The fashion world was shocked Tuesday morning with the news that popular designer Kate Spade was found dead of an apparent suicide in her apartment at 850 Park Avenue.
A police official said Spade, who was 55, was found in her bedroom and was “unconscious and unresponsive.” It appears she had hanged herself.
Spade is survived by her husband Andy and 13-year-old daughter, Frances.
“We are all devastated by today’s tragedy,” the Spade family said in a statement. “We loved Kate dearly and will miss her terribly. We would ask that our privacy be respected as we grieve during this very difficult time.”
In a statement posted on the CFDA’s web site, Diane von Furstenberg and Steven Kolb wrote, “The CFDA is devastated to hear the news of our friend, colleague, and CFDA member Kate Spade’s tragic passing. She was a great talent who had an immeasurable impact on American fashion and the way the world viewed American accessories. We want to honor her life and her major contribution to the fashion business and express our most sincere condolences to the family.”
Kate Spade New York, the brand Spade founded, 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.”
At a press briefing by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on crime statistics on Tuesday afternoon, NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea responded to reporters’ questions about Spade’s death. “At about 10:10 this morning, members of the 19th precinct responded to an address on Park Avenue. It appears at this point in time to be a tragic case of apparent suicide, but it is early in the investigation,” he said. “There was a suicide note left at the scene. I’m not going to get into the contents of that note, but that appears to be the sum total of what it is at this point. But we still have detectives on the scene, it’s still a fairly fresh incident.”
Spade was “discovered by the housekeeper,” but Shea declined to say where in the apartment she was found or whether her husband was at home at the time.
“There was a note left,” he reiterated. “The contents of that note, along with the physical state of the apartment and the comment of the witness lend to the credibility that it is an apparent suicide.”
According to the police, they responded to a 911 call of an unconscious person inside an apartment at 850 Park Avenue, and upon arrival, an officer “discovered a 55-year-old female unconscious and unresponsive. EMS responded and pronounced the aided female deceased. The medical examiner will determine the cause of death.” The police identified the deceased as Katherine Brosnahan, Spade’s maiden name.
With her irreverent style and bookish glasses, Spade was unmistakable, pedaling on a three-speed Schwinn bicycle — wicker basket intact and leopard coat afloat — along the Manhattan streets. The designer was big on biking for transportation long before Citibike, or designated bike lanes, appeared in the city. Occasionally dressed like she may have stepped out of “The Official Preppy Handbook,” Spade was always unabashed about embracing color. She and Andy were also highly stylized in their marketing and in-store displays, taking an arty approach to curated retail well before others jumped into the fold.
Before they were Kate Spade the brand, the Spades were college sweethearts from the Midwest, she from Kansas City and he from Arizona. After graduation, they were New York-bound with her working as an accessories editor at Mademoiselle and him delving into advertising at TBWA/Chiat/Day. In a 2013 interview with WWD, the couple recalled how they sort of fell into fashion. Musing about starting a company one night over dinner at an Upper West Side Mexican restaurant, he suggested Spade start her own handbag company since she was an accessories aficionado. When she suggested, “It’s not like you can just start a handbag company.” He told her, “Well, why not?”
The then yet-to-be-wed pair decided Kate Spade had a better ring to it. Knowing she wanted simple, straightforward totes, Spade also recognized the market consisted of Coach, European brands and a slew of hardware going on. Her first samples were made of linen and burlap — the only choice — for a no-name designer with no track record and no minimums. Eventually, they morphed into durable nylon bags — 10 in navy and 10 in black — for their first trade show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. But that was just enough for Barneys New York’s Judy Collinson and Vogue’s Candy Pratts Price, who liked what they saw and supported the brand accordingly.
“I believe Kate first started with the straw bags that were very Fifties,” said Pratts Price, Vogue’s former accessories director. “She always had that sensibility of cheerful, lollipop colors; it was a very Kate Spade look. This was pre-us even knowing Magnolia Bakery or macaroon colors. Kate was not giving you goth, and she was not giving you a period of cinema noir or anything. There was nothing hard about this. This was all very cheerful, very colorful. And she was. That’s what I remember. I’m sure I covered her bags in my pages The Last Look, because they were always wonderful, structured shapes. And there were the cute nylon bags — before we all got into big-time nylon. You could call on her and say, ‘We’re doing the beach and we need straw bags’ and she would do it. She was such a good player. There was never any darkness. She was very happy with what she sewed. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m just doing this.’ She was doing it with great love.”
Nordstrom copresident Pete Nordstrom said, “We’ve worked with Kate and knew her personally for many years. She was a great business partner and a lovely, delightful person to work with. We are shocked and saddened by this news and we will miss her. Our hearts go out to her family and friends during this difficult time.”
Pink Beauty’s vice president of creative Elizabeth Kiester recalled meeting Kate in her pre-brand days at Mademoiselle in 1998. “Here was this girl, not much older than me, who had it all — charm, exuberance, a badass beehive, smothered in rhinestone vintage jewelry, a pair of four-sizes-too-big men’s khaki chinos paper-bagged around her tiny little waist, and endless stories of how she and her creative gang were tearing up New York City, all ‘bright lights, big city-ish, drinking martinis at The Odeon and swinging through the fashion party circuit, devil may care.”
