A Look Back At How Kate Spade Launched Her Legendary Career

The fashion industry has lost one of its most iconic accessories designers in Kate Spade. The businesswoman, born Katherine Noel Brosnahan, was found dead in her New York apartment on Tuesday morning. She was 55. 

Throughout the years, Spade’s name became one of the most recognizable in fashion. The Kansas City native got her start working as an accessories editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York, a position she held from 1986 to 1993. After finding herself bored with the handbags she was seeing regularly, she decided to leave the publication to design her own collection. 

That’s how Kate Spade New York was born.

With the help of her boyfriend Andy Spade, whom she married in 1994, Spade launched a debut collection featuring six different bag silhouettes. According to the brand’s website, the bags “combined sleek, utilitarian shapes and colorful palettes in an entirely new way.” 

Spade wanted to create the perfect handbag that would be “timeless” and “more personal, less serious” than the high-end handbags available at the time, she told The Boston Globe in 1999. 

Spade’s bags, which have always been a mix of fun and feminine, fashionable and functional, were a hit with the fashion set. In 1996, the first Kate Spade shop opened in New York, and just two years later, the company had reportedly generated $28 million in sales, according to The Boston Globe. In 1999, Neiman Marcus bought more than half the company for over $33 million, Racked reported. Around the same time, the Kate Spade brand grew to include shoes and a brother brand, Jack Spade, featuring men’s accessories. 

At one point, Spade’s bags were featured in the pages of Vogue, which catapulted them into the fashion spotlight. The San Francisco Examiner even wrote that the Kate Spade logo was on par with Gucci’s double-G’s and Chanel’s double-C’s.

Fashion insiders like Anna Wintour and Linda Wells were spotted carrying the bags ― a true seal of approval from the industry. Celebrities like Rosario Dawson, who carried a Kate Spade bag on the red carpet at the Met Gala in 2006, also loved them.

Rosario Dawson carrying a Kate Spade purse at the Met Gala in 2006. 

Spade was often photographed carrying her own designs, too.

Spade, pictured here with David Spade, at the 69th annual Academy Awards. 
Spade carrying one of her bags in New York City. 
The designer in 2001 with one of her wicker bags.

Over the years, Spade’s namesake label grew into a billion-dollar brand that now includes clothing, jewelry, stationery, housewares and a kids’ line. While she wasn’t part of the brand at the time of her death ― she and Andy Spade left the company in 2007 ― her influence on its quirky-yet-sophisticated designs will continue to live on.

In fact, just this year, the brand (now owned by Tapestry, the parent company of Coach) brought back one of Spade’s designs ― the Sam ― to the delight of many fashion fans. 

Spade didn’t leave fashion behind altogether. Years after stepping away from her namesake brand, she and her husband launched a new shoe and bag brand, Frances Valentine, in 2015. (To distance herself from the Kate Spade brand, the designer changed her name to Kate Valentine; she told The Wall Street Journal in 2016 her full legal name was Katherine Noel Frances Valentine Brosnahan.)

Upon hearing the news of the designer’s untimely death, tributes and condolences from the fashion and entertainment industries came pouring in. 

The Kate Spade New York brand also responded with a statement of its own, saying, “We honor all the beauty she brought into this world.” 

Spade carved a unique place for herself in the fashion industry, bringing her fun sense of style to the masses and leaving a lasting impact on fashion lovers everywhere.