As a fashion editor in the early 1990s at Mademoiselle, Kate Spade was in charge of collecting purses and accessories for photo shoots. She knew every handbag company on the market, and one trait stood out among their products: They were way too complicated.
“I thought, gosh, I mean, why can’t we find something just clean and simple and modern?” Spade later told NPR.
She eventually quit her job and created the Kate Spade New York label in 1993 with her soon-to-be husband, Andy. Their handbags were both fashionable and functional, carried by the women in your office and on your TV screen alike. Kate Spade bags, while still out-of-reach purchases for many girls and women, became known as affordable luxuries for a subset of consumers. Although the couple eventually sold the label, the name became synonymous with defining moments in many women’s lives.
After news of Spade’s death on Tuesday, we put out a call for women to share memories of their first Kate Spade accessory. When did they first receive that ever-coveted tote? What did that emblazoned clutch mean to them? Here’s what several said.
“It will always remind me of my journey.” — Kayla Boyd, 24, lifestyle writer in New York
Boyd longed for one of those colorful, crossbody Kate Spade bags, but she was even more excited to receive a “Make Headlines” Spade tote — covered in made-up articles from “The New York Journal” — from her mother for Christmas in 2013. As a journalism and fashion double-major at Eastern Michigan University, Boyd was pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a lifestyle journalist. The tote bag was a perfect match for her style and personality, she says.
“Now, as a professional lifestyle reporter in New York City, I still carry that tote bag around,” Boyd says. “And it will always remind me of my journey from a young girl in the suburbs of Detroit who was told my fashion writer dreams were ‘unrealistic’ to a full-time writer in my dream city.”
“Through her products, she was saying . . . ‘Yes, you can be pretty. Yes, I believe in you.’ ” — Megan Clair, 36, accountant in Houston
The first Kate Spade product Clair owned was a black nylon wallet that she bought with her first-ever work bonus. But a necklace saying “hello sunshine” is what made it on-air when Clair appeared in an episode of “Jeopardy!” last year. She loves the whimsy Spade injected into the brand, along with the positive energy her products give women.
“I bought [the necklace] right before I got the call to be on ‘Jeopardy!’ so I considered it my good luck charm,” she says. “I had to wear it on air.”
If you’re curious, Clair ended up in second place. “To me, the ultimate goal was to be on the show,” she adds, “and anything above that was gravy.”
“Her stuff is always colorful and fun, but also preppy and sophisticated.” — Stacey Collins, 30, claims adjuster in Howell, N.J.
At age 12, Collins was too old to throw a tantrum when her mother refused to buy her a small Kate Spade backpack at the Short Hills mall. But ev ery girl at school had that bag. Every girl except Collins, that is.
“I remember going down the escalator, quietly crying, ‘Mommy, I need it,’ ” she says. “Finally, she was, like, you’ll get it for your bat mitzvah. That was two months away, but it felt like forever.”
Her mother kept her promise, and Collins was eventually the proud owner of a Kate Spade bag. She now also owns multiple bags, earrings and even a key fob from the brand. The brand even played a part in her wedding, as she gave her bridesmaids Kate Spade bracelets.
“A lot of other designers feel stuffy,” Collins says. “But her stuff is always colorful and fun, but also preppy and sophisticated.”
“It was a sign of growing up for me.” — Audrey Frost, 18, soon-to-be college student in Lansing, Mich.
Women in Frost’s family “always have nice purses.” So when she received a black, pebble leather crossbody for her 16th birthday, she finally felt like an adult: “It was just something I had seen growing up, and it was a sign of class and elegance from the other women in my life.”
In the two years that have since passed, Frost has accumulated a number of other Kate Spade products: a purple clutch, a black wristlet, a tote bag, a blue dress, eyeglasses, another black crossbody and a number of accessories.
“That’s the type of person I want to be.” — Maggie Leak, 34, museum professional in Provo, Utah
Leak bought her first Kate Spade bag seven years ago, shortly after starting her first full-time job. The shopper tote is adorned with two spades — a pink one on the red side, and a red one on the pink. Leak was “just smitten” with the brand, she says, noting that the details are what make it so special.
“When you buy something, you get a little postcard that says, ‘She is quick and curious and playful and strong,’ ” she says. “When I saw that, those characteristics resonated with me so much.”
Leak is originally from Kansas City, Mo., like Spade, and always considered her to be a “hometown sister.” She hopes the designer is remembered for her legacy of spreading optimism through her products.
“In a lot of ways, Kate Spade designs were what brought me into adulthood.” — Hanna Brooks Olsen, 31, writer in Seattle
Growing up in blue-collar family in rural Oregon, the only fashion brand Olsen knew about was Route 66, Kmart’s house label.
But “Kate Spade” stuck with her after hearing the brand first, “embarrassingly,” while watching “Sex and the City.”
“In my 20s, I tried desperately to become something different, learning to parse the different designers based on not only what they offered, but what they meant,” she says.
Olsen looked longingly at still-out-of-reach clearance Kate Spade items at Nordstrom Rack but eventually bought a small pocketbook at an outlet mall, using a coupon for an extra discount.
“It was red and stylish and felt so cosmopolitan to me, a kid who grew up wearing hand-me-downs that smelled like cigarettes,” she says. “I used the poor thing to death; it eventually fell apart completely after years of being loved too much. And I always, always felt fancy when I used it.”
Kate Spade was Olsen’s introduction to luxury, and “brought me into adulthood.”
“It represented affordable luxury.” — Liz Trinkle, 32, attorney in Washington, D.C.
Growing up in an upper-middle-class community, Trinkle says her classmates began to carry Kate Spade bags in middle school. All the cool girls had them, she says, and they “represented style and something to reach for.” She finally joined the club in high school, when her parents gave her a black nylon bag that she then carried around for years.
“I felt a little bit more confident, carrying it as a piece that reflected something indulgent that I wouldn’t have been able to buy for myself,” Trinkle says. “But it also wasn’t something unattainable, like designer handbags that cost thousands of dollars.”
As an adult with her own bank account, Trinkle is a loyal Kate Spade customer. The brand has infiltrated her closet, her jewelry box and even her kitchen cabinets.
“My dishes are Kate Spade,” she adds. “I think Kate Spade as a brand touches probably every part of my home.”
“I felt like it gave me credibility as a working woman.” — Saranah Walden, 42, former nonprofit worker in Whitsett, N.C.
Around 2008, Walden was in about $80,000 of debt. So she was unable to justify splurging on a Kate Spade design.
Then she came across a Kelly green bag at a consignment shop where she had credit. It felt “free,” and “was such a boost,” she says.
“It felt like it gave me credibility as a working woman, and not someone who was living off peanuts working at a nonprofit and struggling to make ends meet,” she says.
She eventually climbed out of debt and sold the bag back to a consignment shop. Then, in 2013, Walden’s father gave her three Kate Spade bags for her birthday. Although he bought the gifts on sale, they shocked her, as he rarely gave out presents.
“He died later that year,” unexpectedly, she says. “And even though I’ve worn one of the purses almost to death, I can’t part with it.”