For many who came of age in the late ‘90s and early aughts, a boxy, black Kate Spade bag is the first designer item they can remember really wanting. Before the Tiffany necklace, before the Seven For All Mankind jeans, there was that bag — simple and classic, yet somehow also deeply of its moment in time. It first hit shelves in 1993, when Spade was a young, ex-Conde Nast staffer beginning her design career, and it quickly put her on the map. In an era long before the constant digital bombardment of images of designer-decked Instagram influencers and celebrities, it still felt like it was everywhere.
And while not every girl was lucky enough to score one for Christmas, her Bat Mitzvah, or via relentless parental pleading, the bag established Spade’s brand in the minds of women, of all ages, as something to strive for. “I was 13 and every girl in my middle school had a Kate Spade wallet,” remembers Natia Sanchez, who spoke to Refinery29 via email. “I wanted one as well, but my mom would not buy one for me. So that summer I got my first job and I saved every penny I could to buy a black Cameron wallet. It was one of my first big purchases ever and I cherished it like a child.”
And it wasn’t just about the bags, or even how they encouraged many of us to save our money for special things. Beyond the brilliance of her designs, Spade herself — who died today at age 55 — looms large as what one Refinery editor called a pre-Sheryl Sandberg “Lean In icon.” Not only did she successfully craft the kind of eponymous brand and empire we grew up daydreaming about, she did it simply by pursuing her own unique image of what clothes, accessories, and home goods could look like, if only we’d all stop envisioning them so seriously. She mixed business with pleasure in a way that told the rest of us we could do the same.
For women who were a little bit older, carrying a Kate Spade bag in its heyday was both a status symbol and oftentimes an entryway into the world of designer fashion. The bags cost a couple hundred dollars, which was a fortune to a suburban 12-year-old, and something a thriving career girl in a big city could save up for. Unlike other iconic handbag designers with their precious, four-figure investment pieces, Spade set out to make something that fit naturally within the lives and budgets of women, not the other way around.
“I actually worked in a boutique on Long Island that carried her original nylon bags in the late ‘90s,” recalls Kerry, who spoke to Refinery29 via email and asked that we only use her first name. “We could not keep the bags in the store. They were so functional and practical. She was incredibly kind and genuine and the bags were practical and useful. My first was one of the nylon black messenger bags. My mom still uses hers and it is in pristine condition!”
It’s rare that an item speaks equally to a pre-teen, her 20-something cousin, her 40-something mother, and maybe even her 60-something grandmother, but that’s exactly what those early Kate Spade bags did. They transcended generations, and 25 years later, they still feel chic and easy, as evidenced by the slightly updated version released this year in celebration of the anniversary.
Though the bag she first became known for may have been relatively minimalist, Spade’s signature aesthetic, as any fan of the brand knows, evolved to be anything but. The company she built over the course of three decades, which grew to include homegoods and children’s wear in addition to ready-to-wear and accessories, embraced an irreverent, unapologetically feminine worldview that resonated deeply with women who were, perhaps, not entirely ready to adopt the staid wardrobe theoretically required of ambitious people.
“I often stand out in many spaces already as a woman of color, but Kate Spade encouraged me to confidently walk into any room, whether it's a boardroom or a coffee shop, wearing the brightest clothing or accessories I own,” Chanele McFarlane tells Refinery29 via email.
And, thankfully, while that boxy black nylon bag, with its tiny white tag bearing Spade’s name, may have felt woefully out of reach for those of us counting on allowance dollars and change scrounged from the couch cushions to fulfill our fashion fantasies, by the time many millennials were a year or two out of college, Kate Spade finally felt like more of an accessible luxury. Kate Spade first expanded into the home in 2003; by the 2010s, it was a full-fledged lifestyle brand. There was a Kate for every occasion, and many of those occasions were the kind of memorable firsts that stick with you throughout a lifetime. Going to work at your first corporate job and want to look appropriate without sacrificing your personal style? Kate Spade. Moving into your first apartment and prefer to own an oven mitt with some pizzazz? Kate Spade. Attending your first bridal shower and have no idea what to bring as a gift? Kate Spade. Looking for wedding shoes that feel special and luxe, but won’t inhibit your right to break it down on the dance floor? Kate Spade, of course.
“Kate Spade was the first high-end handbag I purchased, It was a gift to myself for my new job in the corporate world,” says Madelyn Cervantes, who spoke to Refinery29 via social media. “I always admired the bags, my fiance and brother always knew I never wanted anything else [for] the holidays or birthdays.”
Many of her pieces, like pointed-toe flats made to look like taxi cabs or a bag with the feathered face of a wise owl on it, knowingly played on the ambitious, working girl trope the brand knew rang true to so many of their customers.
“She built a business on making it okay for women to not wear all black and still be taken seriously,” Nina Russell (who, in the interest of full disclosure, has been my friend since Spade’s black nylon era) tells Refinery29. “And come on, who can’t get inspired by a woman who can sell a bag that looks like a giant mushroom for $450?”
Indeed, when the brand was acquired by Liz Claiborne for $124 million in 2006, its boldness even had an influence on its parent company, whose primary label had fallen out of favor with fashion-conscious shoppers. In 2012, the conglomerate, which also owned Juicy Couture and several other companies, changed its name to Fifth & Pacific; in 2014, it sold everything else off and changed its name to Kate Spade & Company, after its most profitable asset. In 2006, the same year it was purchased by Claiborne, the Wall Street Journal reported that Kate Spade was raking in $99 million in annual revenue. In 2015, it was $1.1 billion. In 2017, Coach acquired the company for a whopping $2.4 billion. Which is all to say that Kate Spade wasn’t just a cutesy accessories brand. Far from it, in fact. It was a major fashion empire, and while Spade herself hadn’t been directly involved since 2006, when she left to focus on raising her daughter, it was her singular vision — part chic, part refined, and part whimsical — that made it so.
Strangely, Spade didn’t do a lot of media interviews in her life, certainly not as many as you’d imagine for such an admired household name. In 2016, she told The Cut of her career success: “When I started at Condé Nast as an assistant, you worked your way up. That may not have been so fun, but it absolutely gave me the most amazing sense of resilience and resolution — hearing people say, Don’t come back to me with a no. You have to make this happen. You either want to be in fashion or you don’t. You’ll either make it or you won’t.”
While her clothes, with their kooky accents and classic, 1950s-inspired silhouettes, might not have been as well-embraced by the fashion set as rivals like Michael Kors or Tory Burch, Kate Spade definitely always made it work. But most importantly, she inspired her customers to “live colorfully,” as the company’s tagline goes, and to strive for their goals, be they running a Kate Spade-esque fashion conglomerate or just owning one of her bags.
When the shocking news of Spade’s passing broke this morning, there was an audible gasp across the Refinery office. I passed women in the lobby of our building, huddled together talking in hushed voices about the tragedy. And in search of women whose lives had been particularly touched by Spade’s successes as a businesswoman and designer, I sent out a tweet. My inbox is now filled with responses. Clearly, among her fans, Spade’s legacy is so much more than the sum of its parts. What remains to be seen is how its honored.
"I wish she had the acclaim of Tommy or Ralph,” Sheila O’Donnell, herself a fashion designer who once worked for Liz Claiborne, told Refinery29 by email. "I never knew her, but felt she was a friend."