Kate Spade

Co-Founder and Co-Owner of the Designer Brand Kate Spade

Kate Spade: The world’s most underrated designer

Few fashion designers have reached Kate Spade’s relevance. Nearly every woman and her mother owns a Kate Spade purse, and the retail juggernaut sells approximately 2 million bags annually.

Spade is originally from Missouri and credited her relentless Midwesterner work ethic to her upbringing. She said, “Starting at 11, I was a movie theater popcorn girl, a babysitter, a sales clerk—in the Midwest, they start them early!”

Spade began experimenting with her style as a young girl. She said, “My mother was very good at encouraging me to dress however I wanted to dress.” A lover of color, Spade’s mother “let [her] buy a leopard swing coat, pink cigarette pants, and lime-green gloves.”

Spade was attracted to bright hues and drastic prints but loved the idea of timeless style, like Audrey Hepburn’s. Bright colors and classic design became Spade’s raison d’etre, a hallmark of her clothing line.

While in college at Arizona State, Kate met Andy Spade, her future husband and business partner. After she graduated with a journalism degree, the couple moved to Manhattan in 1986. Spade was struck by the city's lights and energy and was often inspired by New Yorkers’ eclectic street style.

She began working at Mademoiselle magazine in the accessories department but quickly grew frustrated. Spade hated the era’s gaudy handbags and focused on “a functional bag that was sophisticated and had some style.”

But, as an accessories editor, she knew what she craved wasn’t available to purchase. In a stroke of genius, Spade decided to fill the gap. In her cramped New York apartment, Spade taped together six prototypes using plain white drawing paper and Scotch tape.

Spade believed in her idea and found a manufacturer in Brooklyn to help her produce her first designs.

To be successful, Spade’s designs needed a name. She toyed with “Olive” for a while, but Andy disagreed. She told the NYT, “Andy kept saying the whole time, 'Kate Spade, Kate Spade.” Soon, her brand was born.

By 1993, Spade had scraped enough bags together for an accessories show downtown. Ever “neurotic,” Spade obsessed the night before, trying to put the finishing touches on her bags. On impulse, Spade ripped the small Spade logo from the inside of a bag and sewed it onto the outside.

At that moment, the famous Kate Spade logo was born. Prior, designers rarely used their branding on clothes. The move revolutionized fashion and solidified Spade’s company’s success.

Spade’s thriftiness seeped into everything she did. She said, “The idea of recklessly spending money isn't interesting to me. It is a business.” Spade and her partner spent their early years living in friend’s apartments—their own was full of shipping boxes and material.

Spade’s bags grew very popular in the 1990s, and affordability became her brand’s unique selling proposition. Unlike Burberry or Prada, Kate Spade bags were priced between $150 and $450. Fern Mallis, director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America during the 1990s, said, “Everybody had Kate Spade bags. You could afford them.”

She did a distribution deal with Barney’s, Fred Segal, and Charivari, but minimal profits angered Spade. She said, “We were still not making any money. I just remember thinking, ‘I think we need to shut it down.’”

Spade’s turning point came in 1996 when she was awarded the New Fashion Talent in Accessories Prize. The brand gained a following, allowing Spade and her husband to open their first brick-and-mortar store in SoHo.

In the early years, Spade leveraged celebrity endorsements with Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow as a cheap method to gain market share. She even won over the famously fickle Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor-in-chief, who said, “Kate Spade had an enviable gift for understanding exactly what women the world over wanted to carry.”

Recognizing the opportunity, Spade expanded her offerings to other accessories, like jewelry. New products retained Spade’s core philosophy—fun fashion. She told Glamor, “I hope that people remember me not just as a good businesswoman but as a great friend—and a heck of a lot of fun.”

Spade sold 56% of her shares to Neiman Marcus in 1999 but remained involved in her company’s processes.

Partnerships and authenticity defined this era: Spade partnered with Estée Lauder to create a bath, body, and beauty line. She called it “the most personal thing I’ve done.” Beauty helped hone her belief—that style begins with quality and confidence.

Spade sold her remaining shares to Neiman Marcus in 2006 and spent her time off with her newborn daughter.

She wasn’t finished yet, though: In 2016, Spade launched a new luxury accessories collection named Frances Valentine. The name was in part inspired by her birthday—Valentine’s Day.

Tragically, Kate Spade passed in 2018.

Today, her brand is worth $2.4 billion with an annual revenue of $779 million.


Creativity and fun are profitable skills. Spade recalls, “I remember someone once said there is a practical aspect to my designs, and I remember thinking, ‘That doesn't sound so creative,’ but that is the truth…There is a reason and, hopefully, an interesting reason behind it—that is where my creativity comes in.” Spade’s boundless creativity is a personal USP. Throughout her career, she sought to break boundaries in the fashion industry, harnessing her creativity to cultivate her vision. Better yet, her line and persona are deeply fun. Inspired by her own life, Spade believed that “playing dress up starts at age five and never truly ends.” Whimsy characterized her authentic, timeless designs; Spade knew women deeply craved colorful, compelling, wearable accessories. While most women couldn’t get away with wearing bright pink pants to the office, they could express their style with a fun, lime-green tote. Charming, fun items pervade the Kate Spade name, contributing to her brand’s prolonged success.

