I always looked forward to calling on Kate Spade in her showroom because the encounter insured sensory and psychological overload that was equally uplifting, edifying, cheekily retro, and ever so slightly eerie.
She was uplifting because in the ’90s, New York gained legitimacy as a world fashion capital by staking claim as the epicenter of studied minimalism, presented in runway shows as buoyant as a Carmelite mass and rendered in a palette that ran the gamut from anthracite to charcoal brown.
Evidently, Kate Spade never got the memo. Her showroom was merchandised as if her core clientele lived in Candyland. It was as if she had eagerly taken an oath of loyalty to the Crayola box that housed only 16 crayons. The effect of being surrounded by her effusive rainbow array of Sam bags, boldly striped tops, floral appliquéd dresses and two-toned Mary Janes made you giggle, because with one panoramic spin you were reminded that fashion’s primary function was all about making people happy. Maybe that’s why Kate’s smile was ever-present.
Kate was edifying because in order for this prismatic euphoria to have its desired effect, she opted to price her collection that she called a cross “between L.L. Bean and Prada,” within reach of carpooling moms and very junior executive women and envisioned its aesthetic walking confidently down a subway platform rather than a catwalk. In addition, by stamping her understated, lower case label onto the outside, rather than the inside of her leather bags, she also helped initiate the now ubiquitous retail success benchmark we call “branding.”
To me she was always cheekily retro because she always dressed as if she lived down the block from June Cleaver and Donna Reed. Her half-bouffant, half-flip hairdo, wide-skirted dresses, stoles, permanent smile and Emily Post-worthy body language all harkened back to a time when Father Knew Best and magazine ads featured women waxing the kitchen floor in a starched shirtwaist and heels.
But Spade subverted the image, because there was nothing anachronistic about this woman heading an apparently foolproof company, or the breezily empowering effect her clothes and accessories had on millions of young, aspirational women. At InStyle—the magazine that pioneered accessible fashion and where I was Fashion Director—a Spade credit repeatedly instigated a complete sell-through long before e-commerce was the norm.
Kate was also slightly eerie because her persona was so fully entrenched in the effervescence of a bygone era—as if she was channeling either a good-natured Tracy Lord from The Philadelphia Story or Sabrina after Audrey Hepburn comes back from Paris. And as lovely as it was to be with her, the experience approached performance art. Because her abundant charm cleverly masked carefully measured warmth, one couldn’t help but try to engage Spade in a personal, fashion-free conversation in hopes of detecting a chink in her taffeta armor. But Spade proved impenetrably true to her radiantly crafted image.
No one has the right to speculate on the life of a person you don’t wake up alongside every morning. So, I will never know the source of her sorrow. But how heartbreakingly and unfortunate that the joy, pride, and delight this insightful designer brought millions of women wasn’t enough to invoke a smile that went deeper than brilliant branding strategy.