It was 1991, and Kate Brosnahan, then a senior accessories editor for Mademoiselle magazine, set out to reinvent the handbag.
Bored with the offerings available at the time, the 30-year-old Kansas City native quit her job to focus on designing a line of simple, sleek purses with infectious pops of colour.
With the help of her boyfriend, Andy Spade, the brother of comedian David Spade, Brosnahan launched her first line of handbags under the name Kate Spade, a combination of her name and her future husband’s, in 1993.
The couple debuted six handbag silhouettes, which combined “sleek, utilitarian shapes and colourful palettes in an entirely new way,” according to the Kate Spade website.
The structured designs took off and Spade, who took her husband’s name when they married in 1994, eventually began producing chic nylon bags for retail giants such as, Barneys, Bloomindale’s and Nordstrom.
By 1996, the Spades opened their first boutique in New York City’s trendy SoHo neighbourhood and the brand had become a household name, resting on the arms of the likes of Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow.
As news of the 55-year-old’s apparent death by suicide in her Park Avenue apartment rippled across the fashion world on Tuesday, her contribution to the industry and her legacy as a successful female entrepreneur are being remembered.
‘A sense of whimsy’
Spade has been often credited with bringing a sense of fun and lightness back into the fashion world with her bright, cheery designs featuring playful prints, such as the ever-popular lemons or strawberries.
“She had such a sense of whimsy about her designs,” fashion journalist Jeanne Beker, who interviewed Spade on a number of occasions, told CTV News Channel on Tuesday. “I never really thought she took fashion that seriously. Obviously, she took the business of fashion very seriously and she was just so brilliant at it.”
That sense of fun was apparent in her personal style as well. The iconic designer was known for her quirky thick-rimmed “nerdy” glasses and ‘60s bouffant hairstyle.
“Kate was the kind of woman who was just always saw life, or at least I perceived her to see life, through rose-coloured glasses,” Beker said.
Spade’s artistic prowess wasn’t limited to colourful architectural bags, either. The successful entrepreneur was one of the first designers to extend her brand into other domains, such as lifestyle and home collections. She eventually produced everything from shoes, jewelry, and fragrances to home items such as bedding, stationary and gifts.
“She was really one of the first who understood that fashion went way beyond the garments that we wear,” Beker said.
The fashion designer’s success in the business world, building her company and her brand from the ground up, has also been viewed as one of her lasting legacies. And successful it was.
In 1999, Neiman Marcus purchased a 56 per cent stake in the company for US$33.6 million. In 2006, the company then known as Liz Claiborne bought Kate Spade for approximately $125 million. A year later, Spade and her husband left the company to focus on raising their daughter.
Spade’s impressive legacy includes more than 175 retail stores bearing her name internationally. The company Kate Spade New York was acquired by Tapestry, formerly known as Coach, for $2.4 billion in May 2017.
Beker said Spade’s success as a female entrepreneur in the ‘90s was a source of inspiration for a generation of women in North America.
“She really did represent so much, especially to so many young women who really love fashion,” Beker said. “She was really second to none in terms of her business savvy.”
Spade returned to her designing roots with a new line of accessories, along with her husband and a couple of other associates, named Frances Valentine after her daughter, who is now 13 years old.
“She was just such an intelligent, such a warm, and wonderful force,” Beker said. “She wanted to make the world just a much more fun place for all of us who love style and appreciate fashion.”
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