KATE SPADE A look back at the fashion designer’s life.
1962-2018 Behind her happy-go-lucky flair for design, a dark—and deadly—depression lurked
In the airy Park Avenue apartment she called home, Kate Spade surrounded herself with keepsakes of laughter and love: dozens of family photos and silver cigarette boxes that reminded her of her late mother, piles of books that her college-sweetheart husband, Andy, savoured and among the framed artwork displayed floor-to-ceiling, her daughter Bea’s creations out of construction paper and glitter. All of it resonated with the cheerful vibe of the fashion empire she and Andy had built.
But none of it, in the end, had any power to overcome the disease Kate quietly battled. Around 10.10 on the morning of June 5, a housekeeper arrived to find Kate alone—and unresponsive in her bedroom. She had died of suicide at the age of 55. While friends and fans reeled, her husband and partner of 35 years revealed late the same day that Kate had been in treatment for depression and anxiety. What’s more, Andy, 56, had moved out 10 months earlier to an apartment blocks away, where Bea, 13, split her time. “We were in touch with [Kate] the night before and she sounded happy,” Andy said.
“There was no indication and no warning that she would do this. It was a complete shock and it clearly wasn’t her.”
The incongruity between the successful designer-mum who, with her colourfully whimsical aesthetic, seemed to embody sunshine itself—and the darkness of her death made no sense. Shocked admirers from Chelsea Clinton (see left) to Whoopi Goldberg posted articles on social media about the alarming rise in America’s suicide rates and shared memories of their first Kate Spade handbag. “Young women saved up for it,” said Goldberg. “It was like you were Mary Tyler Moore; you felt like you could do anything if you had this bag.”
Starting in 1993 with a black nylon tote— with a small identifiable label on the outside— Kate was a two-time Council of Fashion Designers of America award-winner. “Her collection was one of the most popular and brilliant,” says former CFDA executive director Fern Mallis. “She was as adorable as her accessories were. She and Andy were very much in the front lane of the fashion universe.”
They were at home in celebrity circles, too. Andy’s brother is the comic actor David Spade; Kate’s niece is Rachel Brosnahan, the Golden-Globe–winning star of Amazon Prime Video’s The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. That Kate—who two years ago had opened a new chapter with a new line called Frances Valentine—could end her life was unthinkable even to those who were aware of her private struggles. “We knew Kate had her problems and demons,” one friend tells WHO. “But no-one would have ever expected her to do this.”
Katy Brosnahan grew up in Kansas City, one of five sisters and a brother in the Irish-Catholic brood of Frank, who owned a construction company, and June, a former flight attendant who died in 2010. Kate
described herself as “very shy” in high school. A journalism major in college, she met Andy when the two were working their way through Arizona State University at the same clothing store. She moved to Manhattan after graduation and, in 1986, took a $14,000-a-year job as an assistant at Mademoiselle magazine, where she collected handbags for photo shoots. “We sat next to each other,” remembers thenaccessories editor Elizabeth Perine. “There was something so wholesome and down-toearth about Katy B. She seemed too nice to go on and become so successful.”
By then, Andy had followed Kate to New York, “rising fast in the advertising world and a marketing genius,” recalls another of Kate’s Mademoiselle colleagues. Andy suggested in 1991 that Kate try design. “He just said, what about handbags? And I said, ‘Honey, you just don’t start a handbag company.’ And he said, ‘ Why not?’ ” Kate later told the How I Built This podcast.
In 1993, a year before they married, Kate Spade New York was born. Running the business out of their apartment at first, the couple completed the sale of their company to Neiman Marcus in 2006, banking $US92.6 million. Baby Frances Beatrix—“bea”—was just a year old and Kate took 10 years off to focus on being a mum. “It was so natural for me to get involved in my daughter’s school, her play dates and baking,” Kate told WHO in 2016. She was chair of a parent committee at Bea’s private all-girls’ school and would throw on a pair of yellow shoes with rhinestones for the morning drop-off run in her workout clothes. “It all sounds a little corny,” Kate said, “but I enjoyed every minute of it.” Said an acquaintance from school circles, “Kate was friendly with many of the mothers. No-one there had any idea she was struggling.”
Looking back, maybe she did drop clues. In an interview with WHO in July 2016 on the launch of Frances Valentine, Kate repeatedly spoke of her tendency to fret. “I might worry a little more than others,” Kate said. “And I definitely don’t want my daughter to feel that way. My dad always says, ‘Just float. Not every little pebble is a boulder.’ ” She also chafed a little at the loss of recognition during her break from the industry. Stopping in a Kate Spade store to buy Bea a skirt, the saleswoman asked if Kate was on their mailing list. “My daughter was looking at me like, ‘C’mon, just tell her.’ And I was like, ‘No,’ ” Kate recalled. “But I loved, ‘Are you on our mailing list?’ I created your mailing list!”
As for the deterioration of her marriage, Andy cast it as a temporary break and emphasised after her suicide that the three of them still had family dinners and holidayed together. “We were best friends trying to work through our problems.”
Kate’s friend, who requested anonymity, vouches for the split being amicable, at least on its face. “They had issues for a while, but you never heard them speaking poorly of one another. Andy is doing his best to be there for Bea and protect her from what is going on.” While Andy works out with Frank Brosnahan his wish to have his daughter home in Kansas to be buried beside her mother (funeral plans were uncertain at press time), those Kate left behind searched for meaning in their grief. Her dad told The Kansas City Star he was gratified by the attention on mental illness and suicide: “Any talk that ... helps somebody else, Katy would have liked that.” And David Spade focused on Kate’s light. “She could make me laugh so hard,” he wrote on Instagram. “It’s a rough world out there, people. Try to hang on.”
If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or www.lifeline.org.au
The Park Avenue apartment where Spade was found unresponsive on the morning on June 5.
Kate (at her Boston store in 1999) sold a 56 per cent stake in the company for $US33.6 million. Mary-kate and Ashley Olsen carried Kate’s “It” bag.
Andy with Kate in 2003 is “more relaxed, more of a risk-taker,” Kate said. David Spade (left, circa 2000) remembered Kate as “so sharp and quick on her feet.” Kate’s bags “helped shape the aesthetic of the time—simple but meaningful and functional,” says CFDA president Steven Kolb. Kate refused business offers that would take her away from Bea (in 2007).
“I’m a worry wart ... I look at what’s not working rather than what is” —Kate Spade, in July 2016