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How Legendary Fashion Designer Kate Spade Built Her Business

The legend goes that in 1991, Kate was dissatisfied with the handbag market, and her then-boyfriend, Andy Spade, encouraged her to design her dream handbag.

Fashion designer Kate Spade tragically died at age 55 on Tuesday.

The iconic designer is remembered for creating her namesake accessories empire, which she founded in 1993. Her lasting legacy is captured in the ethos of the beloved Kate Spade brand. Despite the fact that Spade sold her company years ago, the brand shared its sadness with a touching tribute on Twitter, remembering its "visionary founder:"

Spade leaves behind an enduring legacy of colorful, whimsical designs and an incredible story of her path to the top of the fashion industry. We're taking a look back at her extraordinary career here:


Before she was Kate Spade of Kate Spade & Co., she was Kate Brosnahan, a senior fashion editor at Mademoiselle magazine. The legend goes that in 1991, Kate was dissatisfied with the handbag market, and her then-boyfriend, Andy Spade, encouraged her to design her dream handbag, Racked reports. Brosnahan quickly got to work creating samples, and in 1993 the couple formally founded Kate Spade & Co., using $35,000 Andy had in savings as initial funding.

The inspiration behind Kate's design was simple: Kate had long loved her mother's collection of bright, whimsical handbags, which she first encountered in her childhood home in Kansas City, Missouri. "She had clutches, oranges, pinks, chocolates, huge pearl buttons," Kate told Time Magazine in 2004. And Kate didn't just want to design a bag that looked nice—she wanted it to be practical, as well. ''I wanted a functional bag that was sophisticated and had some style,'' Kate told the Times in 1999.


One of the highlight's of Kate's early designs was the "Sam" bag, a simple boxy bag created in a nylon material. The bag has stood the test of time, and was re-released to mark the brand's 25th anniversary in 2018, according to Fashionista.

Kate and Andy took the first collection of bags, which were priced between $100 and $400, to trade shows around New York. According to Racked, Barneys and Fred Segal first placed orders of Kate's designs, and were quickly followed by Bloomingdales, Nordstrom, and Saks. The company was making waves in fashion magazines, as well.

"When Candy Pratts Price at Vogue put our bag from our very first line on her back page, Last Look. I was beside myself," Kate recalled to the San Francisco Examiner in 2000. "Having been an editor, I was incredibly flattered. It was one of our best credits."


The business quickly took off. In 1993, the company's revenue was less than $100,000, but by 1995, it was $1.5 million, Forbes reports. While Kate worked for the company full-time from the beginning, Andy formally joined full-time in 1996 after quitting his advertising job. Kate and Andy also hired two friends, Pamela Bell and Elyce Arons, to work on the business with them.

That same year, the company opened their first boutique in New York, and even larger orders were coming in from department stores: Saks and Neiman Marcus each ordered 3,000 bags for all of their stores. And in 1996, Kate Spade New York reported a revenue of $6 million.

By 1998, the Spades opened additional stores in Los Angeles and Japan, and were reporting sales of $27 million. That was when they decided to expand beyond handbags into lifestyle items, including planners and photo albums, Racked reports. In 1999, the company introduced footwear, followed by a men's line called Jack Spade.



Kate Spade at her store in Boston June 25, 1999.

In 1999, Neiman Marcus bought 56 percent of Kate Spade New York for a whopping $33.6 million. This marked the start of numerous transitions for the company, along with increasing revenue numbers. In 2005, Kate Spade New York was reportedly making $89 million in revenue, climbing to $99 million in 2006, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Spade and her remaining partners sold the rest of Kate Spade New York, another 44 percent, to Neiman Marcus for $59 million in 2006. While the exact figures remain unclear, the Spades likely walked away with $46.5 million before taxes, Forbes notes.


In 2006, Neiman Marcus sold Kate Spade to fashion powerhouse Liz Claiborne, which already had more than 40 brands in operation. Claiborne bought Kate Spade New York for about $124 million, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Kate with daughter Frances in 2007.

Kate and Andy Spade formally left their roles as designer and chief executive officer of Kate Spade New York in 2007 to spend time with their daughter, Frances Beatrix Valentine Spade, who was born in 2005, Vogue UK reports. "This is a hard decision, and I feel very emotional about it," Kate said to WWD after the news was announced. "But the emotions would be more about melancholy if I thought we weren't doing the right thing." Under the Liz Claiborne ownership, Kate Spade New York launched clothing, jewelry, bedding, and fragrance collections.

In 2012, Liz Claiborne Inc. changed its name to Fifth & Pacific, following the sale of the Liz Claiborne brand to J.C. Penney Co. And just two years later, Fifth & Pacific changed its name again, this time to Kate Spade & Company. Racked reported the move was to reflect the fact that company only owned Kate Spade at that point. In 2017, the Kate Spade company was sold yet again—but this time for a seriously high price: Coach acquired the brand for $2.4 billion.


Kate and Andy Spade discussing Frances Valentine at Build Studio in April 2017.

While Kate Spade New York is worth billions today, Kate Spade's net worth was estimated to be around $150 million, the Richest reports. Spade and the other Kate Spade founders had been separated from the namesake company since 2007 and the Spades embarked on a new fashion business two years ago.

Kate and Andy created Frances Valentine, a shoe and handbag company, in February 2016. The new brand was also marked by a change for Kate Spade herself: she legally changed her name to Kate Valentine Spade, Fast Company reports. "I thought it was important to distinguish who I am now,” she told People of her name change. "I’m the same person, but there’s a difference." Kate and Andy were joined at Frances Valentine by former Kate Spade partner Elyce Arons and another Spade veteran, Paola Venturi.

The designer is survived by her husband, Andy, and their 13-year-old daughter, Frances.

“We are all devastated by today’s tragedy,” the Spade family said in a statement, according to the New York Times. “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.” Our thoughts are with the Spade family during this difficult time.

This story originally appeared on
* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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Maggie Maloney
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