As the devastating news of designer Kate Spade’s death spread today, women of all ages have taken to social media to share not just their sadness and confusion, but their formative experience with the designers’ namesake brand. Amidst the darker uncertainties at hand, one thing is clear: almost everyone (from our mothers to Chelsea Clinton) has an anecdote.
But Spade’s handbags—whose simple shapes were uniquely stripped of accoutrements, focusing instead on bright or striped nylons—were especially significant to one group in particular: women, like myself, who were in their early teens in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. For us, these bags were not simply versatile enough to go from boardroom to bar (as they were for many of the working women in our orbit), they were our first portal into the unfamiliar, intoxicating world of fashion.
Sure, other labels like Coach and Marc Jacobs beckoned from the same department store shelves, but there was a youthfulness and level of accessibility to Spade’s line that better suited those of us who were just getting our feet wet. The brand’s ethos—“to live life colorfully”—was welcoming and unstuffy. Anyone could take a whirl with one of these bags, it seemed to say.
Of course, price was a factor too: Retailing in the low hundreds, Spade’s handbags certainly weren’t cheap, but they were reasonable enough to procure with our babysitting money (or put at the top of our birthday wish lists). The bags might have been slightly more affordable than the competition, but they didn’t lack for sophistication. Unlike the other popular bags of the time, they were polished and simple.
My first Kate Spade bag came about serendipitously, as a surprise holiday gift inspired by the piles of fashion magazines that were taking up all the floorspace in my bedroom. At age 12, my interest in fashion was beginning to cement itself, but—editorial-stalking aside—nothing about my reality represented that, an obvious crisis that my parents didn’t quite grasp.
As my schoolmates ran around with their then hyper-trendy Louis Vuittons and Dooney & Bourkes, my mom and dad made a point to hold back (admirably, I now know) on needlessly asserting my privilege. Still, I wanted to fantasize, to feel older, and a little more chic than my vintage finds alone could convey.
Luckily, a close family friend helped deliver, gifting me with a small, striped version of Kate Spade’s famous Sam bag that, for a few years, was my most coveted piece. It was the rare industry-approved product that I, too, could pull off.
And wearing it out (usually to the mall, to gossip over milkshakes with friends) felt like an especially symbolic gesture in the preppy town I grew up in. Amidst all the J.Crew and Polo Ralph Lauren, the athletic competence and straight-blonde hair, my frizzy, Jewish mane and more artistic pursuits felt a little less left-of-center when I had it on me. Compliments from this cohort—the lifeblood of an insecure tween—were aplenty, and stuck with me like a secret shield.
Kate Spade, it seemed, was at home with both worlds. Unlike other brands I was just beginning to discover, its products didn’t discriminate.
But beyond that, for my peers and I, it was an entrypoint to the fashion world that, uniquely free of any heritage, was growing up and navigating the world right in step with us.