Kate Spade, 1962 to 2018

In a tragedy that shocked the fash­ion world, the de­signer was found dead of an ap­par­ent sui­cide in her New York apart­ment on Tues­day. She was 55.


The fash­ion world was shocked Tues­day morn­ing with the news that pop­u­lar de­signer Kate Spade was found dead of an ap­par­ent sui­cide in her apart­ment at 850 Park Av­enue.

A police of­fi­cial said Spade, who was 55, was found in her bed­room and was “un­con­scious and un­re­spon­sive.” It ap­pears she had hanged her­self.

Spade is sur­vived by her hus­band Andy and 13-year-old daugh­ter, Frances.

“We are all dev­as­tated by to­day’s tragedy,” the Spade fam­ily said in a state­ment. “We loved Kate dearly and will miss her ter­ri­bly. We would ask that our pri­vacy be re­spected as we grieve dur­ing this very dif­fi­cult time.”

In a state­ment posted on the CFDA’s web site, Diane von Fursten­berg and Steven

Kolb wrote, “The CFDA is dev­as­tated to hear the news of our friend, col­league, and CFDA mem­ber Kate Spade’s tragic pass­ing. She was a great tal­ent who had an im­mea­sur­able im­pact on Amer­i­can fash­ion and the way the world viewed Amer­i­can ac­ces­sories. We want to honor her life and her ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to the fash­ion busi­ness and ex­press our most sin­cere con­do­lences to the fam­ily.”

Kate Spade New York, the brand Spade founded, now owned by Ta­pes­try Inc., said, “We at Kate Spade New York just learned of the in­cred­i­bly sad news that Kate Spade has passed. Al­though Kate has not been af­fil­i­ated with the brand for more than a decade, she and her hus­band and cre­ative part­ner, Andy, were the founders of our beloved brand. Kate will be dearly missed. Our thoughts are with Andy and the en­tire Spade fam­ily at this time.”

At a press brief­ing by New York City Mayor Bill de Bla­sio on crime statis­tics on Tues­day af­ter­noon, NYPD Chief of De­tec­tives Der­mot Shea re­sponded to re­porters’ ques­tions about Spade’s death. “At about 10:10 this morn­ing, mem­bers of the 19th precinct re­sponded to an ad­dress on Park Av­enue. It ap­pears at this point in time to be a tragic case of ap­par­ent sui­cide, but it is early in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” he said. “There was a sui­cide note left at the scene. I’m not go­ing to get into the con­tents of that note, but that ap­pears to be the sum to­tal of what it is at this point. But we still have de­tec­tives on the scene, it’s still a fairly fresh in­ci­dent.”

Spade was “dis­cov­ered by the house­keeper,” but Shea de­clined to say where in the apart­ment she was found or whether her hus­band was at home at the time.

“There was a note left,” he re­it­er­ated. “The con­tents of that note, along with the phys­i­cal state of the apart­ment and the com­ment of the wit­ness lend to the cred­i­bil­ity that it is an ap­par­ent sui­cide.”

Ac­cord­ing to the police, they re­sponded to a 911 call of an un­con­scious per­son in­side an apart­ment at 850 Park Av­enue, and upon ar­rival, an of­fi­cer “dis­cov­ered a 55-year-old fe­male un­con­scious and un­re­spon­sive.

EMS re­sponded and pro­nounced the aided fe­male de­ceased. The med­i­cal ex­am­iner will de­ter­mine the cause of death.” The police iden­ti­fied the de­ceased as Kather­ine Bros­na­han, Spade’s maiden name.

With her ir­rev­er­ent style and book­ish glasses, Spade was un­mis­tak­able, pedal­ing on a three-speed Sch­winn bi­cy­cle — wicker bas­ket in­tact and leop­ard coat afloat — along the Man­hat­tan streets. The de­signer was big on bik­ing for trans­porta­tion long be­fore Citibike, or des­ig­nated bike lanes, ap­peared in the city. Oc­ca­sion­ally dressed like she may have stepped out of “The Of­fi­cial Preppy Hand­book,” Spade was al­ways un­abashed about em­brac­ing color. She and Andy were also highly styl­ized in their mar­ket­ing and in-store dis­plays, tak­ing an arty ap­proach to cu­rated re­tail well be­fore oth­ers jumped into the fold.

