Handbag guru Kate Spade’s husband Andy was left crushed after the former ended her own life in 2018. He more than missed the designer – having a daughter to bring up without her help, too. And when on Christmas Eve 2019 he posted a picture of his kid on Instagram, the caption proved deeply moving.
Following Kate’s passing, Andy moved away from New York City, where they had lived, and made a new home nearby Oakland, California. His focus continued to be his daughter Beatrice, whom he had shared with Kate – although the couple had been living separately before her passing. Andy told People magazine in 2018, “Bea was living with both of us and we saw each other or spoke every day. We ate many meals together as a family and continued to vacation together as a family. Our daughter was our priority.”
In the summer of 2019 Andy made an unusual tribute to Kate when he hung up decorations on a Christmas tree for her. He wrote on Instagram, “Bea and [I] are planting it outside of our big window to keep your magical spirit and energy close to us every day. It will bless our new home in California and radiate your essence 365 days a year.”
Kate came into the world as a Christmas baby in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1962. She had humble beginnings, with her dad a construction worker and her mom a homemaker caring for their six kids. Kate had little acquaintance with high fashion at the time, though she did love to trawl through her mom’s jewelry.
Kate had thought about becoming a TV producer when small, and perhaps that idea still lived on when she went to college. She attended Arizona State University to study journalism, but Kate also had a brush with fashion – working in a store that sold menswear. And on top of that, she got together with Andy.
After graduating in 1985 Kate then headed for the Big Apple. There, she was hired by Mademoiselle magazine as an assistant fashion editor. Then five years later, she’d risen to be accessories editor. But the position had its frustrations: she was constantly confronted with handbags that she felt had too many accessories, were overly elaborate and featured garish colors.
Although Kate had never had any training as a designer, she decided that she’d create her own idea of the perfect handbag. Using Scotch tape and construction paper, she figured out the sizes and shapes of bags. Then she made a prototype using burlap, which was the least expensive material that she could get for the job.
Kate explained her process a 2003 interview with Fortune Small Business. She said, “I sat down with some tracing paper, and I knew immediately what the shape should be: a very simple square. At the time no one was doing anything that clean. The shape gave me a real flexible canvas for applying all the ideas I had for a lot of colors, patterns and fabrics.”
Although Kate began with handbags – and that’s where she would make her name – eventually she’d create much more. Ideas flowed from the designer into a huge range of fashion items. Things for the home, towels and china were just a few of the products that she’d put her name to during her career.
In 1999 Kate explained to The New York Times what her aim had been. The designer said that she had wanted “a functional bag that was sophisticated and had some style.” It was the desire for a handbag that she herself could fall in love with that had motivated her to create her own company.
But designer handbags were just a bit too much for Kate. She wanted something simple – just woven material with nothing hanging from it. According to the Washington Post, she said in 1997, “I said to myself, ‘Where’s a bag that I can afford, that’s simple, that’s not saying too much and that I won’t be embarrassed to pull out every season?’”
One-time creative director of Elle magazine Joe Zee recounted to The New York Times meeting Kate before she went into business. He said, “She told me she was thinking of starting a handbag line in that carefree, excited way she had.” What had stuck in his mind is the spirit she had shown; Joe said that Kate had always spoken “with excitement and a smile.”
So in 1993 Kate got a few bags made up and took them to an accessories show. But she couldn’t sell enough even to cover the cost of her booth. Undaunted, she started her own company alongside Andy and their friend Elyce Arons. There was, though, the question of what she would call it.
At the time, Kate still used her maiden name, Brosnahan, but Andy suggested that the company use a mix of their monikers. According to The Independent, she said in 1999, “Andy kept saying the whole time, ‘Kate Spade, Kate Spade – listen to how it sounds.’” Clearly, she agreed, and the company name was born – a year before the designer took the name for herself when she married Andy.
However, despite her handbags’ distinctive design, Kate couldn’t help feeling that something was missing. So, she took out the little labels that sat inside the bags and put the company name in lowercase: “kate spade new york.” The designer then popped them on the bags’ outer – creating a distinctive identity that would come to symbolize her brand.
Kate’s designs for handbags proved unique; they tended to feature bright colors – sometimes pastels – with contrast in their linings. No longer just using burlap, the company made bags from tweed, nylon, leather and canvas among other things. And they came with handles that were simple because, as The Independent reported Kate as saying, “I don’t like really long straps. You might as well have your bag on a leash and drag it behind you.”
Not too long after the company began operating, the fashion director at Barneys New York, Julie Gilhart, chose to stock kate spade new york handbags. The department store lead told The New York Times in 2018, “It was so fast-growing.” And she noted that the Spades made designer handbags available to women who couldn’t pay designer prices. Julie continued, “Kate and Andy always had their thumb on the pulse. They put their passion into an opportunity.”
And the Spades’ handbags didn’t just feature in Barneys, they opened up their own store in New York’s SoHo district, too. Before long, the handbag had taken off and it became a byword for accessibility, while also being a symbol of status. And it wasn’t just a hit with women, but also with the fashion industry, which showered the Spades with awards.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America awarded Kate as a rising talent in 1995 and followed up with the accolade of accessory designer of the year 24 months later. Furthermore, the Accessories Council gave her an ACE nod in 1999. And the rewards in monetary terms were beginning to flood in too: a year earlier, the company had brought in $28 million.
Kate’s products also became known for being approachable. Literary agent Ira Silverberg, who asked Kate to write a book, told The New York Times in 2018, “She was a style icon. But I thought they were really accessible people, and when I got to know them, I realized they were.” The books that Kate went on to write were also huge successes, too.
