The timeless influence of fashion designer Kate Spade

The American designer passed away on Tuesday, but hers is a design aesthetic that will live on

FILE - In this May 13, 2004 file photo, designer Kate Spade poses with handbags and shoes from her next collection in New York. Law enforcement officials say Tuesday, June 5, 2018, that New York fashion designer Kate Spade has been found dead in her apartment in an apparent suicide. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)
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When I bought my first pair of earrings from Kate Spade’s Mall of the Emirates store a few years ago, the designer herself was not an active contributor to the brand named after her. Nonetheless, the rainbow colours and upbeat feel of those hot-air-balloon-shaped earrings very much defined the late American designer’s own aesthetic.

In 2006, Kate Spade (Kate Valentine since 2016, in tribute to her grandfather) sold her shares for the company she founded 25 years ago, to Neiman Marcus, and it was eventually bought by Coach in 2017. However, Kate’s design philosophy — fun, on-trend, accessible pieces in bright colours and patterns — is still very much evident in the brand’s collections.

Early life

When Missouri-born Kate Brosnahan began working in the accessories department at Mademoiselle magazine in Manhattan, she quickly realised there was a void in the market: women didn't really have a choice of handbags that were both sensible and stylish. Kate and her husband, Andy Spade, whom she had worked with as a salesperson in Carter's Men Shop in Phoenix, launched Kate Spade Handbags in New York in 1993.

The boxy Sam bag quickly became the most popular of her six original designs. Ironically, it was initially only available in black nylon, but soon came in 16 other candy-hued colours. The tote was relaunched on the brand’s spring/summer 2018 runway during New York Fashion Week in hot pink, black and clotted cream stripes, and with a botanical print.

Kate also created bags in a range of unexpected shapes, from cassette tapes and milk cartons to animal figurines. After opening a first boutique in New York's Soho district in 1996, Kate branched out into designing clothes known for their bold stripes, dual-toned shoes and eyewear, costume jewellery and chunky keychains, and whimsical stationery. A sub-brand, Kate Spade at Home, came about in 2004, and with it the designer infused her rainbow-hued ethos into bedding, china, wall paper, and smaller home and bath decor items. As long-time fan Mindy Kaling put it: "You couldn't walk into her boutiques and not smile."

Read more: Chelsea Clinton, Bette Midler and more share tributes to Kate Spade

Growing success 

Kate’s success in the 1990s coincided with New York’s growing reputation as a world fashion capital. Her vibrant designs were considered so representative of the city that the brand was relaunched as Kate Spade New York. Even when her peers, such as Kenneth Cole and J Crew, focused on the minimal aesthetic and dark palette that was doing the round on the late-1990s runways, Kate continued down the Candyland meets My Little Pony path. And it worked.

To a whole generation of young American women, buying a Kate Spade bag was akin to a coming-of-age ritual. Her bags also found celebrity favour with actresses such as Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow. As Vogue's Anna Wintour put it in a statement released following the designer's death:

"Kate Spade had an enviable gift for understanding exactly what women wanted to carry. There was a moment when you couldn't walk a block in New York without seeing one of her bags, which were just like her; colourful and unpretentious." More recently, a younger crop of stars took to wearing the brand’s outfits, with Taylor Swift, Maisie Williams, Bella Thorne, Millie Bobby Brown and Emma Roberts spotted in them.

A shrewd businesswoman, Kate priced her label between, in her own words, “LL Bean and Prada”, thus forming an aura of accessible luxury around her pieces. Hers was also one of the first brands to stamp its understated label on the outside of its leather bags. The designer won a rising talent award by the Council of Fashion Designers of American in 1995, and her first international branch opened in Tokyo in 2004. The brand itself came to the UAE in 2012, and currently has outlets in Abu Dhabi Mall, Marina Mall Dubai, Mall of the Emirates, The Dubai Mall, Mirdif City Centre and Festival City.

Dubai, April 17, 2012 -- kate spade new york opened its first store in the UAE at Dubai Mall. The brand is part of a new distribution partnership with Jashanmal Group, which will involve exclusive distribution for the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. (Photo by: Sarah Dea/The National)
Kate Spade New York opened its first store in the UAE at Dubai Mall back in 2012. Sarah Dea / The National 

After bowing out of her company, Kate took time off to raise her daughter, Frances, who is now 13. A decade later, in 2016, the designer launched the Frances Valentine portal, which sells high-end leather bags and shoes distinguishable by their textured knob heel.

Timeless appeal 

People who were close to the designer, who allegedly committed suicide at her Manhattan home on June 5, say they are shocked because in their collective memory, Kate was known for her permanent smile, carefree charm and spirited manner. She was, it’s reported, a bona fide giggler. Her signature messy hairdo, hippy wardrobe and retro spectacles also all contributed to an image of a laid-back and effervescent personality.

Upon her passing, her sister has revealed that Kate struggled with mental health issues for years. Still, it’s impossible to guess what demons consumed the late designer in her last moments, but deaths such as these are rendered more tragic still when you consider that, on the face of it, here was an insightful person who infused joy in countless lives with her bold, brash and beautiful designs.