Fear and fashion: the Kate Spade story


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Or how a whimsical, business-savvy designer created a global brand, empowered the women who carry her bags – and ultimately, lost a harrowing battle to her demons


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  • Tribute in the window of Kate Spade shop on Columbus Avenue. Photo: Alexis Gelber



“I am stunned.”

Tweet from Bette Midler, singer-songwriter-actress-customer



It was, for a very long time, the classic Manhattan success story:

Fueled by outsized dreams and driven by creative furies, an ambitious, gifted young Kansas City woman with a degree in broadcasting exits the Midwest to find fame, fortune, and ostensibly, happiness, in New York.

She builds a fashion brand, transforms it into a worldwide, multimillion-dollar corporation, and positions it as a cultural touchstone and beacon for legions of aspiring women. Soon, she’s a household name.

Trappings of wealth and social status quickly follow. The co-op at 850 Park Avenue, complete with fireplace. The beach vacations in Baja, Mexico. The Carlyle Hotel — her “favorite spot for cocktails,” she says in a blog post. Raoul’s on Prince Street in Soho, her preferred restaurant.

And then it all goes catastrophically awry. On Tuesday, June 5 at 10:20 a.m., a housekeeper in her spacious, art-filled apartment off East 77th Street enters the bedroom and finds her hanging from a red scarf tied to a doorknob. A suicide note is discovered at the scene.

Born in Missouri in 1962 as Katherine Noel Brosnahan, she died on the Upper East Side as Katherine Noel Frances Valentine Brosnahan Spade, having legally changed her name in 2016.

But the handbag and accessories entrepreneur — who a quarter-century ago became synonymous with a brand beloved by a generation of young, urban women — will always be remembered as Kate Spade.

She was 55 and left behind her husband of 24 years, Andy Spade, who was also her business partner, and their daughter and only child, 13-year-old Frances Beatrix Spade.

Three days after her death, amid the heightened focus on mental-health issues it triggered, chef Anthony Bourdain hanged himself in his hotel room near Strasbourg, France, where he was filming an episode of CNN’s “Parts Unknown.” He was 61.

Like Spade, the globetrotting author of “Kitchen Confidential,” whose body was discovered by fellow toque Eric Ripert, was long associated with Park Avenue, though a part that must have seemed light years away from the Silk Stocking District.

Bourdain won celebrity status in the 1990s as executive chef of Les Halles, the French brasserie on Park Avenue South off 29th Street, and on June 8, his fans and viewers and diners adorned the shuttered culinary landmark with letters and flowers.

A SPOUSE’S STATEMENT

In a family more sprinkled with stardust than shrouded in tragedy, Kate Spade’s survivors include brother-in-law, David Spade, the stand-up comedian formerly of Saturday Night Live,” and niece Rachel Brosnahan, the Golden Globe-winning star of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

“Kate was the most beautiful woman in the world,” Andy Spade said of his wife in a statement a day after her death. “My daughter and I are devastated by her loss, and can’t even begin to fathom life without her. We are deeply heartbroken and miss her already.”

Spade also pulled back the curtain on a life that to the outside world, and plenty of friends, too, seemed as joyous, vibrant and radiant as her witty, color-splashed design creations.

“There were personal demons she was battling,” he wrote. Specifically, she suffered from depression and anxiety for “many years,” and had been taking medication for both conditions over the past five years.

“She was actively seeking help and working closely with her doctors to treat her disease, one that takes far too many lives,” he added. There was no substance or alcohol abuse, he said, despite tabloid reports.

Marital issues, though unspecified, were also at play, the statement made clear.

Within hours of her death, loving photos of the couple surfaced.

There they were, formally dressed, for the Met’s Costume Institute Gala, and there again, stylishly dressed, at a fundraising soiree in their home for the New York Center for Children, a favorite charity. A lively video shows a mariachi band serenading them as they dance, seemingly carefree.

But for the past 10 months, the Spades had been living apart, though they weren’t legally separated, and “never even discussed divorce,” Spade wrote. He took a second Park Avenue apartment, 14 blocks to the north. Even so, they saw each other or spoke daily, raised their daughter jointly, dined and vacationed together as a family.

“We were best friends trying to work through our problems in the best way we knew how,” he said. “We were together for 35 years. We loved each other very much and simply needed a break.”

How different it must have seemed in 1983 when they met, and quickly paired up, at a men’s clothing store in Phoenix where both worked during their time as students at Arizona State University.

After graduating in 1985, they moved to the city. A year later, Kate Spade, 24, landed a temping job at now-defunct Mademoiselle magazine. She became a top fashion editor, and by 1991, when she left as senior accessories editor, she knew the industry cold.

BOUTIQUE BUSINESS

In 1993, she launched the eponymous Kate Spade, with the man she’d marry one year later, and unveiled a collection of nylon handbags — “Exactly the kind of bag I’d want but can’t find,” she said — that managed to be stylish, practical, cheerful, whimsical, all at the same time.

At age 31, she was a towering success, birthing a lifestyle phenomenon and a business model — she handled design details, he managed advertising and branding — for how a husband and wife can partner and profit.

By 1996, Kate Spade had opened its first boutique at 59 Thompson Street in 400 square feet in Soho. Growth was turbo-charged. Hungry for space, the shop in 1997 moved four blocks to 454 Broome Street, tripling in size.

The design brand became one of the most recognized on earth. It opened 140 retail stores in the U.S. and 175 abroad over two decades. Yet though it bore Spade’s name and logo, it quickly ceased being a family-controlled company.

In 1998, the partners began cashing out. They sold 56 percent of the line to Neiman Marcus, stayed on board to helm design, and then in 2006, a year after their daughter was born, sold their minority stake to Neiman Marcus, which later sold it to Liz Claiborne.

Kate Spade herself formally exited Kate Spade in 2007. Choosing family over fashion, she kept a low profile, devoting herself to raising Frances Beatrix Spade. It was in this period, her husband’s statement suggests, that the bouts of depression worsened.

Still, in 2016, she launched a new accessories label, Frances Valentine, legally changed her name, reengaged with the industry in a comeback bid, and advertised that her designs had “become a bit more grown up since the early days,” along with the tastes of her clientele.

Would the old magic work anew? Horrifically, her suicide makes the question moot. But her place in fashion’s pantheon, and in the memories of the women she served, is secure:

“My grandmother gave me my first Kate Spade bag when I was in college. I still have it,” tweeted Chelsea Clinton.

“I will never forget the first Kate spade bag I got for Christmas in college,” echoed another first daughter, Jenna Bush Hager. “She was a trailblazer.”

On Instagram, Rachel Brosnahan called her aunt, “A light that words can’t capture who touched everyone she ever came into contact with.”

Perhaps Bette Midler, recalling the “wonderful illusions she created,” summed it up best: “I am stunned,” she tweeted.

invreporter@strausnews.com

Any readers who are thinking about suicide, or are concerned about a loved one’s mental health, should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), which provides 24/7 free and confidential support services for people in distress.






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