As “the dorky fashion assistant,” Kiester said, “Katie B took this newbie under her wing and showed me the way. Didn’t laugh when I mispronounced ‘Franco Moschino’ or at my cluelessness at who Judith Leiber was. She took me by the hand, and by the heart, and proved to me that fashion and style weren’t about money, it was about grace, fun, effervescence and wearing a perfectly imperfect red lip, every single day.”
“As two Midwest girls navigating the fashion world, people would often confuse us…which I always took as the biggest compliment,” said Cynthia Rowley. “We share a love of art, fashion and family. My heart goes out to all the lives she’s touched.”
With Spade taking the designer title and Andy becoming creative director, the pair worked out of their apartment and took no salaries, with Andy always keeping one foot out-the-door for financial reasons. After he became creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, they moved to Los Angeles for a six-month stretch and considered ditching Kate Spade altogether. But their partners and Spade’s best friends Elyce Arons and Pamela Bell convinced them that quitting would mean everyone would lose everything.
What they once described as their “outsider Midwestern sensibility” is what resonated with people. “I wasn’t always sketching on top of some mountains overlooking the glistening sea in Belize. The real truth of it was I was crudely drawing and taking it to a patternmaker I found in the back of Women’s Wear Daily,” Spade said in 2013. Her husband added, “We never thought about starting a company. We just said, ‘Let’s make some bags and see what happens.’ People ask us, ‘How do I start a company?’ It’s daunting. You don’t start a company; a company is what you become if you are successful right?”
One could say that Kate Spade helped spark the designer handbag craze — at least in the Nineties in America. Annual sales cracked $1.5 million in 1995 at a time when handbags were more of an aside than a statement. One year later, the company forged into SoHo with its first store at 59 Thompson Street and sales rising to $6 million. Jack Spade, a collection geared for men, was introduced that same year, under the watchful eye of the understated marketing-savvy Andy.
As a sure sign of the truism that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Kate Spade faced its share of knockoffs over the years. In a court battle with Gap’s Banana Republic, the sportswear chain agreed to stop selling copies of the designer’s bags through an out-of-court settlement. In 1997, similar infringement cases were filed against Kmart, Dayton-Hudson and the mass market manufacturer Accessory Network.
When Kate Spade started in the early Nineties, there wasn’t nearly as much competition. “When we came out, there were only like five accessories houses — Prada, Coach was the biggest American. We were the first in America to work with nylon. We got lucky,” Andy told WWD in 2015 of the original Kate Spade spare, nylon styles. Now, the market is full.
By 1998, the company had sales of $27 million and its first store in Japan. The following year, Neiman Marcus paid $33.6 million to acquire a 56 percent stake in the company with the Spades staying on to run the brand’s operations with Bell and Arons. In the years that followed, a Jack Spade store in SoHo was added, and Kate Spade beauty products with Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., as well as footwear, eyewear, a fragrance and further expansion into Asia.
“We bought Kate Spade after I came down to Dallas to run Neiman Marcus in 1994,” recalled Burt Tansky, retired chief executive officer of the Neiman Marcus Group. “We were looking to get into some new businesses and had been buying Kate Spade. Both she and her husband were doing new things and had lots of good, creative ideas. We grew the business, but we knew Kate Spade was clearly going to be a specialty chain and that wasn’t for us since we were operating department stores.”
At the 10-year mark in 2002, sales were $70 million, and e-commerce was added in 2004 — years before many designers were on board with the idea of selling online. The company changed hands again in 2006, when it was sold to Liz Claiborne Inc.
Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue and artistic director of Condé Nast, said, “Kate Spade had an enviable gift for understanding exactly what women the world over wanted to carry. She launched her label at a time when everyone thought that the definition of a handbag was strictly European, all decades-old serious status and wealth. Then along came this thoroughly American young woman who changed everything. There was a moment when you couldn’t walk a block in New York without seeing one of her bags, which were just like her; colorful and unpretentious. Kate designed with great charm and humor, and built a global empire that reflected exactly who she was and how she lived. Long before we talked about ‘authenticity,’ she defined it.”
Paul Charron, former ceo of Claiborne, said, “I haven’t talked to Kate or Andy in years. When I first began contemplating acquisitions for Liz in 1998 or 1999, I initiated a conversation with Kate and Andy. We had several meetings so I got to know them a bit. They’re both Midwestern people, very down-to-earth. At that point, they were refreshingly naïve, and I’m not damning them with faint praise. I saw it as a real positive because they were not slick, but very genuine people. She was obviously a talented designer and Andy was a talented marketer.
“I was very close to Burt Tansky of Neiman Marcus. We were a very large supplier with Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman and Juicy Couture. I let Burt know that if he ever wanted to part with the Kate Spade property, I would appreciate it if he would give me a call. He later came to me with a price. I knew what that property was worth so there was not a whole lot of negotiating. He offered me a fair price. We purchased Kate Spade and closed on the deal in early December 2006. Kate had a nice sense of color and we thought it was a whimsical line that would appeal to a younger consumer. It turned out that thinking was right,” Charron said.
