On Tuesday night, bouquets of roses and peonies piled up outside the storefront of 789 Madison, the latest expression of what has been an incredible public outpouring of emotion following the suicide of designer Kate Spade.
There was deep shock, followed by growing discussion about the need to address mental health issues. There was acknowledgment of the fact that no matter how seemingly successful or sunny a surface can be, underneath it all, great pain can exist. There were intensely touching stories of personal experience and depression. But along with it all came wholehearted appreciation of the stuff she made.
It sounds the least of it, but the handbag hymns are testimony to the fact that Ms. Spade’s influence had resonated far beyond the store window and the runway. Her work had reached into people’s minds and helped express their sense of self. A bag became more than a bag: it became a symbol of an important moment in a life and part of an individual’s biography.
Sometimes it was a gift from a family member to mark an important transition. Sometimes it was a gift to oneself, saved up for over months or longer. Sometimes it signaled arrival of sorts, or the beginning of a new stage; sometimes it was an entry point to an expanded identity. Often, it was saved.
Kate Spade did not speak to everyone, nor were her products accessible to everyone. But the reaction shows that over almost three decades, she spoke to more people than anyone perhaps had realized.
For her customers, whether they were famous or not, Kate Spade wasn’t actually fashion. It was personal.
And as a result those customers have taken to the streets, real and virtual, and to social media in all forms to express their feelings about what she meant to them.
But there is no better way to explain why the designer and her work meant so much to so many than to let them speak for themselves. Here are some of their stories, culled from the comments on The New York Times obituary — and at Kate Spade stores in New York City.
“Back when I was working for tech start-ups and many of them were still openly resisting hiring women, all the men would pull out their expensive cutting edge phones and put them down on the conference table. Then I would pull mine out, adorned with a fantastically feminine Kate Spade design. Sometimes it was a woman watering her resplendent flower garden. At times, it was a woman reading the newspaper in a glammed-up, upholstered bed. And from all the repeated glances, I think half the men quietly admired Kate Spade’s artistic expressions. Thank you Kate Spade 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.” — Connie
“I remember in the mid-1990s eyeing a black Kate Spade cocktail purse which I kept looking at in the store. I saved from my paycheck for many months to buy this purse which was my first taste of glamour. This cocktail bag made me feel special and I still use this purse for special occasions more than 20 years later (which still gets compliments). Ms. Spade brought so many smiles to women of my generation and I am so sorry for her family’s loss.” — Donna, Houston
“The news kind of shocked me because she always seemed like a happy and bubbly person. As a person who bought her brand, it made me really sad. You walk in the store and there are neon signs and stuff talking about being yourself and the best version of yourself. Everything has bright colors. It caught me off guard. It’s very sad.” — Virginia Wooten, 17, North Carolina
“I was one of her first loyal customers. I met Kate and her husband selling bags she made at street fairs in downtown Manhattan. I couldn’t afford many of her creations then. They were so kind and though the bags were awesome, they didn’t have any following then, so they would let me save up my salary for a week or two and then coordinate a time when they would be at another street fair when I could pick up the bags I was saving up for … I will always remember how much you cared about your customers. Thank you.” — L.S., New York City
“When I was a young single mom in the ’90s I unexpectedly got a little extra money one summer and splurged on my first Kate Spade purse. I’ve had one of her products on me every day since. This news makes me much sadder than I would have expected for a public figure whom I did not know personally. I’m deeply grateful that there was a line that was classy without being ostentatious, and my heart goes out to her family and those who loved her.”
— S. Carlson, Boston
“When I started working my first ‘real’ job at 23, I still felt hopelessly childish in an office full of mature, competent, older people. The fact I still toted around my things in a backpack (a leftover one from high school at that) probably didn’t help. My first big ‘investment piece’ was a classic Kate Spade handbag — the Margot, in black leather, with a stripy lining and plenty of pockets. It was the most money I’d ever spent on a single object in my life, and something that required saving for weeks on end to do, but I still remember walking into the office my first day back with it, and having my boss compliment the bag — I’ve never felt more like an adult in my life. I’ll always associate Kate Spade with becoming a grown New York City woman, and for that, I am grateful.” — Meghan, San Francisco, Calif.
“So many young women bought, or received as a gift, their first Kate Spade bag. It frequently marked some right of passage, or celebrated some achievement. I was gifted a Kate Spade polka dot clutch when I left a job and company I loved, but had no future for me. Nearly 20 years later, I still have this bag, and I use it for special occasions.” — MyjobisinIndianow, N.Y.
“Depression doesn’t care how smart you are, how high you can jump, how much money you have, whether you can make people laugh, or design incredible hand bags. It will rob you of all the beauty you once felt. So it’s crucial we recognized the monster and thief that it is, and fight each day to not let it win. Do all that you can-seek help through therapy, friends, meditation, yoga, whatever. Do everything you can and if it doesn’t work, try again. Be relentless in your fight against it. But also know that victory can be slow and nonlinear. And sometimes you just need to make it through a day, an hour, a minute.” — Jill Nagle, New Jersey
“The real tragedy is Kate Spade felt that by seeking treatment for her mental illness she might do damage to her ‘brand.’ By putting her business first and her mental health second, she inadvertently allowed her mental illness to control her life and to, ultimately, consume her … The shame of this talented woman’s death is on us as a society and a reminder that we can do better for our weakest citizens.” — Pamela L., Burbank, Calif.
“She suffered so privately. I’ve always loved her brand. She’s always made me happy. It’s beautiful and uplifting.” — Margaret Wooten, 48, North Carolina
“My first ‘real’ handbag when I began working in the male-dominated world of finance was a Kate Spade. It was the marker of being a grown-up, and for someone who was the child of immigrants and the first person in my family to work in a formal business environment, owning one of these bags was a badge of honor and made me feel like I belonged to this very intimidating and foreign world. As I write this now, I carry with me every day a Kate Spade purse, wallet, and phone case. My purse is one of her whimsical designs, and strangers will often stop me in the street when they see it. It makes people smile, from children to adults — even people who don’t speak the same language as I do … Mental illness is a silent, lonely killer and affects people from all walks of life, in all kinds of circumstances, whether rich or poor, old or young. This is a reminder for us to be kinder to those in our lives, to be ever watchful for signs, and to always be there for those we love. And 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.” — Dottie, San Francisco, Calif.
“The first thing I got was a wallet my mom got me for my thirteenth birthday. I was really happy. I didn’t even know about designer brands and my mom was like, ‘This is a really nice wallet,’ and my friends were like ‘Wow, you have a Kate Spade wallet.’ I was like, ‘This is really big.’” — Ronnie Efremov, 16, New York City
“I love that she fits a regular person and her price points are good. She has a variety of fun, sophisticated pieces. You’re an average person and you can find what you like. I wanted to come to the store because I knew what happened to her. I know the women in the store and I wanted to say I’m sorry to them and show my respects in person.” — Gail Silverman, 58, New York City
“Her daughter is almost our age. It’s such an iconic brand. It’s everywhere. Wherever you go, whether it’s a tech store or Bloomingdale’s, there’s Kate Spade. Everybody in New York knows her brand, and you wouldn’t expect someone that popular to be dealing with something like that, that you just don’t know about.” — Harry Shmerler, 16, New York City
[If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.]