Designer Kate Spade, who created an accessories empire and whose handbags became a status symbol and a token of sophisticated adulthood for American women, was found dead Tuesday.
One of the first of a powerful wave of American female designers in the 1990s, Ms. Spade built a brand on the appeal of clothes and accessories that made women smile. Her cheerful lack of restraint and bright prints struck a chord with her consumers, many of them cosmopolitan women in the early stages of their careers.
She embodied her own aesthetic, with her proto-1960s bouffant, nerd glasses and playful grin. Beneath that image was a business mind that understood the opportunities in building a lifestyle brand, almost before the term officially existed.
The police said Tuesday that Ms. Spade, 55, was discovered unresponsive at a Park Avenue apartment, where she had hanged herself in her bedroom. She was pronounced dead at the scene at 10:26 a.m. She left a note, but the police chief of detectives, Dermot F. Shea, declined to comment on what it said.
“It appears at this point in time to be a tragic case of apparent suicide,” he said. “It is early in the investigation.”
A housekeeper found Ms. Spade, police said. She was unconscious, and the housekeeper called 911.
“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.”
Katherine Noel Brosnahan was born in Kansas City, Mo., in December, 1962, to an Irish Catholic family. Her father worked in construction while her mother took care of her and her five siblings. She did not grow up obsessed with fashion – though she enjoyed combing through her mother’s jewellery drawer – and thought early in her life about being a television producer. While a student at Arizona State University, she worked in a motorcycle bar and a men’s clothing store, where she met her husband-to-be, Andy Spade, the brother of actor and comedian David Spade. She graduated in 1985.
After graduation, the couple moved to New York where she became an assistant fashion editor at Mademoiselle magazine. Within five years, she was the accessories editor. While in that role, she became frustrated by the handbags of the era, which she found to be gaudy and overaccessorized. What she wanted was “a functional bag that was sophisticated and had some style,” she later told The New York Times. In 1993, she founded Kate Spade with Andy and a friend, Elyce Arons.
Joe Zee, the former creative director of Elle and former fashion director of W, met Ms. Spade before she started her company.
“She told me she was thinking of starting a handbag line in that carefree, excited way she had,” he said. In particular, he remembered her spirited manner, the way she always spoke colourfully, “with excitement and a smile. And as a kid starting out in fashion, that was something you remember especially when everything was so serious and all about deadlines and the pressure of perfection.”
She did not know what to call the company at first and decided to make it a combination of her and Andy’s names. (The couple married in 1994.) After the first show, she realized that the bags needed a little something extra to catch people’s eyes. She took the label, which originally had been on the inside of the bag, and sewed it to the outside. With that gesture, she created a brand identity and sowed the seeds of empire.
Within a few years, she had opened a Manhattan shop and was collecting industry awards, her name a shorthand for the cute, clever bags that were an instant hit with career women and, later, young girls, status symbols of a more attainable, all-American sort than a Fendi clutch or Chanel bag. Ms. Spade became the very visible face of her brand and paved the way for female lifestyle designers such as Tory Burch and Jenna Lyons of J Crew. In 1998, the year before the Spades sold their shares of the company to the Neiman Marcus Group, it had $28-million in sales.
Approachability was her calling card, whether she was making bags, clothes (as her company later expanded into) or books.
“She was a style icon,” said Ira Silverberg, who asked the Spades to do a book while working at the literary agency Donadio & Olson. “But I thought they were really accessible people, and when I got to know them, I realized they were.” The series of books they worked on together – little gift items issued as Style, Manners and Occasions in 2004 – were a hit, selling in the hundreds of thousands of copies.
She and Andy Spade, Mr. Silverberg said, understood “how to reach an audience without alienating a consumer. Katie’s from Kansas City – a quintessential American look and values personified everything they did.”
The company continued to change hands over the years. Neiman Marcus Group sold the company to Liz Claiborne Inc. in 2006. By the time Kate Spade & Co. (as the former Liz Claiborne Inc. eventually came to be known) was acquired by Coach Inc. in 2017, Kate and Andy Spade had been gone for more than a decade, having left to devote themselves to other projects.
A spokeswoman for Kate Spade New York said in a statement that while “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.” Ms. Spade and her husband had a daughter, named Frances Beatrix, who is 13.
Ms. Spade dedicated herself to her family and to philanthropy, through the Kate Spade & Co. Foundation, which is devoted to economic equality for women. In 2016, together with her husband, Ms. Arons and Paola Venturi, a Kate Spade alum, launched a new venture, an accessories label called Frances Valentine. Ms. Spade was so committed to the project that she told interviewers she had changed her surname from Spade to Valentine.
Mr. Zee said he always admired Ms. Spade for being ahead of her time.
“She knew what the fashion world needed before we did,” he said. “Kate just did what she felt was right, regardless of what the industry would think.”