Stephen Ruzow, who was briefly ceo of Kate Spade, said, “We worked together and I’m just shocked. I think she almost invented lifestyle branding. She started with handbags, which were highly successful, and she did stationery and home. She was a brilliant designer. She knew exactly what she wanted and she knew exactly who she was designing for — herself.”
Gilbert Harrison, former chairman of boutique investment banking firm Financo Inc. and now founder of the Harrison Group, said, “I haven’t seen her in recent years. She was always a talent. She and Andy really built the company….I’m shocked and very sad. Before they sold the company to Neiman Marcus, we almost bought them. Financo’s private equity fund Mercantile Capital was going to put money into the company. We always thought Kate was very talented.”
The Spades and their partners walked away from their company entirely in 2007, a year after it was acquired for $125 million by Claiborne Inc., which subsequently sold off all its other operations to transform itself into Kate Spade & Co. and then was sold to what is now Tapestry Inc.
Spade and Arons spent eight years focusing on their families, while Paola Venturi — Kate Spade’s design director — went to work for Prada. Andy cofounded Partners & Spade design studio, the art space Half Gallery, and the pajama brand Sleepy Jones, while also working on a number of film and photography projects.
One of Spade’s primary incentives for leaving her signature label was to focus on being a full-time mom. “Having waited to have a baby as long as I did, which was 42, I wanted to be there. I felt it was a luxury that I couldn’t pass up,” she said.
While her husband fostered his creative agency, Spade had her own wordy pursuits. Teaming with illustrator Virginia Johnson and editor and writer Ruth Peltason, she published a three-volume set of colorful books “Manners,” “Occasions” and “Style.” Some of the slightly twee drawings could have been snapshots of their eclectic chic Park Avenue apartment. The intricate illustrations and delicate handwritten text were somehow simultaneously very familiar and alluring.
“I think of her whenever I entertain. She used to say, ‘Just make sure you’re showered and dressed before anything else is ready. So when your guests come, you can always set the table, but you can’t go back to fix your hair.’ She had these bon mots and she was right,” Peltason said. “Kate would always say, ‘You can never be too late in thanking someone.’ And she always made you feel better. You’d think, ‘Oh God, I’m so late, but Kate says it’s OK.’
“She just had unerring common sense. It sounds cliche, but I think it was a very Midwestern welcoming style. She was from a big family. She had that big toothy smile. Whenever you saw her, you just wanted to hug her,” Peltason said.
“Some style people exude cool. Kate was the antithesis of cool. She had no interest in being cool. She was all about being Kate,” Peltason added. “Others may have helped to express it through her china line, or through the shoes and that. But they all had to make Kate smile. But she was no dummy; she had this vision and Andy knew how to realize it….Her partners in the business understood — Julia Leach, Andy, the p.r. people — all understood they were part of something special. And that special wasn’t the brand, it was Kate.”
The designer feigned athleticism and was all-in, when Andy suggested a serious bike ride while they were still dating. “That’s such an American girl [reaction]. And yet she became head of a huge empire and took a small box and turned it into a brand by throwing the label on the outside,” Peltason said. “She was that oxymoron — an instant classic.
“Kate was the American story, she was really the American girl, the Breck girl for today,” Peltason said. “That must be part of the shock. It’s like losing a family member. She felt like one of us even though she wasn’t. “
Referring to their book project, Peltason said, “Kate had very fully formed ideas.” The Spades selected all the music played inside Kate Spade stores, so it was natural that she included a CD with a personally selected playlist with her book box set. “It’s as though she had a natural response to life and it was always idiosyncratic to Kate. She was fun. She was real. It’s like someone saying to you a sugar cookie is evil. That’s how weird it seems not having Kate around.”
The illustrator Johnson met the Spades at a 2002 job interview. “Much to my surprise, after doing a few small illustrations for her events and things like that, she asked me to illustrate her book trilogy. Those books essentially launched my illustration career,” Johnson said. “Kate and Andy were so supportive and enthusiastic about my work, and later she carried my line of tunics in her shops. I remember those days very fondly, where they had created such a special place to work, with everyone in high heels, red lipstick, and everyone so warm and friendly. It really felt like a family and I felt so lucky to be part of it.”
The Spades, Venturi and Arons then founded the shoe and handbag brand Frances Valentine in 2015. “I feel like the shapes are very sculptural,” Spade told WWD at the time, hesitating a bit before deciding not to apologize for her design ethos. “I can’t say that I’m a different person than I was when I left. It’s not like I went away for eight years and I came back and I’m suddenly Rick Owens. That didn’t happen.”
“A woman doesn’t need shoes; she needs to fall in love with shoes,” Venturi said. “We have to make her fall in love.”
Still, she was forever associated with the brand that still bears her name. After Sasha Obama wore a purple Kate Spade coat to President Obama’s 2013 inaugural, Spade was nonplussed about hearing her own name in such a public yet disassociated way. “Oddly not, I get asked that all the time. I always felt there was me and the company. It was obviously very personal, but I didn’t confuse a bill not getting paid by Kate Spade as me not paying it.”