Fashion designer Kate Spade, 55, was found dead in her Park Avenue apartment Tuesday in New York. The cause of death, according to medical examiners, was suicide. Columnist Christine Emba and Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah sat down to talk about Spade’s life and the role her work played in their own lives. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Christine: I first saw [news of her death on Tuesday] trending on Twitter, and I was shocked. What about you?
Karen: Yeah, I was definitely stunned at my desk when the alert came out. At least on social media, I did notice how almost immediately people were cautioning about how to talk about suicide and telling journalists to be careful with the words they used (i.e. avoiding the phrase “committing suicide”). A lot of people started sharing links and phone numbers to crisis hotlines.
It’s just so sad, though. Her brand represented brightness and hope and optimism — a stark contrast to how her life ended.
Christine: Right, I think the first response was just a real surprise at how it happened, because it seemed so at odds with how we envisioned her and her brand. But then came the remembrances. It was so fascinating to see the role that Kate Spade played in women’s lives, and the different things that she seemed to symbolize. There were so many “my first grown-up bag!” stories!
Karen: So many of my friends of all backgrounds, black, white and brown, were sharing pictures of their first Kate Spade bag and the story behind how they got it.
For me, as a ’90s kid growing up in Dallas, I remember seeing a Kate Spade bag for the first time from one of my friends who always had the latest designer anything. It was a small dark pink nylon tote. I think it was the first time I realized that there was such a thing as “luxury bags.” And my first time realizing that people could use handbags to signal some sort of social status.
Christine: But at the same time, her brand was “affordable luxury,” wasn’t it? And I think that’s why they became so popular across the spectrum. They were the sort of bag that if you saved up for a bit, you could buy and be part of. Which was maybe why so many women wrote about her bags being their bridge to adulthood. A symbol of self-sufficiency, in a way. Young, scrappy, independent — but still cute and put-together.
Karen: Exactly. And who knows — also perhaps representing the optimism of the good ol’ Clinton years.
I think of Kate Spade and “Sex and the City” together in many ways. This was how to be a woman who was independent, on her own, hopeful about the world, and yet could use fashion to say something. The fact that Kate Spade passed the same week of the 20th anniversary of the first airing of “Sex and the City” is striking.
Christine: I think both Kate Spade (her bags, her later empire) and the “Sex and the City” phenomenon both stood in for a particular kind of identity.
Karen: Fun! Optimism! Color! Empowerment! Friends! Travel!
Christine: It was one that women could relate to, but was also a lot to live up to.
Karen: Perhaps even too much for Kate Spade herself. Where does that leave the rest of us?
Christine: There’s an underlying tension there, that Kate Spade’s passing embodies in some way.
Karen: That’s the thing right? We are seeing these stories about how the pressure to live up to these ideals as women leads to depression, anxiety and a host of other ills.
This all makes me think of other female entrepreneurs taking their own lives. The last time I was shocked like this was when I found out the co-founder of Miss Jessie’s — a hair care line for black women with natural hair — died by suicide [four] years ago. And the founder of For Brown Girls. It makes me wonder: What are the tolls that entrepreneurship takes on women?
Christine: To be whimsical, optimistic, sweet, sexy, exciting, charming, and a career success at the same time — that’s a lot of pressure. Maybe this is a moment to rethink some of our expectations and facades.
Karen: Her aesthetic was gold! Pink! Green! Stripes! Polka dots! In some ways, it was very girly — things that female children would like — yet for grown women, it sent mixed messages. Personally, as an adult I did find myself feeling a bit like the optimism was too much.
Christine: And looking at the fashion landscape, it also seems like we’re moving away from these very traditional portrayals of femininity. Toward androgyny, toward more muted tones, toward skepticism, perhaps.
But Kate Spade still inspired a lot of us. I will miss her and her work.
Karen: Me, too. I have a paperweight of hers that said “Live Colorfully.” It’s still a good rule to live by. I just wish she had found more peace and happiness in her own life.