Since its modest launch as an accessories brand in 1993, Kate Spade New York has engaged in an emotional relationship with its consumers. Acclaimed for its iconic shapes, bright palette and witticism, the brand was acquired by Tapestry in July 2017 for reported $2.4 billion.
Arizona State University alumnus Katherine Noel Brosnahan met her future husband Andy Spade in university. In 1986, the couple moved to New York where she worked as accessories editor at ‘Mademoiselle’ but resigned in 1991 to pursue her dream of launching a line of handbags. The story is quite inspiring; the young girl was so disillusioned that she couldn’t find a stylish, utilitarian handbag, she left a stable job and set out to design the perfect handbag out of her home. After making paper samples, she combined sleek shapes and a bright palette to launch ‘Kate Spade New York’ in 1993 with six handbags. “Even my mother said I’d gotten cocky — and what the heck was I doing giving up a job with [health] insurance?” she told Forbes.
Eventually, her husband invested $35,000 and her debut line combined classic shapes, colors and fabrics to design an iconic square bag. A cult fashion brand was born. In their own words, ‘crisp colour, graphic prints and playful sophistication are the hallmarks of Kate Spade New York.’ This can be seen in the most minute detailing of their product lines from the witty statements along the inside of bangle bracelets through to their social media. Each aspect of branding is so consistent, which allows consumers to easily identify with it. The brand then diversified into footwear, sunglasses, stationery, beauty, fragrance and women’s ready to wear. Entering her boutique packed with bright bags, boldly striped tops, floral appliquéd dresses and two-toned Mary Janes, one was reminded that fashion was about making people happy. Is it a wonder then she described her brand as a cross ‘between L.L. Bean and Prada,’ per Forbes?
Just before her first show, Kate Spade ripped out the labels bearing her logo from the interior of the handbags and affixed them to the outside. After the handbags appeared in Vogue magazine, they became a smash hit. Annual revenue climbed to reported $1.5 million in 1995. The following year, Kate Spade opened its first boutique in New York City’s SoHo. Within three years the company was minting reported $27 million in sales and experienced unprecedented growth when an acclaimed journalist recommended buying shares because of its growth potential. It was also one of the first of its time to go digital, with iPads, mobiles and computers. Expansion and acquisition was the next stage. The company that had started from scratch attracted attention of conglomerates and in 1999, American chain of luxury departmental stores Neiman Marcus reportedly paid $124 million for fifty six per cent stake, including debt. In 2006, Neiman Marcus Group acquired the remaining stake, valuing the company at $134 million and resold Kate Spade New York to Liz Claiborne Inc in 2014, which was then rebranded as Kate Spade and Company.
Andy Spade was in charge of operations at the time but in the following year operational reins was turned over to Liz Claiborne. In 2016, the couple launched a new line, ‘Frances Valentine’, named after their daughter. In another milestone American multinational luxury fashion holding company Tapestry, Inc acquired Kate Spade and Company in July 2017 for reported $2.4 billion and appointed Anna Bakst as CEO and Brand President. ”The appointment of Anna Bakst marks another key step in the evolution of the Kate Spade brand. She brings a rare combination of business acumen, directly related fashion experience and strong leadership skills to the company. Together with recently appointed Creative Director Nicola Glass, we now have the right senior management in place to lead the talented Kate Spade brand team and drive the business globally”‘ said Victor Luis, CEO, Tapestry, Inc in a company release. Prior to joining Kate Spade New York, Nicola Glass was senior vice president of accessories design at Michael Kors, for thirteen years, and before, accessories designer at Gucci.
In June 2018, Kate Spade died by suicide, at fifty-five. She is survived by a teenage daughter. To respect the late founder, the company reportedly donated $1 million towards mental health awareness. The CFDA paid a tribute to her in the 1997 CFDA Awards Journal: “Not often does a fashion phenomenon emerge whose price tag is in inverse relationship to its style quotient—but that’s the case with Kate Spade, who has almost single-handedly proven to an industry known for thinking otherwise that a chic handbag need not cost upwards of $2,000… And with her other business partners, some of whom have been ‘best friends since we were little,’ as she says, the Kansas City native brings to her company an old-fashioned spirit that is more about growing a good business than business growth—a wholesome American entrepreneurial ethic that over the last 30 years had seemed on the verge of extinction…”
The fashion brand hired Nicola Glass as Creative Director in 2018. Prior to joining Kate Spade New York, Glass was senior vice president of accessories design at Michael Kors, having spent thirteen years working for the New York-based fashion brand. Before Michael Kors, Glass was an accessories designer at Gucci. However, Glass exited. “I really don’t think this is the kind of brand that should have one person at the table,” Fraser told BoF. “The best thing for us was to revert to our origin story, which was a collaboration of creatives.” Jennifer Lyu, from Tory Burch, is the new head of design for leather goods and accessories while Tom Mora, a former creative director at Cole Haan, is head of design for ready-to-wear, footwear, jewellery and other products.
Kate Spade New York remains a cult till date. Vogue described its SS23 collection as, “As Kate Spade New York is marking its 30th anniversary, and Mora and Lyu are building on the label’s heritage, it makes sense that there was a retro feeling to the garments. Many 1950s and ’60s silhouettes predominated, adapted for today… Flexibility and the ability to see things from different perspectives are qualities sorely lacking in the world right now. They are what Kate and Andy Spade brought to the brand decades ago, and Mora and Lyu aim to bring forward today, rain or shine.”
“We’re stronger together through our on-purpose collections; we build suppliers that help transform communities by employing and empowering its primary agents of change: women.”
Strongly rooted in optimistic femininity, joy, and style, Kate Spade New York envisions empowering women.
Anna Bakst, CEO, helms the fashion brand; Jennifer Lyu is head of design for leather goods and accessories; Tom Mora is head of design for ready-to-wear, footwear, jewellery and other products.
In 1996, the CFDA awarded Spade “America’s New Fashion Talent in Accessories” for her classic designs. At the time, Linda Wells wrote about the fashion designer in CFDA Awards Journal, “Skeptics be dammed. Kate Spade’s bags are, well, maybe not genius, but very, very, clever. They hold a lot of stuff, and they make their owners feel a little jauntier, a little happier just for carrying such a snappy thing.” In 1998, the CFDA again honoured her with the title of “Best Accessory Designer of the Year”.