The death of Kate Spade was a sad shock to me yesterday. I just adored her and her personal style forever. It also hurt in part because she was one of us. She was an American girl, self-made and close in age to so many of us. She was just 55 years old, yet we sort of grew up with her and saw her rise to a household name. She made the accessory every woman needed cool and functional and attainable. She also created a lifestyle brand that was based not on money and status, but on simply enjoying life and finding the fun in it all.
Just Monday unbelievably I was going through a friend’s closet with her and we uncovered her Kate bags and reminisced about how cool they had been. They were of an era that seems so much simpler. The Kate Spade line was different as it bore the almost plain name of an American woman, and by design it was simple too. Those early bags were bare and uncomplicated and yet the height of chic when they first appeared. I remember saving for one of her bags and the exact day I walked into the San Francisco Neiman Marcus to make my purchase. It was a niche line back in the mid 90’s and Neimans was one of the first to carry Kate Spade.
I was young, at my first real job then and liked buying a bag by an American designer and one that few other people had. The Italian made bag was a thick brown shiny leather bag with one simple shoulder handle. The leather and lining were elegant and luxurious and the details were and are still are beautiful. Kate soon became known for her fabric totes- black and Neapolitan ice cream colored stripes being two of the best, and all the cool gals had them. Years later those same women became mothers and the Kate Spade nylon diaper bag became THE bag everyone wanted. What was nice was you could afford a Kate bag. They were pricey, but for the quality you felt it was justified. These were not $1,000 bags. They were bags that most women could aspire to and felt stylish carrying.
The ads for the line were always fantastic!
The sweet ads really reflect a particular age and time in a lot of people’s lives.
I owned five of Kate’s leather handbags over the years and one awesome canvas and orange leather beach tote with romantic writing that my pal Ani gave me. I carried them all for ages and got many compliments on their beauty over the years. Not one of those bags ever fell apart. In fact I recently parted with them under duress and the need to have less. I couldn’t part with the first one though. Except for the first, each of those bags were a gift for a special occasion. I would always ask my husband if we could go to the Kate store and he let me choose my own gifts for Mother’s Days, birthdays and so on. Those bags were all from the 90’s to the early 2000’s when Kate was still head of the company.
The designs were bright and lined with pretty fabrics and super functional. I felt stylish carrying them and yet they just worked wonderfully. In 2006 they sold off the company and it changed its quality and lost much of its nonchalant chic and quirky charm to me.
Besides her great design, Kate herself had amazing personal style. I so enjoyed reading about how she and husband Andy Spade lived. They were real and relatable and not uppity at all. They loved trips to Mexico where she wore authentic Mexican tunics and started the trend for the folk looking caftans and tops. She was a huge lover of baskets as purses and the woven summer bag. They also loved vacations and admitted to enjoying days by the pool spent with piles of magazines. They liked simple pleasures like potato chips and cocktails and fully embraced that proudly.
I loved reading all about their lifestyle in her book Style and also her Manners book. They are genuine gems with lovely watercolors. There is also an Occasions version. There were the three books she originally wrote.
She was also featured in the new book From Napa With Love, which showed her and Andy’s favorite spots and habits as a summer residents. I was hoping I’d spot them out there someday…
A page from From Napa With Love with her summer must-haves.
What people may not realize is that Kate Spade was the pioneer of so much that we call stylish today. Playful writing on bags -that began with her. Brights and contrasting hues- juxtaposed with stripes and graphic dots- all Kate. How about the trends of chunky glittery necklaces paired with simple clothes and stacks of playful bracelets? All were hallmarks of Kate’s personal style- later copied by J.Crew and others. She was also one of the first to use water colors in her ads and in her fanciful stationery that was unlike anyone else. A motto or saying on a cuff bracelet or hidden on the inside clasp was begun by Kate too.
Kate Spade made vintage cool and gave old lady manners and formality a twist that made them chic again. All of this harkens to what we now call high-low style and the appreciation of the mid-century looks we so covet today.
Her home had gallery walls and an artsy mix before that became a thing. Together she and Andy created a stylish sort of cocoon of which they were the main characters- always a bit quirky and truly unique.
Kate made her way of mixing vintage treasures with the finer things it’s own look. The throwaway chic everyone now covets, she was doing decades ago. She was ahead of her time in so many ways. That style went with the message of her brand- enjoy life, don’t sweat the small stuff and have fun doing it. I loved the idea that life doesn’t need to be perfect to be beautiful and you should create your own kind of cool. .
Lately Kate had begun a new adventure with a line called Frances Valentine with charming bags and shoes that harkened back to her original designs.
To women of my generation, she and her bags represented stages of our lives- the college student, our first real jobs, and later our time as new moms or young wives. Perhaps that is why her passing makes us all a little sad. At 55 life can be hard. No matter the professional or monetary success you may have, life is changing not always for the better. So many people I know are also struggling or have in the past year with depression, hormones, their health and more. No one can truly know what she was suffering, but it must have been very hard and overwhelming. I would never judge and I feel so very sad for her family.
I do hope she knew in some way she was a great role model for American women, living life on her own terms and inspiring us to create our own unique versions of a cool life for ourselves. She gave us more than we know. She was a lovely human being who besides inventing a great product, wanted to share her version of a joyous life we could all have and she will be missed.