It’s inevitable that the tragic death of Kate Spade would be linked to some fault line running through the heart of the fashion industry. Even if it hadn’t occurred in the same week that a new Alexander McQueen film was released, those working within the fashion industry needed little reminding of the all-too-frequent instances of drug use, depression and mental-health issues that seem to afflict some of its most talented, successful and much-loved names. McQueen’s suicide in 2010 was as shocking as L’Wren Scott’s was in 2014. And now, another. Another tragic loss of life that no words can ever seek to compensate.
When I heard that Spade had died, I didn’t immediately think of Scott, or McQueen, weirdly. Sure, Spade was a fashion designer, but she was a fashion designer who sold a very specific type of lifestyle, one that – to me, at least – had more in common with Mary Poppins than with any dark and tortured artist. What Spade sold was cheerful escapism, a respite from the gloomy world that gets us down. This was the essence of her popularity: a joyful, slightly kitsch aesthetic that, in the space of five years – after a brief spell working on magazines – she launched as Kate Spade in 1993, achieving sales of $28 million. Hers was a meteoric rise and a testament to the power of an optimistic message. When I think of Spade, I think of bright colours, polka dots, totes with bows on, girlish pumps, yellow ribbon and handbags shaped like lobsters. And I think of that song:
When the dog bites / When the bee stings / When I'm feeling sad / I simply remember my favourite things / And then I don't feel so bad
I’ve never interviewed Spade and have only met her in passing, yet these lyrics seem to sum her up, somehow. She seemed to be a woman who not only appreciated a healthy dose of escapism, but required it, as though creating a parallel universe of cheery handbags and brightly coloured merchandise would prove a salve for life’s slings and arrows. In Kateland, life was filled with pretty trinkets and cute handbags, and was always lived in glorious technicolour. Stella Bugbee, editor of The Cut and a former sales assistant at Spade’s first store in SoHo, New York, described the brand’s distinctive ads as having “the confidence and charm of a Wes Anderson film, a few years before Rushmore made his style instantly recognisable. They’d taken a love of WASP-y Americana and merged it with a winking downtown irony.”
What Kate sold was cheerful escapism, a respite from the gloomy world that gets us down. This was the essence of her popularity
Few critics would immediately place Spade on the cutting edge, yet, in many ways, she was ahead of her time. She made mainstream preppy culture seem knowing and cool, long before J Crew’s attempts, and she was also one of the first designers to make quality craftsmanship affordable. If the 1990s were the years of the handbag, here was a designer determined that hers were democratic, with price points kept as competitive as possible. Spade wasn’t snobbish: by all accounts, she was one of the warmest and most inclusive designers working in New York. Posting on Twitter, Lena Dunham wrote: “Kate Spade was more than a designer. She was also a staple of NYC who spread good will... Thank you, Kate, from one of the millions you made feel beautiful.”
While celebrities were keen to share their memories and condolences (“My grandmother gave me my first Kate Spade bag when I was in college. I still have it,” tweeted Chelsea Clinton), in the end, it was the millions of women she made feel beautiful whose tributes were the most moving. So many loyal customers took to social media, sharing photos of battered, well-loved bags of which they’d only grown fonder over the years. “Of all the items I own, this #KateSpade handbag is the absolute best representation of my soul,” wrote @peckedbythedove on Twitter, posting a picture of a bag decorated with cat’s ears and whiskers. “I never knew the joy a fancy handbag brings until this one. Thank you, Kate, for allowing people to be wild, colourful and expressive as the walls of adulthood closed in on us.”
Her talent, her warmth and her humanity will be sorely missed.
If you or anyone you know has been affected by the issues raised in this feature, please contact Samaritans on 116 123.