Be­fore they were Kate Spade the brand, the Spades were col­lege sweet­hearts from the Mid­west, she from Kansas City and he from Ari­zona. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, they were New York-bound with her work­ing as an ac­ces­sories ed­i­tor at Made­moi­selle and him delving into ad­ver­tis­ing at TBWA/Chiat/Day. In a 2013 in­ter­view with WWD, the cou­ple re­called how they sort of fell into fash­ion. Mus­ing about start­ing a com­pany one night over din­ner at an Up­per West Side Mex­i­can restau­rant, he sug­gested Spade start her own hand­bag com­pany since she was an ac­ces­sories afi­cionado. When she sug­gested, “It’s not like you can just start a hand­bag com­pany.” He told her, “Well, why not?”

The then yet-to-be-wed pair de­cided

Kate Spade had a bet­ter ring to it. Know­ing she wanted sim­ple, straight­for­ward totes, Spade also rec­og­nized the mar­ket con­sisted of Coach, Euro­pean brands and a slew of hard­ware go­ing on. Her first sam­ples were made of linen and burlap — the only choice — for a no-name de­signer with no track record and no min­i­mums. Even­tu­ally, they mor­phed into durable ny­lon bags — 10 in navy and 10 in black — for their first trade show at the Ja­cob K. Jav­its Con­ven­tion Cen­ter. But that was just enough for Bar­neys New York’s Judy Collinson and Vogue’s Candy Pratts Price, who liked what they saw and sup­ported the brand ac­cord­ingly.

“I be­lieve Kate first started with the straw bags that were very Fifties,” said Pratts Price, Vogue’s for­mer ac­ces­sories di­rec­tor. “She al­ways had that sen­si­bil­ity of cheer­ful, lol­lipop col­ors; it was a very Kate Spade look. This was pre-us even know­ing Mag­no­lia Bak­ery or mac­a­roon col­ors. Kate was not giv­ing you goth, and she was not giv­ing you a pe­riod of cinema noir or any­thing. There was noth­ing hard about this. This was all very cheer­ful, very col­or­ful. And she was. That’s what I re­mem­ber. I’m sure I cov­ered her bags in my pages The Last Look, be­cause they were al­ways won­der­ful, struc­tured shapes. And there were the cute ny­lon bags — be­fore we all got into big-time ny­lon. You could call on her and say, ‘We’re do­ing the beach and we need straw bags’ and she would do it. She was such a good player. There was never any dark­ness. She was very happy with what she sewed. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m just do­ing this.’ She was do­ing it with great love.”

Nord­strom pres­i­dent Pete Nord­strom said, “We’ve worked with Kate and knew her per­son­ally for many years. She was a great busi­ness part­ner and a lovely, de­light­ful per­son to work with. We are shocked and sad­dened by this news and we will miss her. Our hearts go out to her fam­ily and friends dur­ing this dif­fi­cult time.”

Pink Beauty’s vice pres­i­dent of cre­ative Eliz­a­beth Ki­ester re­called meet­ing Kate in her pre-brand days at Made­moi­selle in 1998. “Here was this girl, not much older than me, who had it all — charm, ex­u­ber­ance, a badass bee­hive, smoth­ered in rhine­stone vin­tage jew­elry, a pair of four­sizes-too-big men’s khaki chi­nos pa­perbagged around her tiny lit­tle waist, and end­less stories of how she and her cre­ative gang were tear­ing up New York City, all ‘bright lights, big city-ish, drink­ing mar­ti­nis at The Odeon and swing­ing through the fash­ion party cir­cuit, devil may care.”

As “the dorky fash­ion assistant,” Ki­ester said, “Katie B took this new­bie un­der her wing and showed me the way. Didn’t laugh when I mis­pro­nounced ‘Franco Moschino’ or at my clue­less­ness at who Ju­dith Leiber was. She took me by the hand, and by the heart, and proved to me that fash­ion and style weren’t about money, it was about grace, fun, ef­fer­ves­cence and wear­ing a per­fectly im­per­fect red lip, ev­ery sin­gle day.”

“As two Mid­west girls nav­i­gat­ing the fash­ion world, peo­ple would of­ten con­fuse us...which I al­ways took as the big­gest compliment,” said Cynthia Row­ley. “We share a love of art, fash­ion and fam­ily. My heart goes out to all the lives she’s touched.”

