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The question that hovers over Kate Spade's bright life

Writers who cover fashion and culture were delighted in 2016, when -- just 10 years after selling her namesake brand ...

Posted: Jun 6, 2018 1:03 PM
Updated: Jun 6, 2018 1:03 PM

Writers who cover fashion and culture were delighted in 2016, when -- just 10 years after selling her namesake brand to Liz Claiborne Inc. in 2006, and then leaving the industry -- the designer Kate Spade popped back onto the fashion scene with Frances Valentine, a new accessories line with a slightly more sophisticated veneer. We had missed her.

In an interview for an article at the time, I asked her how tough it might be, after designing for one brand for so long -- a brand so indelibly associated with her -- to change one's approach and design with a different aesthetic in mind. I mean, really, how do you do that?

"I don't know that I'm necessarily coming at it from a different approach, as I am clearly the same person," she said in an e-mail. "I feel like my aesthetic has evolved -- (but) I still love the unexpected."

The hope and promise of her words is heartbreakingly poignant: the popular accessories designer died Tuesday in an apparent suicide. Police say she hanged herself with a scarf.

There will be countless stories in coming days about her legacy in the fashion industry, how she rose from obscurity in the early 1990s, creating a line of handbags and other accessories with her husband, Andy Spade, clever pieces notable for their colorful, quirky aesthetic. And, of course, there'll be the endless tweets asking, "Why?" Why would someone -- a successful designer and businesswoman, no less -- who'd achieved fame and fortune in the creative pursuits she loved, ever, EVER feel so hopeless?

We asked it with other designers who've died by their own hand in recent years -- Alexander McQueen in 2010, L'Wren Scott in 2014. The answers, of course, are never clear, or satisfying. I remember being at New York Fashion Week when the news of McQueen's death hit, and a strange pall falling over the tents (then at Bryant Park). Normally smooth-talking designers and retail execs, with their perfect coifs and vicuna-trimmed rolodexes, were left stumbling for words.

It was like this again Tuesday. Kate Spade was only 55.

She took the fashion world by surprise some 20 years ago, achieving a somewhat unexpected and unpredictable success with her designs at a time when the fashion industry was changing. And now, as the fashion world seems on the brink of change once again, she leaves in the same way.

We did not meet in person, but like many I found her rise in the fashion biz to be inspiring, perhaps because we both started off at Cond- Nast around the same time, slipping into the heady publishing empire via temp jobs.

Back then, at Cond-'s old, rather unpretentious digs on Madison Avenue, one could make a game of guessing who'd get off on which floor. The lanky too-tall-too-thin types inevitably exiting on Vogue's floor, the fresh-faced women in leggings headed to Self, and so on.

But the Mademoiselle staffers -- Spade among them -- were the wild cards, generally young, fast-talking, slightly too loud. And hard to categorize. Spade spent five years there as accessories editor, leaving to pursue her own brand of bags, which themselves could've gotten off on the same floor -- they exuded a cheeky, youthful vibe, exchanging the frou-frou adornments of major designer purses at the time for solid, retro, boxy shapes and bold notice-me colors.

And her timing was perfect.

In the 1990s and early aughts, having an "It Bag" became a thing and those "Sex and the City" gals spent episodes swooning over Birkins. But Spade's take on a bag was not nearly so serious. And not (quite) as pricey. Hers were "it" bags with a lower-case "i" -- like her all-lower-case logo -- offering a coveted rite of passage for a generation of younger women who loved the bags as much as the subtle message: that fashion was what you make of it.

This was back when Donna Karan was finding success with her lower-priced DKNY line and Calvin Klein was first flirting with unisex fragrances. Consumers seemed to have a more chill and inclusive attitude -- they even started expecting value for their money -- and fashion brands that once relied on a vaunted exclusivity were having to rethink.

Upstarts like Spade had a lot to do with that. Lifestyle brands (hers was arguably one of the first) are now standard across the fashion landscape. But she wound up getting out of the biz in 2007, leaving her namesake label one year after Liz Claiborne Inc. bought it for $124 million.

That was before the onslaught of digital media, the power of YouTubers and Instagrammers, and a revolution in how shoppers shop that has retail and media execs now pondering how much longer established fixtures like Cond- Nast, shopping malls, even Fashion Week itself, can survive.

Which is what made her return to the fashion world two years ago so exciting. Alas, that new brand of hers, Frances Valentine, a combination of family names (including her daughter, Frances), hasn't quite flourished in the way she no doubt hoped it would. Perhaps this was part of the woe and worry that led her to leave us. We just don't know.

And so we go back to missing Kate Spade. And wishing, as fashion changes once more, that she could've helped lead the way.

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