Obituary: Kate Spade
Ex-journalist whose chic and hip handbags became a global brand
Kate Spade, who died last Tuesday aged 55, was a former journalist, who, with her husband Andy Spade, built a global fashion brand with a range of clean-lined, brightly coloured handbags.
In the early 1990s, Kate Brosnahan, as she was then, was working as accessories editor at Mademoiselle magazine and wanted handbags for a fashion shoot, but the only ones available were too fussy. "I wanted a functional bag that was sophisticated and had some style," she told The New York Times in 1999.
Using drawing paper and Scotch tape, she made six prototypes and found a manufacturer in Brooklyn to make them up. With Andy, who would become her husband in 1994 and who put $35,000 from his savings into the business, she left Mademoiselle in 1991 and established her company as Kate Spade, using a name from each of the founders.
In 1993, to her amazement, she sold a few bags to Barney's, the American chain of luxury department stores. Subsequently, on an impulse, she ripped her small Kate Spade logo from the inside and sewed it to the outside of the bags, creating an instantly recognisable name brand.
At $200 to $350, the bags were not cheap, but they were a lot cheaper than Prada or Fendi, while being utilitarian and undeniably chic. Soon they were being seen on the arms of models in Vogue and actresses such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman.
In 1996, the year the Spades opened their first store in the SoHo district of New York, Kate Spade was named best new accessories talent by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. By 1998, the company was generating $28m a year in revenue.
Having a Kate Spade bag "was a sign that you were in the know", Eric Wilson, fashion news director at InStyle magazine observed after her death. "You associated yourself with this fun, cool, with-it, hip brand that wasn't snobbish or so exclusive that it felt like a European luxury brand."
With Kate as head of design and Andy as chief executive and creative director, Kate Spade exhorted its customers to "live colourfully" and branched out into other "lifestyle" areas such as stationery, jewellery, home decor, baby goods, luggage, shoes - even mainstream fashion. The Duchess of Cambridge and her sister Pippa Middleton have been seen stepping out in cheerfully preppy Kate Spade creations.
In 1999 the Spades sold 56pc of the company to Neiman Marcus for nearly $34m and in 2006 Neiman Marcus bought the remainder of the brand, selling it for $124m to the clothier Liz Claiborne. Last year the luxury fashion company Coach announced plans to buy the company for $2.4bn.
In 2002 Kate Spade told Glamour magazine that she hoped people would remember her "not just as a good businesswoman, but as a great friend - and a heck of a lot of fun". But in an interview last year, she confessed: "I really wish I worried less... I worried throughout the company and I still do."
She was born Katherine Noel Brosnahan on Christmas Eve, 1962 in Kansas City, Missouri, where her father owned a civil engineering company. She studied journalism at Arizona State University, taking odd jobs in a motorcycle bar and in a men's clothing store, where she met Andy Spade.
In 1985 the pair moved to New York, where Andy started working as an advertising copywriter while Kate took a secretarial job at Mademoiselle.
By 1990 she was in charge of accessories. In 2016 the couple launched a new footwear and accessories brand called Frances Valentine, naming it after their daughter, now aged 13.
Kate Spade is survived by her husband and daughter.