With Spade tak­ing the de­signer ti­tle and Andy be­com­ing cre­ative di­rec­tor, the pair worked out of their apart­ment and took no salaries, with Andy al­ways keep­ing one foot out-the-door for fi­nan­cial rea­sons. Af­ter he be­came cre­ative di­rec­tor at Saatchi & Saatchi, they moved to Los An­ge­les for a six­month stretch and con­sid­ered ditch­ing Kate Spade al­to­gether. But their part­ners and Spade’s best friends Elyce Arons and Pamela Bell con­vinced them that quit­ting would mean ev­ery­one would lose ev­ery­thing.

What they once de­scribed as their “out­sider Mid­west­ern sen­si­bil­ity” is what res­onated with peo­ple. “I wasn’t al­ways sketch­ing on top of some moun­tains over­look­ing the glis­ten­ing sea in Belize. The real truth of it was I was crudely draw­ing and tak­ing it to a pat­tern­maker I found in the back of Women’s Wear Daily,” Spade said in 2013. Her hus­band added, “We never thought about start­ing a com­pany. We just said, ‘Let’s make some bags and see what hap­pens.’ Peo­ple ask us, ‘How do I start a com­pany?’ It’s daunt­ing. You don’t start a com­pany; a com­pany is what you be­come if you are suc­cess­ful right?”

One could say that Kate Spade helped spark the de­signer hand­bag craze — at least in the Nineties in Amer­ica. An­nual sales cracked $1.5 mil­lion in 1995 at a time when hand­bags were more of an aside than a state­ment. One year later, the com­pany forged into SoHo with its first store at 59 Thomp­son Street and sales ris­ing to $6 mil­lion. Jack Spade, a col­lec­tion geared for men, was in­tro­duced that same year, un­der the watch­ful eye of the un­der­stated mar­ket­ing-savvy Andy.

As a sure sign of the tru­ism that im­i­ta­tion is the sin­cer­est form of flat­tery, Kate Spade faced its share of knock­offs over the years. In a court bat­tle with Gap’s Ba­nana Repub­lic, the sports­wear chain agreed to stop sell­ing copies of the de­signer’s bags through an out-of-court set­tle­ment. In 1997, sim­i­lar in­fringe­ment cases were filed against

Kmart, Day­ton-Hud­son and the mass mar­ket man­u­fac­turer Ac­ces­sory Net­work.

When Kate Spade started in the early Nineties, there wasn’t nearly as much com­pe­ti­tion. “When we came out, there were only like five ac­ces­sories houses — Prada, Coach was the big­gest Amer­i­can. We were the first in Amer­ica to work with ny­lon. We got lucky,” Andy told WWD in 2015 of the orig­i­nal Kate Spade spare, ny­lon styles. Now, the mar­ket is full.

By 1998, the com­pany had sales of $27 mil­lion and its first store in Japan. The fol­low­ing year, Neiman Mar­cus paid $33.6 mil­lion to ac­quire a 56 per­cent stake in the com­pany with the Spades stay­ing on to run the brand’s op­er­a­tions with Bell and

Arons. In the years that fol­lowed, a Jack Spade store in SoHo was added, and Kate Spade beauty prod­ucts with Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., as well as footwear, eye­wear, a fra­grance and fur­ther ex­pan­sion into Asia.

“We bought Kate Spade af­ter I came down to Dal­las to run Neiman Mar­cus in 1994,” re­called Burt Tan­sky, re­tired chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the Neiman Mar­cus Group. “We were look­ing to get into some new busi­nesses and had been buy­ing Kate Spade. Both she and her hus­band were do­ing new things and had lots of good, cre­ative ideas. We grew the busi­ness, but we knew Kate Spade was clearly go­ing to be a spe­cialty chain and that wasn’t for us since we were op­er­at­ing de­part­ment stores.”

At the 10-year mark in 2002, sales were $70 mil­lion, and e-com­merce was added in 2004 — years be­fore many de­sign­ers were on board with the idea of sell­ing on­line. The com­pany changed hands again in 2006, when it was sold to Liz Clai­borne Inc.

