De­signer made fash­ion — and adult­hood — feel like a party


Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

I made two ma­jor wardrobe pur­chases in the sum­mer of 2001, the year I grad­u­ated from col­lege. The first was a tai­lored black pantsuit for in­ter­views (picked, mostly, by my mom and the depart­ment store sales clerk). The sec­ond was a Kate Spade purse, bright as a per­sim­mon and boxy as a present, lined in a flo­ral print and tied up with a lit­tle bow, like a se­cret. Can you guess which one made post­grad­u­ate life seem like fun?

It surely wasn’t the suit, which made me look like a stranger to my­self in the dress­ing room mir­ror. I re­mem­ber twist­ing, recto, verso, frown­ing at my re­flec­tion, while my mom re­as­sured me — “The trousers are sup­posed to be long. They’ll be the right length when you’re wear­ing pumps.” But the suit was dull, and I didn’t own pumps. Rather than grown up, I felt old.

The Kate Spade bag was al­to­gether dif­fer­ent. I dis­cov­ered it on my grad­u­a­tion trip to New York, my first time in that city with­out a par­ent and with a credit card, and I was dizzy with free­dom. My friend Anne Marie and I skipped the tour of El­lis Is­land, be­cause we could, and in­stead walked the streets of SoHo, star­ing in the shop win­dows, eat­ing soft serve and imag­in­ing our fu­tures aloud.

Kate Spade was one of the few stores we ac­tu­ally dared to go in. There, a blonde sales clerk with a Cherry Coke man­i­cure of­fered us some­thing fizzy to drink and pulled bag af­ter bag for the two of us to try. The store smelled of fresh-cut pe­onies and crisp pa­per. We were giddy. Shop­ping there felt like a party — one that we had been ex­pressly in­vited to. It’s the warmth of the shop that I still re­mem­ber to­day, the way two young girls wear­ing shabby T-shirts and flip-flops were made to feel wel­come, rather than in­tim­i­dated, as we had been in the other bou­tiques.

I left that day with a purse, my first real bag — one which would re­place my L.L. Bean back­pack and mark my tran­si­tion from col­lege stu­dent to grown woman. I think it cost $200, which was a for­tune for me at the time, but I knew even then that I was buy­ing more than just a purse. I was in­vest­ing in Kate Spade’s vi­sion of the adult world, one where be­ing a grown up, par­tic­u­larly be­ing a grown-up woman, was not go­ing to be gray and bor­ing. Adult life with that per­sim­mon bag was go­ing to be fun.

I was the right gen­er­a­tion — and, of course, class — of women to re­spond to Kate Spade’s cheer­ful aes­thetic when she emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

When I grad­u­ated from col­lege (and, si­mul­ta­ne­ously, from our un­der­grad uni­form of Aber­crom­bie jeans and sweaters), there seemed nowhere to go, sar­to­ri­ally speak­ing, but into the ubiq­ui­tous Wash­ing­to­nian wardrobe of tai­lored black pants and but­ton-down shirts.

At that time, there was a yawn­ing gap be­tween ac­ces­si­ble stores like Ba­nana Repub­lic and lux­ury brands like Louis Vuit­ton. Kate Spade’s prices were higher than Ba­nana’s, but not unattain­able for young pro­fes­sion­als, and she filled that niche. She el­e­vated young women out of the generic mall-store dol­drums, but she did it with a re­fresh­ingly preppy prac­ti­cal­ity.

The de­tails mat­tered. The bags were thought­fully de­signed with many of the same lux­ury de­tails the old leather houses of­fered: En­graved hard­ware, clev­erly placed pock­ets, el­e­gant, even seams. And there were lit­tle touches: the pro­tec­tive dust cover that came with each bag, the whim­si­cal lit­tle notes tucked in­side.

Like preppy for­tune-cookie pre­dic­tions, the notes were mys­te­ri­ous and en­tic­ing. Who was she, you won­dered. Was she me?

Years later, when I was work­ing as a fash­ion ed­i­tor, I at­tended the Kate Spade Fash­ion Week pre­sen­ta­tions. The brand has changed hands sev­eral times since the Spades sold it to Neiman Mar­cus in 2006, and the ethos had changed slightly, too. The whimsy was still there, but it fa­vored fri­vol­ity over func­tion. The col­ors were brighter, the hard­ware flashier, ev­ery­thing di­aled up a few notches. If shop­ping Kate Spade was still sup­posed to feel like a party, it had turned into the kind of party where the host is al­ways hov­er­ing nearby, ask­ing whether you are hav­ing fun, in­sist­ing you have an­other drink.

Un­like that first black in­ter­view suit, which I wore only a hand­ful of times, I car­ried my Kate Spade bag every sin­gle day — no mat­ter the oc­ca­sion, no mat­ter the weather — for years. It was the item that most made me feel not just like an adult, but like the kind of adult I wanted to be. A woman who was both prac­ti­cal and creative. Thought­ful and whim­si­cal. Con­fi­dent and warm. Not a woman of leisure, but a woman of ad­ven­ture.

Per­haps fash­ion in­dus­try vet­eran Jen Mank­ins put it best in one of the hun­dreds of trib­utes to Kate Spade that flooded so­cial me­dia June 5 af­ter news of her ap­par­ent sui­cide was pub­lished. Kate Spade, Mank­ins wrote, “rep­re­sented all the pos­si­bil­i­ties of where life could take you.”

This is why Spade touched a nerve with my gen­er­a­tion — be­cause she cel­e­brated all those pos­si­bil­i­ties, and de­signed bags for em­bark­ing on those ad­ven­tures grace­fully.

In gen­eral, Kate Spade’s bags were con­structed out of fun fab­rics, rather than se­ri­ous, heavy leather.


Kate Spade mer­chan­dise is shown in a New York store in 2016. For Kerry Folan, in­vest­ing in a Kate Spade bag meant that adult life was go­ing to be fun, not bor­ing.

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