Inspiration

How Kate and Andy Spade Built a Brand-and a Life

The designer and her husband built and iconic brand-and a marriage that lasted for 24 years.
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  • Kate Spade was married to Andy Spade, the older brother of comedian David Spade, for 24 years.
  • The couple co-founded the Kate Spade brand and an accessories line called Frances Valentine.
  • In 2005, the Spades had a daughter, Frances Beatrix Spade.

Kate Spade the brand existed before Kate Spade the person. It was the brainchild of a former Mademoiselle accessories editor named Katie Brosnahan—and her partner in business and life, Andy Spade.

Together Kate and Andy created more than just a line of now-iconic handbags, they created an aesthetic. Though Kate, who died today by apparent suicide at the age of 55, was the face of her collection, especially at the beginning, it was the Spades’ combined talents as a designer and a branding whiz that launched a small-scale fashion revolution. Kate Spade achieved the near-impossible feat of blending it-girl New York cool and down-to-earth Midwestern fun.

Name another brand that has so successfully managed to be both cheerfully approachable and fashionably aspirational?

HOW KATE SPADE MET ANDY SPADE

Kate met Andy when they were students at Arizona State University. A native of Kansas City, Brosnahan was a journalism major who had worked in a motorcycle bar and a clothing store. It was there that she met her future husband. “I was on the women's side. He was on the men's side. And one day, his car broke down, and he asked me for a ride home. And we really started off as really great friends,” Kate told Guy Raz for an episode of NPR’s How I Built This.


Kate and Andy in 2016.

After Kate graduated in 1985, she backpacked through Europe before moving to New York City. She got a job at Conde Nast, in the fashion closet of Mademoiselle, and contemplated moving back to Arizona to be with Andy. “I kept saying, oh, I'm coming back. I will only stay here for six months,” Kate said on How I Built This. “And then finally I said, ‘I have to be honest, I kind of like my job. I loved, you know, the fast pace of New York. And suddenly it just—I loved it.”

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Andy eventually joined Kate in New York, where they lived in a tiny walk up apartment and Spade worked in advertising. Brosnahan’s Roman Catholic parents weren’t crazy about the arrangement. “They never really said much, but my mother was not pleased with it,” said Kate.

KATE SPADE IS LAUNCHED

After a few years, Kate quit her job at Mademoiselle. At Andy’s suggestion, she had decided to try her hand at designing bags. The business was incorporated in 1993 by Kate, Andy, and a third partner—and funded by Andy’s salary, his savings, and a dwindling retirement account.


Kate Spade and her brother in law David in 1997.

What Kate and Andy did have was a really good idea. “At the time, bags were too complicated. And I really loved very simple kind of architectural shapes,” said Kate. She collected bags and Andy knew she got a lot of compliments on the ones she carried. “I would wear these very simple shapes, none of which were famous designers. I mean, there were no names. If someone were to say, ‘whose is that?’ I'd say, ‘I don't know, I bought it at a vintage store or it's a straw bag I got in Mexico.’”

THE BALANCE OF KATE AND ANDY

Kate Spade was not an instant success—at least according to Kate. "I'm very conservative," she told Raz. "I have no interest in losing money."

At an early trade show, Kate came home in tears because she hadn’t sold enough of her prototypes to cover the cost of the booth. "That's it for me," Kate recalls telling Andy. "I'm not a gambler."

Andy asked her if any orders and been placed, and she told him that both Barneys and Fred Segal department stores had placed an order. ”Katie,” Andy said. “You've got two of the best stores in America. Why are you crying? Let's not quit."

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Brosnahan and Spade workshopped a name for their new venture. “I kept coming up with these names,” said Kate. “And Andy kept saying Kate Spade because we were 50-50 partners. And finally I just said, ‘OK.’ And everyone said, ‘I love it, Kate Spade New York.’”

The only person who wasn’t a fan was Brosnahan’s mother. “Honestly, she burst into flames. And she was like, ‘but you're not Kate Spade [and] now you'll never be Kate Spade, now you've, you know, you've jinxed it. And why would you name it Kate Spade?’ And I said, well, it's my first name, his last name, and it's like Dolce & Gabbana. And she goes, ‘who the hell is that?’”

Mrs. Brosnahan didn’t have to worry long. In 1994, Kate and Andy got married.

KATE SPADE GETS BIG

It wasn’t until 1996, three years after the business officially launched, that Kate Spade turned a profit. Kate had just won CFDA’s prestigious Perry Ellis Award for Accessory Design, and Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus placed huge orders. “It was a snowball effect," she says. "It got a little bigger and a little bigger and a little bigger."

Together, the Spades had a rare gift for creating not just a product that you loved—the perfect, sensible-yet-stylish bag—but an aesthetic that you wanted to be a part of. Kate wore a crewneck Cashmere sweater in such a way that made you want to only want wear that one garment ever again, because what could be more perfect?