Anna Win­tour, ed­i­tor in chief of Vogue and artis­tic di­rec­tor of Condé Nast, said, “Kate Spade had an en­vi­able gift for un­der­stand­ing ex­actly what women the world over wanted to carry. She launched her la­bel at a time when ev­ery­one thought that the def­i­ni­tion of a hand­bag was strictly Euro­pean, all decades-old se­ri­ous sta­tus and wealth. Then along came this thor­oughly Amer­i­can young woman who changed ev­ery­thing. There was a moment when you couldn’t walk a block in New

York with­out see­ing one of her bags, which were just like her; col­or­ful and un­pre­ten­tious. Kate de­signed with great charm and hu­mor, and built a global em­pire that re­flected ex­actly who she was and how she lived. Long be­fore we talked about ‘authen­tic­ity,’ she de­fined it.”

Paul Char­ron, for­mer ceo of Clai­borne, said, “I haven’t talked to Kate or Andy in years. When I first be­gan con­tem­plat­ing ac­qui­si­tions for Liz in 1998 or 1999, I ini­ti­ated a con­ver­sa­tion with Kate and Andy. We had sev­eral meet­ings so I got to know them a bit. They’re both Mid­west­ern peo­ple, very down-to-earth. At that point, they were re­fresh­ingly naïve, and I’m not damn­ing them with faint praise. I saw it as a real pos­i­tive be­cause they were not slick, but very gen­uine peo­ple. She was ob­vi­ously a tal­ented de­signer and Andy was a tal­ented mar­keter.

“I was very close to Burt Tan­sky of Neiman Mar­cus. We were a very large sup­plier with Ellen Tracy, Dana Buch­man and Juicy Cou­ture. I let Burt know that if he ever wanted to part with the Kate Spade prop­erty, I would ap­pre­ci­ate it if he would give me a call. He later came to me with a price. I knew what that prop­erty was worth so there was not a whole lot of ne­go­ti­at­ing. He of­fered me a fair price. We pur­chased Kate Spade and closed on the deal in early De­cem­ber 2006. Kate had a nice sense of color and we thought it was a whim­si­cal line that would ap­peal to a younger con­sumer. It turned out that think­ing was right,” Char­ron said.

Stephen Ru­zow, who was briefly ceo of Kate Spade, said, “We worked to­gether and I’m just shocked. I think she al­most in­vented life­style brand­ing. She started with hand­bags, which were highly suc­cess­ful, and she did sta­tionery and home. She was a bril­liant de­signer. She knew ex­actly what she wanted and she knew ex­actly who she was de­sign­ing for — her­self.”

Gil­bert Har­ri­son, for­mer chair­man of bou­tique in­vest­ment bank­ing firm Fi­nanco Inc. and now founder of the Har­ri­son Group, said, “I haven’t seen her in re­cent years. She was al­ways a tal­ent. She and Andy re­ally built the com­pany….I’m shocked and very sad. Be­fore they sold the com­pany to Neiman Mar­cus, we al­most bought them. Fi­nanco’s pri­vate eq­uity fund Mer­can­tile Cap­i­tal was go­ing to put money into the com­pany. We al­ways thought Kate was very tal­ented.”

The Spades and their part­ners walked away from their com­pany en­tirely in 2007, a year af­ter it was ac­quired for $125 mil­lion by Clai­borne Inc., which sub­se­quently sold off all its other op­er­a­tions to trans­form it­self into Kate Spade & Co. and then was sold to what is now Ta­pes­try Inc.

Spade and Arons spent eight years fo­cus­ing on their fam­i­lies, while Paola Ven­turi — Kate Spade’s de­sign di­rec­tor — went to work for Prada. Andy co­founded Part­ners & Spade de­sign stu­dio, the art space Half Gallery, and the pa­jama brand Sleepy Jones, while also work­ing on a num­ber of film and pho­tog­ra­phy projects.

One of Spade’s pri­mary in­cen­tives for leav­ing her sig­na­ture la­bel was to fo­cus on be­ing a full-time mom. “Hav­ing waited to have a baby as long as I did, which was 42, I wanted to be there. I felt it was a lux­ury that I couldn’t pass up,” she said.

