Fashion
My Kate Spade Bag Was My First Fashion Love
For many, the death of the fashion icon feels personal. Her designs were such an integral, emotional part of women's lives.
IMAGE GETTY IMAGES/ DESIGN BY MICHAEL STILLWELL
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The news pinged instantly around the internet—friends texted me and so many people I know tweeted out their sudden, wrenching, and surprising grief. Designer Kate Spade is dead.

Her death is an instant reminder (as if we needed one) that even successful people can suffer, that a family is shattered now without its wife and mother. And for many the loss feels personal—her designs were such an integral, emotional part of women's lives.


My Kate Spade nylon bag was my very first fashion love affair. I scrimped and saved for it—not just an accessory, but a symbol of growing and becoming myself in the big city.

I moved to New York City two weeks before the first episode of Friends aired, in September 1994, and the exterior of the show’s apartment building was filmed just a few blocks from the crumbling West Village walk-up where my roommates and I watched the pilot episode.

My nylon Kate Spade bag was more than an accessory—it was a symbol of growing and becoming myself in the big city.

Unlike the show’s spacious, shabby-chic apartment, ours was so cramped that my twin bed touched my bedroom walls on three sides and a divot had been made in the bathroom wall to squeeze in the toilet tank. But the show’s use of fashion, still a pop culture obsession 22 years later, to communicate striving to make it in a big city? That I did have in common with Monica and Rachel. My early years after college were the first time that clothes became a way to express myself—not just who I was, but who I hoped to be.

Having attended boarding school and college during one of the few times in history when women were actually encouraged to dress comfortably, I spent the late 80s and early 90s kicking around in button fly jeans, nubby wool crewnecks, Patagonia fleece pullovers, and bucks. My sociology professor called my college boyfriend and me “The Bobbsey Twins” because we dressed identically. But in the city, in the mid-90s, in my mid-20s? Androgynous preppy didn’t cut it anymore.

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As a writerly type in a time before that was a financial death sentence, I temped while interning at various magazines, eventually landing an editorial assistant job. This field was no mistake. Although my neighborhood had some last remaining specks of grit, I acknowledge that I was part of that time and place’s social flashpoint, a new influx of people drawn to New York because they wanted to be insiders, instead of those who’d always sought it out because they were outsiders.


Kate Spade and her brother-in-law actor David Spade in 1997.

Still, with my new job, I was a peon—the lowest on the totem pole, at the beck and call of four demanding bosses, working late nights and every weekend for $23,000 a year (plus overtime!). But those years were a thrilling mix of ogling at a new world and striving to feel like a part of it. I rode elevators with Anna Wintour, attended beauty product launches at the Box Tree, and was invited by a publicist to see Savion Glover in Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk (the Hamilton of its time).

Outside of work, my friends and I studied the newly-launched Time Out New York, hungry for whatever experiences we could afford in our new hometown. We sat next to Kate Moss or Rupert Everett at the tiny French café two doors down from our apartment, went to hear Michael Chabon read from Wonder Boys at the Housing Works Bookstore Café, and saw Mark Ruffalo perform in This Is Our Youth in a tiny theater.

I plunked down my credit card for that black rectangle, and it felt like my official Manhattan membership card.

I began to realize that clothes were a calling card, both the denim overalls, Pumas, and heavy black glasses I wore to roof parties in the East Village and the pleated mini-skirts and high-heel Mary Janes I wore to work. Like many city newcomers, I made missteps, like thinking it was enough to wear head to toe black. I realized my mistake when one of my co-workers at the magazine teasingly asked if I was going to a funeral.

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It was then that I set my sights on my Kate Spade bag. I dreamed about and plotted for mine, taking the subway uptown to wander the accessories department at Saks. I spent delicious hours debating whether I would get the gold-standard black nylon rectangle with long straps and a stitched-on label, or venture into bolder territory of a messenger bag or a midnight blue color.

I can’t overstate the importance of this bag to me: The cool fashion girls at work had them. My boss had one. Though the bags were hardly expensive by today’s standards, they weren't cheap either and buying one felt like a risk. My friends who’d gone into banking and made real money had them. I finally saved enough to make the purchase.

I plunked down my credit card for that black rectangle, and it felt like my official Manhattan membership card. I didn’t just carry it, I built looks around it. It conveyed to everyone around me: This girl belongs here.

A few years ago, when I posted about my memories of that bag on Instagram, the comments poured in. “When I got my first job, I got one and it was SUCH a big deal,” said Alyssa Hertzig, then an analyst at Target’s corporate offices, now a longtime beauty editor and blogger at The Sparkly Life. “That bag was EVERYTHING to me in 1998,” said Victoria Kirby, then an assistant buyer at New York & Company and now a beauty editor. Elizabeth Angell, then an editorial assistant at Newsweek magazine and now digital director of this very website, wrote, “I had the messenger bag and it was a totemic item for me.”


Kate Spade and her husband Andy Spade in Central Park in 2001.

Why that bag, why that time? I asked former co-worker (and fashion and pop culture encyclopedia) Sasha Charnin Morrison, author of Secrets of Stylists and a creative consultant. “This was the era of minimalist Prada, Helmut Lang, Jil Sander, and Calvin Klein,” she says. “Kate Spade didn’t copy, but she gave her bags a very distinct label in the Prada style, plus a very preppy twist with the boxy shape. Everyone wanted one. Getting one was a big deal, and we all had them.” (Sasha’s was bean-shaped and beige.)

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I lived in that Friends-adjacent building for 13 years, and although I’m married and living in the suburbs now, a walk down that block is enough to transport me back to that time of my life. (And I always check to see if my name is still on the buzzer—as of a year ago, it was.) My Kate Spade bag got faded and worn around its sharp corners, and I eventually added it to my Goodwill donation pile. I wish I had kept it.

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

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Jillian Mackenzie
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