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What Kate Spade modeled for young women -- and their moms

When I first discovered fashion, Kate Spade was queen of it.It was the early aughts, and you could open just a...

Posted: Jun 6, 2018 1:51 PM
Updated: Jun 6, 2018 1:51 PM

When I first discovered fashion, Kate Spade was queen of it.

It was the early aughts, and you could open just about any magazine and spot the designer's work in a second: It was vibrant, clever, colorful and infinitely more inviting than the pages of somber supermodels that surrounded it.

I first got my hands on one of the brand's signature nylon bags in middle school (after much begging, I'm sure) and more than 15 years later, it still sits on a shelf in my mom's dressing room. To be honest, I'm not sure if it's technically mine or hers, though I'm also not sure if that really matters. The brand was always a family affair.

Spade, who on Tuesday was found dead of an apparent suicide, founded the brand in 1993 with her college sweetheart-turned-husband Andy Spade, and chose ragtag, multigenerational casts for the brand's quirky ad campaigns; she continued the trend with her second venture, Frances Valentine, a combination of a longtime family name, Frances (belonging to her daughter, brother, father and grandfather) and her father's middle name.

There's a reason Kate Spade's work appealed just as much to a generation of 12-year-old girls as it did to their moms. At its core, it made the case that femininity, creativity and a sense of playfulness weren't qualities you needed to give up or hide away in order to be taken seriously in the world -- that, in fact, they should be celebrated. It was an idealistic notion, but the woman at the helm, who built what would become a multibillion-dollar brand on boxy handbags and polka-dot prints, was all the proof we needed.

The idea that whimsy should have a place in the workplace, that "sophisticated" doesn't need to mean "staid," that prints should be mixed and colors can be clashed, were, in many ways, ahead of their time. In an industry of dark sunglasses and status handbags, she embraced an unapologetically pretty, preppy, East Coast aesthetic, turning it on its head in the process.

Spade's was a lifestyle brand before everything was a lifestyle brand, and unlike the seltzer companies and razor subscription services that claim the title for themselves today, hers spoke to how customers wanted to live while meeting them where they were -- there was patterned china (for entertaining, maybe, but more likely Chinese takeout), striped bedding that made you question the existence of plain white sheets, and cheeky notecards that have withstood the test of the email era.

While the company has changed hands numerous times over the years, and Spade and her husband officially parted ways with it in 2007 to focus on their family, the force of Kate Spade's legacy has been apparent in the outpouring of grief and nostalgia on social media since the news of her death broke, not least because the brand she founded still bears her name. (Spade, in fact, changed her last name to "Valentine" in 2016 to align with her new label, having sold the rights to design under her married name a decade earlier.)

The apparent suicide came as a particular shock to her fans because of the joy and vitality that permeated every aspect of her work. It was, and is, a reminder that the image someone projects onto the world -- whether through success, celebrity or an affection for candy-colored handbags -- doesn't always reflect their reality, and of how much we stand to lose if we forget that.

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