Timelessness sells. Spade’s raison d’etre was a departure from what’s considered ‘trendy.’ That’s why she created the brand in the first place: She designed “from the notion of developing a well-edited line of fashionable, but not ‘trendy’ handbags. My brand has established itself as a modern classic by designing styles that will be as relevant tomorrow as they are today.” Her genius and her company were born from the antithesis of high fashion. While the designer bags on the market were high quality, they weren’t wearable or attainable for the average buyer. In contrast, Spade’s goal was “a functional bag that was sophisticated and had some style,” and that’s just what she did. . At a relatively moderate price point, Spade knew what women sought: quality and lifetime use.  Spade’s customers were working women every day looking for something they could use, not a bag they’d shelve in a matter of months. She aimed for unchartered territory: purses with longevity, priced modestly. Spade said, “I’ve never bought an expensive bag, not that two hundred and fifty dollars for a bag isn’t expensive.” Spade’s offerings weren’t cheap but attainable for the average American, who can’t spend $2,000 on a purse. At a relatively moderate price point, Spade knew what women sought: quality and lifetime use. Without it, her logo would’ve fallen flat.

Good manners and relationships are always in style. Spade said, “Live in such a way that if someone speaks badly of you, no one would believe it.” That’s just what she did. Once, early on, Spade and her husband were selling bags at street fairs. A buyer told the NYT, “I couldn’t afford many of her creations then. They were so kind, and though the bags were awesome, they didn’t have any following then, so they would let me save up my salary for a week or two and then coordinate a time…when I could pick up the bags I was saving up for …” This is just one example of Spade’s kindness: Everyone who met the style icon felt as though they were greeting a friend.  Relationships characterized her private and personal life: Spade valued her relationships more than anything. Her husband, Andy, was a guiding presence throughout her life and the first investor in her brand. Professionally, relationships characterized the early days of her brand, with celebrity partnerships serving as Spade’s early marketing tactic. Her likability extended to ever-fickle Anna Wintour, who spoke highly of the designer’s tact, dedication, and kindness. Spreading kindness and positivity pervaded the late designer’s life, serving as a personal staple and a professional USP. As Spade said, “She who leaves a trail of glitter is never forgotten.”

Build a distinct and authentic brand identity worth paying for. Using inspiration from Chanel and Gucci, Spade quickly understood the value of wearing a logo as a form of branding. When she sewed the spade on that bag, her brand was born. Today, customers recognize the value of the Spade logo wherever they go—it’s a staple and a fashion symbol. But it would’ve been for nothing without a strong, substantial name to back it up. Spade said, “I think the details and the quality are so important that it has to have an emotional tug.” Emotion, as is quality, is at the heart of the Kate Spade bag. Without either, the Spade logo would’ve been useless. Customers know that when they see a Spade logo, they get something that will last a lifetime. Furthermore, Spade knew this wasn’t enough: Without marketing, her product would’ve flopped. Spade leveraged the emerging internet as a potential marketing tool, running some of the earliest online campaigns in fashion. This is where her thrift came into play: Spade was undeniably thrifty, a quality contributing to the attainable nature of her products.

A business is only as strong as its employees. Spade’s ability to find excited, enthusiastic people to integrate into her team was outstanding. Even more so was her ability to hire people with skills that contrasted hers. Spade was highly creative and possessed a solid ability to identify growth opportunities. Operations and sales weren’t her strengths; initial hires held these skills, creating a ‘dream team.’ Many entrepreneurs forego this approach, hiring those similar to them. But this leaves certain aspects of a business unattended, causing dysfunction that poisons a great idea. Furthermore, family grounded Spade, and she hired “a combination of family and non-relative professionals who helped to move the organization forward” while she paid attention to growth opportunities. According to Neal Hartman, professor at MIT Sloan, more so than her competitors, Spade “ looked for the right people who fit with the culture and fostered an environment where people wanted to stay with the company.”

Kate Spade Quotes

On inspiration and reading: “I collect books, a lot of books.”

On living life to the fullest: “In order to lead a fascinating life one brimming with art, music, intrigue and romance; you must surround yourself with precisely those things.”

On her personality: “People have this impression that I'm a little kooky, but I'm actually very OCD. I love order and organization. I'm a big list maker. But if I cross off too many tasks, and it's hard to see the remaining ones, I have to start a new list. Now that's OCD.”

On character: “If you're honest and fair as you can be, not only in business but in life, things will work out.”

On style: “Style is the sum of so many things – beginning with a sense of who you are and having self-confidence.”

On cultivating her taste: “To be honest, I didn’t totally fit in, but that didn’t make me love the store any less. You didn’t have to be personally invested in the preppy life to learn a lot working for Kate Spade. I learned that taste can be cultivated and that you can spend years refining it. I learned that aesthetics are their own form of intellect. I learned that even when things are not going well, it helps to have good manners and a sense of humor. I learned that a simple idea, done with conviction, can take you a long way, and that style could be both aspirational and attainable.”



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