Kate Spade & Co. signage is displayed at a store in New York, U.S. (Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

Kate Valentine Spade, Fashion Brand Co-Founder, Dies at 55

(Bloomberg) -- Fashion designer Kate Valentine, better known as Kate Spade, has died from an apparent suicide by hanging. She was 55.

She was found dead by housekeepers on Tuesday in her Manhattan apartment and left a note at the scene, according to the Associated Press, citing unnamed law enforcement officials. The medical examiner will perform an autopsy.

The designer founded the Kate Spade brand in 1993 with her husband, Andy Spade, as a handbag maker. Once a senior fashion editor at Mademoiselle magazine, she used vibrant colors on classic, practical silhouettes in her bags.

The company’s initial success led luxury department store Neiman Marcus to purchase a majority stake in 1999. The couple left the business for good in 2006, after mid-market apparel company Liz Claiborne bought it for $124 million. Since then, Claiborne changed its corporate name to Kate Spade in 2014 and sold the company to Tapestry Inc., which also owns the Coach brand, for $2.4 billion in 2017.

Second Act

She returned to the fashion industry several years ago with the launch of her new accessories brand, Frances Valentine, which sells shoes, jewelry and handbags. She said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last year that she left her namesake brand to spend more time with her family. The Frances Valentine label is sold at retailers including Saks Off 5th, Shopbop and Gilt.

Spade changed her name to Valentine, a family name, to differentiate herself and her new line from her original brand, she told Women’s Wear Daily. Her latest pieces were meant to offer customers a little happiness, the designer said in a separate 2017 interview with the Wall Street Journal.

“Buy something that cheers you up,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a million dollars, it can be something that you wear and makes you feel good.”

Although she hasn’t been involved in the company that sells Kate Spade branded bags for many years, the designer’s death could have an impact via the so-called halo effect in shoppers’ minds, said Brian Yarbrough, an analyst at Edward Jones. Her name in the news could spark a spike in sales at Tapestry -- a phenomenon often seen after musicians die and their old albums gain renewed interest.

‘Happy-Go-Lucky’

“It potentially weighs on the brand longer term without her,” Yarbrough said in an interview. “It seemed like it was a happy-go-lucky lifestyle, all these interesting designs.”

The chain accounts for 20 percent of Tapestry’s sales, and the shares dipped after the news.

Prominent members of the fashion industry lauded the impact of her designs on American style.

Fashion designer Liz Lange said on Twitter that she was “the nicest woman, the first person to compliment me” when she first started in fashion. “And the creator of the most iconic brand.”

She injected a sense of playfulness and whimsy that countered the traditional elite exclusiveness of luxury brands. The Kate Spade brand grew to represent wholesome values that celebrated simplicity and accessibility.

Kate Spade’s handbags became milestones and a symbol of adulthood for many young women, bought after landing their first job or moving to the big city.

Color, Simplicity

“It did have a sense of fun about it,” Roseanne Morrison, fashion director at retail advisory firm Doneger Group, said of the designer’s aesthetic. “A lot of times simple can be stodgy and it never was. The color, the simplicity -- not really preppy, but in a way kind of modern.”

In 1996, she received the award for America’s New Fashion Talent in Accessories from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and then Best Accessory Designer in 1998. In a joint statement, the CFDA’s Diane von Furstenberg and Steven Kolb mourned the news of her death.

“She was a great talent who had an immeasurable impact on American fashion and the way the world viewed American accessories,” they said. “We want to honor her life and her major contribution to the fashion business.”

Kate Valentine Spade was born on Dec. 24, 1962, according to Marquis Who’s Who. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University in 1985 and she and her husband had a daughter, Frances Beatrix.

‘Queen of Manners’

She was “the queen of manners and grace” said Rob Shuter, a gossip columnist who represented her as a publicist for several years. When they worked together, she would send every editor who wrote about her a thank-you note, but she also enjoyed martinis and “sly cigarettes” she would smoke out the window. When they last saw each other, about three years ago at an art gallery event, Shuter said they reminisced about their early days.

Initially hired by Estee Lauder to launch the Kate Spade beauty brand, she and Shuter went on a 10-city tour in the early 2000s to promote her beauty business. She signed fragrance bottles and handbags -- although never any knockoffs -- and would always request a clear, glass vase of short-stemmed white or pink peonies at the events. She worried that no one would show up and joked that it would be only her, Shuter and the peonies.

The designer was a very private person who disliked self promotion, rarely attended events and hated social media, Shuter said. She often felt somewhat scorned by the fashion community she came from as an accessories editor, he said, and recalled her wishing to get out of design at times.

“She never got great reviews, and her table was always a little bit in the back,” Shuter said in a phone interview. “She invented that little black bag, and it changed her life. Sometimes, I think she wished she’d never invented it.”

She had a cheeky sense of humor, liked black-and-white movies and always made sure there was a glass of ice water at her meetings or that Earl Gray tea was served with lemon instead of milk.

“She was from another era,” Shuter said. “She was just a nice lady, and I think the world we live in today was just not for her.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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