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Fashion Designer Kate Spade Found Dead At 55


Designer and entrepreneur Kate Spade died this morning at her home in New York. The cause - an apparent suicide. She was 55. Kate Spade handbags evoke a sort of playfulness. The name is spelled out all in lowercase. The logo is a spade, like on a playing card. The bags themselves are luxurious but also fun and functional, expensive but not extravagant, different from the Chanels and the Pradas of this world. And they are popular. Kate Spade eventually became a billion-dollar brand. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this remembrance.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: When Kate Spade was in her early 20s, she left her job in journalism. She quit because she wanted to make bags. The only problem is she didn't know where to start. She didn't come out of a design school or study textiles. She knew she needed fabric, but most of the big fabric factories wouldn't sell to her because she couldn't meet their minimums.


KATE SPADE: I looked in the yellow pages, and I looked up burlap, and I found a potato sack company that was willing to sell to me.

LIMBONG: That's from an interview with NPR's How I Built This podcast last year. She said bags at the time - this is the early '90s - were too fussy, too complicated.


K. SPADE: And I thought, gosh, everybody has so much stuff on the bags. Why can't we find something just clean and simple and modern?

LIMBONG: Kate Spade grew up Kate Brosnahan in Kansas City, Mo. She went to college in Arizona, which is where she met her future partner in both business and life, Andy Spade.


K. SPADE: We worked together at a clothing store, and I was on the women's side. He was on the men's side. And one day, his car broke down (laughter) and he asked me for a ride home. And we really started off as really great friends.

ANDY SPADE: And the car continued to break down, so I think it nurtured our relationship along.

LIMBONG: That was Andy Spade you heard there. He's the one that pushed her to start a company who continued to work in advertising while Brosnahan grinded out the business and of course is half the name. They married in 1994. Flash forward a couple years of working out of the apartment, going to trade shows, making no money, until eventually stores started calling - Saks, Neimans. They won a CFDA award in 1996. That's the Council of Fashion Designers of America. And then, not so suddenly, Kate Spade bags were everywhere, as were Kate Spade fans.

DIANA TSUI: The one that I remember most distinctly was a little Betty you would tuck under your arm, and it came in beautiful shades of nylon.

LIMBONG: That's Diana Tsui, senior marketing editor of The Cut, New York Magazine's style, beauty, fashion site. She says she went to a Kate Spade sample sale in the 2000s when she was a poor college kid, and she saw this woman who was holding exactly what she wanted - a gray nylon Kate Spade messenger bag.

TSUI: And I followed this woman with my gray bag until she set it down. And when she set it down, I swooped in and grabbed it. It was - there was an energy. Everyone was excited to be there. Everyone wanted to own a little piece of Kate Spade.

LIMBONG: Tsui says Spade captured a uniquely American optimism in her design for young women, breaking apart from the traditions of European luxury fashion houses.

TSUI: She was one of the original disruptors. She's created something that no one had thought of to do before. There were maybe five or six luxury brands at the time making handbags. Very few people, save for Prada, were doing nylon in the '90s. She was the Everlane. She was the Warby Parker. She was giving a brand-new idea and a brand-new product that no one had ever seen before.

LIMBONG: The Spades sold their company more than a decade ago after having a child. The Kate Spade brand was sold several more times. Then in 2016, Kate and Andy Spade started a new company named Frances Valentine, after their daughter. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.