Why Kate Spade Felt Like a Friend

“Your gorgeous yet practical art made me feel a little less lonely at work every day,” one woman said.

Designer Kate Spade poses for a portrait outside her new store on Newbury Street in Boston in 1999.CreditWendy Maeda/The Boston Globe, via Getty Images

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.

A sign regarding the death of Kate Spade in the window of her flagship store in Manhattan.CreditVincent Tullo for The New York Times

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.

“I am heartbroken,” tweeted Mindy Kaling. “My grandmother gave me my first Kate Spade bag when I was in college,” recalled Chelsea Clinton.

“You walk in the store and there are neon signs and stuff talking about being yourself and the best version of yourself,” Virginia Wooten said outside of the Kate Spade flagship store in Manhattan.CreditVincent Tullo for The New York Times

“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.

“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 said outside of the Kate Spade store on the Upper East Side.CreditVincent Tullo for The New York Times

“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.

Ronnie Efremov, left, and Harry Shmerler in front of the Kate Spade store on Madison Avenue. “Wherever you go, whether it’s a tech store or Bloomingdale’s, there’s Kate Spade,” Mr. Shmerler said.CreditVincent Tullo for The New York Times

“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

What Kate Spade Stood For

There is a lot of talk these days about the lack of women at the top of fashion brands — the statistics are terrible, the gender imbalance striking. It is one of the reasons Kate Spade, the designer who was found dead in her home on Tuesday morning, was so important to so many of us.

She represented not just a terrific talent who built an idea about handbags into what became a billion dollar brand, but a critical figure in the continuum of women who have defined fashion in the United States: designers who thought about what other women (like her) would want in their closets (and later, their homes) and who solved that problem without elitism.

That’s why, in so many profiles over the years, Ms. Spade — or her brand, which she personified — was put in the same cultural bucket as everyone from Dorothy Parker and Nora Ephron to the fictional heroines Nora Charles and Holly Golightly. I always thought of her a bit as Mary Richards throwing her hat up in the air with joy at taking on the big city at the start of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” not because they had the same style, but because they seemed to have the same approach.

The life and legacy of Kate Spade

But it may be more instructive to think of her as a natural heir to Bonnie Cashin, Anne Klein and Liz Claiborne, and the predecessor of Tory Burch and Jenna Lyons during her J. Crew reign, not to mention Stacey Bendet of Alice & Olivia. In the history of women spearheading fashion brands in the United States, Kate Spade was a bridge between the early female icons of the sportswear era, and those of the current lifestyle age. She recognized the looming accessories boom, a bubble we’re still in today, and parlayed her success into all sorts of other areas where a design mind could legitimately have a claim. That seems like obvious strategy today, but when Kate Spade did it, it was wide-open territory.

So while Kate Spade the company may have begun with a handbag — Ms. Spade Scotch-taped her ideas together out of paper when she was an editor at Mademoiselle magazine — it didn’t end there. It grew into linens, china, picture frames, clothing and personal organizers. She created accessible luxury before that was an official term.

The main floor at the Kate Spade store on Madison Avenue in 2013.CreditDonna Alberico for The New York Times
The ready to wear floor at the Kate Spade store on Madison Avenue in 2013.CreditDonna Alberico for The New York Times

She and her husband and business partner, Andy, mimicked the structure of great luxury houses, with a creative mind and a business mind building a company side-by-side (think Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent, or Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti). But high fashion is often aesthetically challenging and comes with its own velvet-rope-like barriers to entry, while neither Ms. Spade’s style nor her price points turned people away. They welcomed them in. They were not neurotic or conflicted or fraught with existential angst. They were fun. They were also fur-free before it became trendy. The name on the label was lowercase for a reason. Women who bought her products could imagine being her friend.

Each piece promised to brighten a room or an outfit (often literally, thanks to their color scheme), and the assumption was, Kate Spade the person would too.

Which is also what makes her end so startling. She had been so effective at building her brand, so good at weaving what looked like cheer and wicker-bicycle-basket attitude into every product she made, so adept at consistency of message and mien, that the assumption — even after she left her eponymous company in 2007 — was that as the name was, so was she.

Andy and Kate Spade in 2006.CreditJoe Schildhorn/Patrick McMullan, via Getty Images

That she later reportedly changed her name to Kate Valentine Spade to reflect the name of a new company, Frances Valentine, and to distance herself from her former brand, seemed to suggest that she had sprung back after her sabbatical from whatever problems had arisen after Kate Spade was sold to investors and then began to change hands with dizzying speed. That she was back.

Though now it seems all those assumptions may have been wrong.

Whatever happened in her life, however, and whatever happens to the brand that still bears her former name, what should never change is the contribution she made: not just to a lot of wardrobes, but to the idea of the American woman. She stepped forward. She opened stores.

She moved all of us along.

Vanessa Friedman is The Times’s fashion director and chief fashion critic. She was previously the fashion editor of the Financial Times. @VVFriedman