For many women now in their 30s and 40s—including this one—Kate Spade’s boxy, retro-minimalist “Sam” purse was their first grown-up handbag. It was also, ever since its launch in 1993, a well-known gateway drug to the increasingly costly “It” bags that started dominating the industry in that decade. And Spade herself—the bespectacled, brunette Catholic school girl from Missouri who married her college boyfriend yet somehow managed to conquer the cooler-than-thou New York fashion scene—was precisely the woman so many of us wanted to be like when we grew up.
If we had ever forgotten this over the years, we were reminded painfully of that fact on Tuesday, when the 55-year-old Spade was found dead in an apparent suicide. Shortly after the news broke, the internet was flooded with appreciations celebrating what Kate Spade’s clothes and accessories meant for the women and girls who wore them. A common theme that emerged was how Spade’s singular designs were at once grounded and playful, both responsive to the demands of daily life and able to spark the imagination.
Even looking back a few decades, Spade’s rise to the top of the fashion industry had a kind of magical feel to it. (“Her career itself sounds something like a fairy tale,” Vogue gushed in an early profile.) After graduating from college in 1985, Spade headed east to Manhattan and landed a temp job at Mademoiselle, where she worked her way up to accessories editor. Just as the bridal-fashion pioneer Vera Wang had done a few years previously, Spade spotted a void in the market she covered, quit her magazine job, and eventually launched her own line. At the time, the ubiquitous, utilitarian black nylon Prada “Vela” backpack—the work of another nerdy-cool girl, Miuccia Prada—was chic, but it wasn’t exactly cheap. It had, however, conditioned consumers to view nylon as a luxury fabric. Spade came up with an equally practical but more affordable nylon bag, which she infused with her own vintage, feminine sensibility.