sticky tape.

She would come to attach her name to a bounty of products and ideas: home goods, china, towels and so much else, all of it poised atop the thin line between accessibility and luxury.

One of the first of a wave of American female contemporary designers who emerged in the 1990s, she built a brand on the appeal of clothes and accessories that made shoppers smile.

She embodied her own aesthetic, with her proto-1960s bouffant, nerd glasses and playful grin.


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that image was a business mind that understood the opportunities in building a lifestyle brand, almost before the term officially existed.

Her name became a shorthand for the cute, clever bags that were an instant hit with cosmopolitan women in the early stages of their careers and, later, young girls - status symbols of a more attainable, all-American sort than a Fendi clutch or Chanel bag.

"Kate Spade had an enviable gift for understanding exactly what women the world over wanted to carry," Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue and artistic director of Conde Nast, said in a statement.

Katherine Noel Brosnahan was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on Dec 24, 1962. Her father worked in construction while her mother took care of her and her five siblings.

She did not grow up obsessed with fashion - although she enjoyed combing through her mother's jewellery drawer - and thought early in her life about being a television producer.

While a student at Arizona State University, where she studied journalism, she worked in a motorcycle bar and a men's clothing store.

There, she met her husband-to-be, Mr Andy Spade, the brother of actor and comedian David Spade. She graduated in 1985.

After graduation, Spade moved to New York, where she became an assistant fashion editor at Mademoiselle magazine.

Within five years, she was the accessories editor. While in that role, she became frustrated by the handbags of the era, which she found to be gaudy and over-accessorised.

What she wanted was "a functional bag that was sophisticated and had some style", she later told The New York Times. In 1993, she founded Kate Spade with Andy and a friend, Elyce Arons.

She did not know what to call the company at first and decided to make it a combination of her and Andy's names. The couple married in 1994.

After the first show, she realised that the bags needed a little something extra to catch people's eyes.

She took the label, which originally had been on the inside of the bag, and sewed it to the outside. With that gesture, she created a brand identity and sowed the seeds of her empire.

Ms Julie Gilhart, then the fashion director of Barneys New York, picked up the label for the department store in the early 1990s. It was a great success.

"It was so fast-growing. It just became a business that was successful wherever it was," she recalled.

The mid-1990s were "the time of the handbag", Ms Gilhart said, and Kate Spade was able to bring bags to young women whose budgets were not yet at designer levels.

"Kate and Andy always had their thumb on the pulse," she said. "They put their passion into an opportunity."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2018, with the headline 'Her bags made shoppers smile'. Print Edition | Subscribe