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Kate Spade, Pioneering Accessories Designer, Dead at 55

Spade led a fashion revolution in the 1990s with her influential handbag designs, transforming the accessories market along the way.
Source: Getty
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — Kate Spade, the pioneering accessories designer who created one of the world's first-ever "It" bags in the 1990s, has been found dead in her New York apartment in an apparent suicide.

“We loved Kate dearly and will miss her terribly,” said Spade’s family in a statement. “We would ask that our privacy be respected as we grieve during this very difficult time.”

"Kate suffered from depression and anxiety for many years," said her husband and business partner Andy Spade to the New York Times on Wednesday. "She was actively seeking help and working closely with her doctors to treat her disease, 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 she was battling."

A representative for Kate Spade New York, the brand she founded in 1993 that is now owned by Tapestry, Inc., said: "We at Kate Spade New York just learned of the incredibly sad news that Kate Spade has passed. Although Kate has not been affiliated with the brand for more than a decade, she and her husband and creative partner, Andy, were the founders of our beloved brand. Kate will be dearly missed. Our thoughts are with Andy and the entire Spade family at this time."

Spade, along with her husband, led a fashion revolution in the 1990s by establishing one of the first modern accessories brands that did not rely on a heavy European history to illuminate it. Rather, Kate Spade New York’s calling card was clever marketing and branding inspired by the designer’s work as an accessories editor and her husband Andy’s time spent climbing the creative ranks in world of advertising.

"Her background as an editor gave her a really unique perspective as a designer," said retail advisor Robert Burke. "She was very attuned to the market, attuned to the customer."

Spade's reasonably priced, box-shaped bags, covered in modest fabrics like microfiber and grosgrain, became a cult hit. For many years, they were knocked off relentlessly by hawkers on Canal Street and around Soho. (When the brand opened its first store on Broome Street, there were copies being sold just a few hundred feet away from the front door.)

"At the time that they launched Kate Spade, the handbag market was basically all brown and back handbags. They were not as near as much of a fashion statement as they are today," Burke said. "Her fabric handbag — with the fabric label — was immediately identifiable. When you talk about disruptive businesses, this was a classic example of one."

In 1999, the Spades sold a 56 percent stake in the business to the Neiman Marcus Group for $34 million. In 2006, they sold their remaining 44 percent stake to Neiman Marcus for an undisclosed sum that reportedly valued the brand at $130 million. Later that year, Neiman Marcus sold it to Liz Claiborne, Inc., for $124 million. Several iterations later in 2017, it was sold to what is now known as Tapestry, Inc., for $2.4 billion.

For nearly a decade, Kate Spade took a break from fashion, embedding herself in the philanthropic world, including time spent with the New York Center for Children. Her husband Andy started the agency Partners & Spade and the sleepwear-as-leisurewear line Sleepy Jones.

In 2016, they reunited to launch Frances Valentine, a shoes and accessories label that bore Spade’s signature pop-y, mod-inflected mark.

"When we started in the 1990s, ready-to-wear designers weren't doing bags and accessories. Now, everyone is doing accessories," Spade told BoF in 2016. "Coming into this, we knew we had to do something very special and we had to love what we make. You know, I look at everyone else's lines and of course there are great things, but we do something that I believe is still special to our sensibility. There is a place for it."

Spade is survived by one daughter.

Editor's Note: This story was updated on 7 June 2018 to include Andy Spade's statement to the New York Times.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, there is help: 

International Association for Suicide Prevention

Call: 116 123

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Call: 1-800-273-8255

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