Spade started her fashion career in 1986, working at Mademoiselle magazine in the accessories department, but things really took off when she launched her eponymous line of handbags and accessories in 1993 with her then-boyfriend, Andy Spade.
“I was looking for something that could be less serious. More personal," Spade told The Sun Sentinel in 1999 of her inspiration to start the company. “I also wanted timelessness.” And, a handbag that was both functional and cute. “That's what designers were forgetting,” she says. “So many bags can hold a kitchen sink but they're just big black bags.”
She introduced Kate Spade, the brand, to the world with a collection of black nylon bags, priced from $100 to $400. The night before her first show, however, Forbes reports she “ripped out the demure ‘kate spade new york’ labels from inside the bags and stitched them on the outside, sewing until her fingers got puffy.” Her business savvy paid off when Barney’s New York placed an order the following day and a Vogue editor who attended her show soon featured the bag in the magazine.
“When Candy Pratts Price at Vogue put our bag from our very first line on her back page, Last Look. I was beside myself,” Spade shared with the San Fransisco Examiner in 2000, remembering her big break. “Having been an editor, I was incredibly flattered. It was one of our best credits.”
She and Andy would marry in 1994. Two years later, she opened her first store in Soho, the first move that would see the brand would grow to include clothing, bedding, stationary, eyewear, baby items, and so much more. Spade was honored by the CFDA in 1996 as “America’s New Fashion Talent in Accessories,” and again in 1998 as “Best Accessory Designer.”
“The purses became something of a handshake,” Wall Street Journal fashion reporter Christina Binkley told Racked in 2016 of Kate Spade’s impact. ”When two women met and saw they were both holding Kate Spade bags, they'd nod at each other and understand they were on the same page. It was very chic.”
In 1998, Kate Spade made $28 million in sales. The following year, Spade sold the majority of her company to Neiman Marcus Group in order to focus on her family; she sold the remaining portion in 2006. Almost a decade later, Spade would re-enter the fashion industry with a brand-new venture, Frances Valentine, a predominately footwear brand named after her daughter, Frances Beatrix. Spade even legally changed her name to Kate Valentine in a move to distinguish herself from her namesake brand she parted ways from in 2006.
“We at Kate Spade New York just learned of the incredibly sad news that Kate Spade has passed,” a representative for Kate Spade New York said in a statement to Business of Fashion. “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.”
Spade is survived by her husband and their 13-year-old daughter.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.