They opened a series of impeccably curated shops. “The Spades made no false steps, because they were inventing a business out of a shared vision that they’d been perfecting in their minds for years,” Stella Bugbee wrote today in The Cut. “They’d taken a love of WASP-y Americana and merged it with a winking downtown irony, in a formula that brands like J.Crew and Tory Burch would later emulate with great success.”

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KATE AND ANDY MOVE ON

In 1999, the Spades sold 56 percent of the brand to Neiman Marcus, their biggest client. The influx of capitol allowed for a lot of expansion—into shops in new cities and categories like shoes and stationery. Then, in 2005, the couple had a daughter, Frances, and at that point, they sold their minority stake in Kate’s namesake brand. Kate Spade no longer had anything to do with Kate Spade.


Kate Spade and her daughter.

“I wanted to leave on good terms,” Kate said of the decision. “It was the perfect time to leave, I wanted to spend time with my daughter, I’d heard so many horror stories about people who sell and then they stay and then they fight and they sue, so I thought oh, that’s too ugly for me.

“It was seamless. It was a very quiet exit,” she explained on How I Built This.

FRANCES BEATRIX SPADE

Kate Spade stepped back from the fashion world for a decade to be with her daughter, nicknamed Bea. “I needed a break and I really wanted to raise my daughter,” Kate told People in 2016. “People asked me, ‘Don’t you miss it?’ I really didn’t. I mean, I loved what I was doing, but I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I might.”


Kate and her daughter in 2009.

Andy worked on his own projects. After designing a menswear boutique for J. Crew in downtown Manhattan, he launched Partners & Spade, a branding company that developed store designs and marketing campaigns.

By all accounts, their life centered on their family. In 2016, she described her routine this way to The Cut in 2016:

I normally get up at 6:30 and get everything organized by the time my daughter gets up — I’m a little OCD. I turn on all the lights, get everything going, start making breakfast. I slowly wake up my daughter up — I give her a little nudge every ten minutes. I swear to god, it’s so exhausting… I feed the dog; I feed the fish. My husband, Andy, runs to Starbucks because he doesn’t want any part of that banter. I’m in my daughter’s room going, “Oh my god, I asked you 20 minutes ago and you’re still in your pajamas.” It’s a little mini battle. She’s jealous of our dog because he doesn’t have to do anything.

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Both of Bea's parents, Kate said, made an effort to eat dinner with her daughter every night. “It’s a thing that Andy and I decided to do when she was little.”

They also threw unpretentious dinner parties—delivered with their usual flair. “Ideally it’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes, paired with elegant lighting, candles, and flowers,” Kate told Bon Appetit. “For dessert, I serve Duncan Hines chocolate cake or banana cream pie. Give me a cake like your grandmother makes!”

We laugh a lot. When we need to be serious we’re serious, but I think we’ve had a lot of fun. And then also you take the good with the bad. You take those vows seriously. Through good and bad. —Kate Spade

Kate told People that the secret to their enduring marriage was humor and weathering the difficult along with the great. “We laugh a lot,” said Kate. “And my daughter has a really funny sense of humor. But when we need to be serious we’re serious, and she can tell the difference, but I think we’ve had a lot of fun. And then also you know you take the good with the bad. You take those vows seriously. Through good and bad.”

KATE AND ANDY GO BACK INTO BUSINESS

In 2016, Kate and Andy launched another accessories brand, this one named for their daughter, Frances, and a family name, Valentine. Kate herself legally changed her name to Kate Valentine Spade. “I thought it was important to distinguish who I am now,” she said. “I’m the same person, but there’s a difference.”

Kate and Andy kept Frances Valentine small—and perhaps telling, given the trajectory of their first business, the Spades did not take on any partners. Despite plenty of offers from investors, “we didn’t borrow a dime,” Kate said.

“It’s really similar to how I started at Kate Spade,” Spade said to The Cut. “It was very scrappy. We started very small and we tried not to get ahead of ourselves—I’m from the Midwest, so I’m not much of a risk-taker.”

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Kate’s death came as a shock to so many—not least because she seemed to outsiders to be so optimistic and grounded. She kept her pain private, but hinted occasionally at struggles. “Being a mother adds an enormous amount of stress to your life,” she told the Cut of balancing motherhood and entrepreneurship. “You need to make sure you’re there for everything. We don’t have other people to do it for us — I want to make sure I’m there. When you’re trying to be a parent and a businessperson at the same time, that is the most stressful thing you could do.”

Kate Spade leaves behind her husband of 24, Andy Spade, and her daughter, who is 13. “We are all devastated by today’s tragedy,” her family said in a statement to the New York Daily News. “We loved Kate dearly and will miss her terribly. We would ask that our privacy be respected as we grieve during this very difficult time.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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