For Kate Spade, Her Name Was Everything & Nothing

Today, Katherine Noel Frances Valentine died in her apartment in Manhattan, having taken her own life. Few would know her by the name she chose for herself just last year (Kate Valentine), but the name she had abandoned — Kate Spade — is as revered and recognized as Jack Daniels or Estée Lauder. The name change copped to the fact that Kate Spade, the woman, had become nearly inextricable from Kate Spade, the fashion label. In fact, even diehard fans would be surprised to know that the brand actually came first. As such, it’s a twisted sort of irony that it will continue to live long after the woman is gone.
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Kate Spade’s relationship with her own name has taken a roundabout path that might seem whimsical at first glance. When Kate first wanted to name the handbag line she was creating with her boyfriend Andy Spade in 1993, she went by Katherine Brosnahan. After rejecting names like 'Olive' and ‘Alex Noel,' Kate told The New York Times in 1999 she finally gave into her boyfriend’s suggestion to combine both their names. When they later married, Kate took Andy’s last name and finally became Kate Spade, too.
In the six years that Kate helmed her company, the Kate Spade brand had ballooned in clout and ubiquity, much in part to how special it felt to carry her bag compared to anything else. The specific contours of that name — kate spade (mind the lowercase) — was as much a part of the brand’s allure as the discreet, parcel-like nylon bag the tiny labels came on. After all, in a decade of logos and branding, Kate Spade handbags were among the first to feature absolutely nothing. For many of us who associated wealth and success with interlocking C’s, F’s and LV’s, to see the sublime blankness of a Kate Spade backpack or shoulder bag was like waking up from a boring dream. Once you learned about what to call it — and who was responsible — the name Kate Spade became one of the worst-kept Shibboleths of the ‘90s that also contained fashion’s greatest secret: that you could have taste without being snobby, that you could love fashion and not its frills, that you could be the kind of person who needs to keep their papers on their person, to bring your lunch with you, and to require the constant accessibility of a day-planner, but look goddamn chic doing it all. Indeed, a woman could be many things. And in fact, our “contradictions” were not so much quirks and whimsies but rather evidence that women have long outgrown their labels.
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At first, Kate Spade was handsomely rewarded. In 1999, she sold 56% of the company to Neiman Marcus Group. She sold the rest of it in 2006 to Liz Claiborne Inc, which later changed its own name to Fifth & Pacific, and then finally to Kate Spade & Company. She got $124 million for the deal (a big part of which was the intellectual property rights within her name), but the company had performed a full body snatch. The phenomenal omnipresence of the name Kate Spade meant that it would be impossible to use her own name in any future projects. According to Julie Zerbo from The Fashion Law, courts have been strict in holding that individuals do not have unfettered rights to use their own names in commercial capacities.
After 2006, Kate disappeared from public life for a decade as the brand she founded continued to make waves in the industry without her. When she reemerged last year after a decade away, the first thing she did was announce that she was legally changing her name, a decision that seemed extreme, considering that her previous name conveyed so much. Even more disconcertingly, she told press that she was changing it to promote a new accessories line, Frances Valentine — a mash-up of names found in her family tree. Cobbled together from her uncle’s middle name and relatives on her dad’s side, Frances Valentine — and Kate Valentine along with it — would represent a new start. “It is significant that she completely rebranded to Frances Valentine that was completely devoid of her name,” says Zerbo. “It is very unlikely that on the heels of selling her eponymous label and its intellectual property rights, she would have legally been able to use her name even if it was just by saying ‘Frances Valentine by Kate Spade.’”
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“It kind of makes [me] sound kind of cool, like a rap star or something,” she told Business of Fashion last year during a publicity blitz. “But we’re not trying to be cheeky or coy. It really was to distinguish the name, and separate the two worlds. Obviously we’re super proud of Kate Spade and we want to be respective of both.” The line received lots of good-faith press upon launch as attestation to the goodwill the industry had for Kate. But Frances Valentine never won even a sliver of the customers or acclaim that her first line received, even though its merits were largely the same (it was modern, minimal, colorful, whimsical). Without the Kate Spade moniker, Kate Valentine and Frances Valentine always seemed like an imposter, even though it was the real-deal.
Kate Spade’s brand was compelling, even as it grew and transformed without her in its zombiefied, corporatized version. But unfiltered and pure, Kate Spade's vision for the world was intoxicating. Every once in awhile, I liked to click through The Selby’s 2010 photo tour of the home she shared with her husband and daughter to reacquaint myself with her aesthetic world. With the initial windfall from the sale of her company, she and Andy Spade purchased a beautiful nine-bedroom apartment they filled with a mismatch of printed sofas, generations of family portraits, and dishes of chocolate eyeballs and candy cigarettes. It is grand but comfortable. Practical but performative. At the end of the slideshow is a handwritten note in which Kate was asked about to define what a good life was. She scribbled the answer confidently: “Family & Friends that are honest & loyal.”
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Tellingly, Kate’s new company that she began, once again, with her business and life partner would take on no investors. A police source told The New York Post that they were looking into relationship problems. And while we’ll never fully grasp the intimate circumstances that led to her premature death (nor is it our right to know), a confluence of stressful and painful circumstances can exacerbate mental illness; if Kate’s Selby note was any indication, dishonesty and disloyalty in her personal life would be the ultimate betrayal. “Spade” was the name she chose as a wife, not only as a designer. “Spade” had already been rendered meaningless to her in one regard. Another challenge to that identity might have seriously complicated the good life she had defined and built for herself.
It is a testament to the power of her name — and the power of Kate Spade the woman — that nearly every publication has ignored the name that she chose for herself and is legally tied to: Kate Valentine. It is also a proof of the impact her original brand had on women that it comes as a surprise to most people that Kate Spade had not been affiliated with the brand for a long time. Kate Spade New York (the design house owned by Kate Spade & Company, now owned by Tapestry) put out a statement that clarified the distance in the same breath it eulogized her life, rendering the latter as an afterthought: “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.”
In that 1999 interview with The NYT, Kate reminisced about how she and Andy finally decided on the name. “Andy kept saying the whole time, 'Kate Spade, Kate Spade — listen to how it sounds,” she recounted.
The paper noted correctly that the name sang. It still does.
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