Kate herself confessed that she hadn’t been aiming for being in fashion. She said, “I like things to endure because that’s the way I shop. If I buy a cashmere sweater I want it to be something [that I’ll] wear for a long time. That’s how I feel about this company. I want it to be like a fashion version of LL Bean – never in or out.”
In 1998 Kate reaped the rewards of her success when she and Andy sold shares in her firm to the Neiman Marcus Group. The latter paid $33 million for a controlling interest in the business, though the Spades stayed on as the company’s creative hub and continued designing its burgeoning output.
The firm wouldn’t stay with Neiman Marcus forever, though. In 2006 it was sold on to Liz Claiborne Inc, and then 11 years later Coach Inc. acquired the company. However, Kate and Andy were long gone by then; they had shifted their attention to new ventures at least a decade before Coach bought it.
Soon enough, Kate then spread into other areas of design. She offered such things as sunglasses, luggage and shoes. Stores in the company name opened across the globe. And as the name spread, Kate herself began to enjoy fame. For example, she made an appearance on sitcom Just Shoot Me alongside her brother-in-law David Spade in 2002.
However, there were some who claimed that Kate Spade handbags went downhill during the 2000s. Questions arose over whether the materials were still good quality and counterfeiters who found willing buyers were squeezing the business. This and the desire to move into other areas may have led the Spades to end their association with the company, because they sold up entirely in 2007.
For her part, Kate took to charitable pursuits after the sale of the firm. She set up the Kate Spade & Company Foundation, which worked towards equality in the economy for women. And in 2016 the designer returned to the world of fashion with an accessories label that she called Frances Valentine. And Kate believed in the label so much she included the latter name among her own.
Sadly, Kate’s passion for philanthropy was not enough to lift her out of depression. And that disease would spell the end for the designer. In June 2018 Kate took her own life in her apartment in New York, and she was discovered by her housekeeper. Husband Andy, meanwhile, had no doubt what had caused her to feel that life wasn’t worth living.
In a statement, Andy wrote, “Kate suffered from depression and anxiety for many years. She was actively seeking help and working closely with doctors to treat her [condition], one that takes far too many lives. We were in touch with her the night before and she sounded happy. There was no indication and no warning that she would do this. It was a complete shock. And it clearly wasn’t her. There were personal demons [that] she was battling.”
The Manhattan Kate Spade New York store that served as the brand’s flagship expressed the feelings of those who had worked with Kate. It posted a sign in its window saying, “Kate Spade, the visionary founder of our brand, has passed. Our thoughts are with her family at this incredibly heartbreaking time. We honor all the beauty she brought into this world.” Elsewhere, fans swamped the stoop of the store with floral tributes.
Celebrities and others shared their connection with Kate Spade, too. Mindy Kaling tweeted, “I’m heartbroken,” while Chelsea Clinton shared, “My grandmother gave me my first Kate Spade bag when I was in college.” And in comments in Kate’s New York Times obituary, one user wrote, “I’ll always associate Kate Spade with becoming a grown New York City woman, and for that, I am grateful.”
In the same comments, another user shared their memory. They wrote, “Then I would pull [my handbag] out, adorned with a fantastically feminine Kate Spade design. Thank you… for bringing a bit of beauty into my life. Your gorgeous yet practical art made me feel a little less lonely at work every day.”
Of course, when you’re missing someone who has passed, their birthdate can be a tough day. And in 2019 Andy shared a photo on Instagram of his daughter with Kate, with her hair in a bow, grasping a lollipop. He wrote, “I will never forget the love Kate had for our beautiful, bright and charming Frances Bea.”
Andy also wanted to share with the world a personal message about the affliction that had caused Kate to end her life. He wrote, “On the date of Katherine Noel Brosnahan Spade’s birthdate I hope that we can all be kind to one another and look for signs of private problems.”
Hoping to reach those who were maybe struggling in the same way as Kate had, Andy wrote, “Some of us are too embarrassed or prideful to admit we have flaws. Please don’t hide from them. There is no shame in having flaws. I have many. As do some of my best friends, mentors and idols. We should take pride in admitting our humanity. Perfection isn’t the goal – honesty is.”
Andy continued with an appeal to those reading it to both look for and give help. He posted, “Please seek help if you are feeling helpless or lost. Ask friends and relatives if they are okay. This is truly important. Sometimes they won’t tell you how they are feeling, but nudge them to find out.”
Then Andy wrapped up by posting, “By the way, this is a picture of our daughter. The most special person on this planet I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. She will not like that I posted this but she may understand when she’s older. But probably not. Love to all.”
Andy was writing the post in California, where he’d moved after Kate had passed. Elyce Arons, now CEO of Frances Valentine, told People magazine in November 2018, “He has been in California taking care of his daughter.” But he was still working with Kate’s brand. She noted, “We are trying to give him space but I speak to him every week. He’s an idea-guy. He always has been and always will be. He throws ideas our way and sometimes we can execute them.”
This isn’t the first time Andy had put a photo online to memorialize Kate, however. In particular, a few months after she passed, he’d posted a picture of a Christmas tree. He wrote, “Four months. Aluminum foil and cardboard star. Store-bought bow. Planting a Christmas tree in my yard so I never forget the beauty of her.”
The designer was also remembered by the company that bears her name. Kate Spade New York gave $1 million to groups working to prevent suicide. CEO Anna Bakst said, “[She] was a true fashion icon who brought joy to the lives of women around the world, and inspired women to live life to the fullest. We are dedicated to carrying on her legacy.”
We’ll leave the final word to one more commenter from The New York Times, who wrote, “Please, if you feel hopeless, reach out. Find someone who will listen to you and help you before it’s too late. No one has to suffer alone.”
If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255. Advice and information are also available at speakingofsuicide.com/resources.