While her hus­band fos­tered his cre­ative agency, Spade had her own wordy pur­suits. Team­ing with il­lus­tra­tor Vir­ginia John­son and ed­i­tor and writer Ruth Pelta­son, she pub­lished a three-vol­ume set of col­or­ful books “Man­ners,” “Oc­ca­sions” and “Style.” Some of the slightly twee draw­ings could have been snap­shots of their eclec­tic chic Park Av­enue apart­ment. The in­tri­cate illustrations and del­i­cate hand­writ­ten text were some­how si­mul­ta­ne­ously very fa­mil­iar and al­lur­ing.

“I think of her when­ever I en­ter­tain. She used to say, ‘Just make sure you’re show­ered and dressed be­fore any­thing else is ready. So when your guests come, you can al­ways set the ta­ble, but you can’t go back to fix your hair.’ She had these bon mots and she was right,” Pelta­son said. “Kate would al­ways say, ‘You can never be too late in thank­ing some­one.’ And she al­ways made you feel bet­ter. You’d think, ‘Oh God, I’m so late, but Kate says it’s OK.’

“She just had unerring com­mon sense. It sounds cliche, but I think it was a very Mid­west­ern wel­com­ing style. She was from a big fam­ily. She had that big toothy smile. When­ever you saw her, you just wanted to hug her,” Pelta­son said.

“Some style peo­ple ex­ude cool. Kate was the an­tithe­sis of cool. She had no in­ter­est in be­ing cool. She was all about be­ing Kate,” Pelta­son added. “Oth­ers may have helped to ex­press it through her china line, or through the shoes and that. But they all had to make Kate smile. But she was no dummy; she had this vi­sion and Andy knew how to re­al­ize it….Her part­ners in the busi­ness un­der­stood — Ju­lia Leach, Andy, the p.r. peo­ple — all un­der­stood they were part of some­thing spe­cial. And that spe­cial wasn’t the brand, it was Kate.”

The de­signer feigned ath­leti­cism and was all-in, when Andy sug­gested a se­ri­ous bike ride while they were still dat­ing. “That’s such an Amer­i­can girl [re­ac­tion]. And yet she be­came head of a huge em­pire and took a small box and turned it into a brand by throw­ing the la­bel on the out­side,” Pe­lat­son said. “She was that oxy­moron — an in­stant clas­sic.

“Kate was the Amer­i­can story, she was re­ally the Amer­i­can girl, the Breck girl for to­day,” Pelta­son said. “That must be part of the shock. It’s like los­ing a fam­ily mem­ber. She felt like one of us even though she wasn’t. “

Re­fer­ring to their book project, Pelta­son said, “Kate had very fully formed ideas.” The Spades se­lected all the mu­sic played in­side Kate Spade stores, so it was nat­u­ral that she in­cluded a CD with a per­son­ally se­lected playlist with her book box set. “It’s as though she had a nat­u­ral re­sponse to life and it was al­ways idio­syn­cratic to Kate. She was fun. She was real. It’s like some­one say­ing to you a sugar cookie is evil. That’s how weird it seems not hav­ing Kate around.”

The Spades, Ven­turi and Arons then founded the shoe and hand­bag brand Frances Valen­tine in 2015. “I feel like the shapes are very sculp­tural,” Spade told WWD at the time, hes­i­tat­ing a bit be­fore de­cid­ing not to apol­o­gize for her de­sign ethos. “I can’t say that I’m a dif­fer­ent per­son than I was when I left. It’s not like I went away for eight years and I came back and I’m sud­denly Rick Owens. That didn’t hap­pen.”

“A woman doesn’t need shoes; she needs to fall in love with shoes,” Ven­turi said.

“We have to make her fall in love.”

Still, she was for­ever as­so­ci­ated with the brand that still bears her name. Af­ter Sasha Obama wore a pur­ple Kate Spade coat to Pres­i­dent Obama’s 2013 in­au­gu­ral, Spade was non­plussed about hear­ing her own name in such a pub­lic yet dis­as­so­ci­ated way. “Oddly not, I get asked that all the time. I al­ways felt there was me and the com­pany. It was ob­vi­ously very per­sonal, but I didn’t con­fuse a bill not get­ting paid by Kate Spade as me not pay­ing it.”

Fash­ion. Beauty. Busi­ness.

Kate Spade at an event with hand­bags of her own de­sign on Oct. 9,

1998 in New York.

De­signer Kate Spade in­side her New York flag­ship on May 28,

1996 in New York.

A Kate Spade hand­bag in her store in 2004.

A Kate Spade dress in her store in 2006.

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