Buying a Kate Spade handbag was a coming-of-age ritual for a generation of American women. The designer created an accessories empire that helped define the look of an era. The purses she made became a status symbol and a token of adulthood.
Ms. Spade, who was found dead Tuesday in what police characterized as a suicide by hanging, worked as an editor before making the leap to designing, constructing her first sketches from paper and Scotch tape. She would come to attach her name to a bounty of products, and ideas: home goods and China and towels and so much else, all of it poised atop the thin line between accessibility and luxury.
One of the first of a wave of American women contemporary designers who emerged in the 1990s, she built a brand on the appeal of clothes and accessories that made shoppers smile. She embodied her own aesthetic, with her proto-1960s bouffant, nerd glasses, and the playful grin. Beneath that image was a business mind that understood the opportunities in building a lifestyle brand, almost before the term officially existed.
Her name became a shorthand for the cute, clever bags that were an instant hit with cosmopolitan women in the early stages of their careers and, later, young girls — status symbols of a more attainable, all-American sort than a Fendi clutch or Chanel bag. Ms. Spade became the very visible face of her brand and paved the way for female lifestyle designers like Tory Burch or Jenna Lyons of J. Crew.
“Kate Spade had an enviable gift for understanding exactly what women the world over wanted to carry,” Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue and artistic director of Condé Nast, said in a statement.
Ms. Spade, 55, was discovered dead at her Manhattan apartment, where she had hanged herself in her bedroom, the police said. The New York police chief of detectives, Dermot F. Shea, said that the death “appears at this point in time to be a tragic case of apparent suicide,” he said. “It is early in the investigation.”
A police official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that a note found at the scene addressed to Ms. Spade’s 13-year-old daughter indicated, among other things, that what had happened was not the child’s fault.
“We are all devastated by today’s tragedy,” the Spade family said in a statement. “We loved Kate dearly and will miss her terribly. We would ask that our privacy is respected as we grieve during this very difficult time.”
Katherine Noel Brosnahan was born in Kansas City, Mo., on December 24, 1962. Her father worked in construction while her mother took care of her and her five siblings. She did not grow up obsessed with fashion — though she enjoyed combing through her mother’s jewelry drawer — and thought early in her life about being a television producer.
While a student at Arizona State University, where she studied journalism, she worked in a motorcycle bar and a men’s clothing store. There, she met her husband-to-be, Andy Spade, the brother of the actor and comedian David Spade. She graduated in 1985.
After graduation, Ms. Spade moved to New York, where she became an assistant fashion editor at Mademoiselle magazine. Within five years she was the accessories editor. While in that role, she became frustrated by the handbags of the era, which she found to be gaudy and over-accessorized. What she wanted was “a functional bag that was sophisticated and had some style,” she later told The New York Times. In 1993, she founded Kate Spade with Andy and a friend, Elyce Arons.
Joe Zee, the former creative director of Elle and former fashion director of W, met Ms. Spade before she started her company.
“She told me she was thinking of starting a handbag line in that carefree, exciting way she had,” he said. In particular, he remembered her spirited manner, the way she always spoke colorfully, “with excitement and a smile. And as a kid starting out in fashion, that was something you remember especially when everything was so serious and all about deadlines and the pressure of perfection.”
She did not know what to call the company at first and decided to make it a combination of her and Andy’s names. (The couple married in 1994.) After the first show, she realized that the bags needed a little something extra to catch people’s eyes. She took the label, which originally had been on the inside of the bag, and sewed it to the outside. With that gesture, she created a brand identity and sowed the seeds of her empire.
Julie Gilhart, then the fashion director of Barneys New York, picked up the label for the department store in the early nineties. It was a great success. “It grew,” she recalled. “It was so fast-growing. It just became a business that was successful wherever it was.”
The mid-90s were “the time of the handbag,” Ms. Gilhart said, and Kate Spade was able to bring bags to young women whose budgets were not yet at designer levels. “Kate and Andy always had their thumb on the pulse,” she said. “They put their passion into an opportunity.”
Within a few years, they had opened a SoHo shop and were collecting industry awards: given a rising-talent award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1995, she was named its accessory designer of the year in 1997, and best accessories designer at the Accessories Council’s ACE Awards in 1999, the same year the Spades sold their shares of the company to the Neiman Marcus Group. The year before, it had $28 million in sales.
Approachability was her calling card, whether she was making bags, clothes (which her company later expanded into) or books.
“She was a style icon,” said Ira Silverberg, who asked the Spades to do a book while working at the literary agency Donadio & Olson. “But I thought they were really accessible people, and when I got to know them, I realized they were.” The series of books they worked on together — little gift items issued in 2004 as guides to “Style,” “Manners” and “Occasions” — were a hit, selling in the hundreds of thousands of copies.
She and Mr. Spade, Mr. Silverberg said, understood “how to reach an audience without alienating a consumer. Katie’s from Kansas City — a quintessential American look and values personified everything they did.”
Ms. Wintour said in her statement that when Ms. Spade started her label, “everyone thought that the definition of a handbag was strictly European, all decades-old serious status and wealth. Then along came this thoroughly American young woman who changed everything. 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; colorful and unpretentious.”
The company they founded changed hands over the years. Neiman Marcus Group sold the company to Liz Claiborne, Inc. in 2006. By 2017, when Kate Spade & Company (as the former Liz Claiborne, Inc. eventually came to be known) was acquired by Coach, Inc., Mr. and Ms. Spade had been gone for more than a decade, having left to devote themselves to other projects.
A spokeswoman for Kate Spade New York said in a statement that while “Kate has not been affiliated with the brand for more than a decade, she and her husband and creative partner, Andy, were the founders of our beloved brand. Kate will be dearly missed. Our thoughts are with Andy and the entire Spade family at this time.”
She is survived by her husband, and daughter, Frances Beatrix.
Ms. Spade dedicated herself to her family and to philanthropy, through the Kate Spade & Company Foundation, which is devoted to economic equality for women. In 2016, together with her husband, Ms. Arons and Paola Venturi, a Kate Spade alum, Ms. Spade launched a new venture, an accessories label called Frances Valentine. She was so committed to the project that she added Valentine to her name.
Mr. Zee said he always admired Ms. Spade for being ahead of her time.
“She knew what the fashion world needed before we did,” he said. “Kate just did what she felt was right, regardless of what the industry would think.”