The designer, who died Tuesday, played an important part in the story of American women in fashion and beyond. 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 (June 5th, 2018), 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.
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.
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