The quiet radicalism of Kate Spade

Kate Spade store in Soho, 2006. Photo: Ralph Daily, via flickr

She let the world know that a woman can be serious and ambitious, and still carry a bright pink wallet

By Alizah Salario

Everyone seemed to own a Kate Spade bag. Everyone, that is, except me.

In the late ’90s, the popular girls at my suburban Chicago high school toted the designer’s signature black nylon sack with the tiny Kate Spade tag. The bag managed to be both demure and distinctive; it was just a black bag, but it was also the black bag. The bags were go-to gifts for bat mitzvahs and birthdays. To me, they signaled belonging in a tribe of ambitious and privileged young women conscious of their place in the world. These young women were my peers, and like me, they desired a more cosmopolitan life after graduation. If you had a Kate Spade bag, you belonged, and if you could belong at my competitive high school, then you just might belong somewhere bigger and better, too.

Maybe I didn’t want the bag. Maybe I just wanted bigger and better.

When the shocking news of Kate Spade’s suicide broke on Tuesday, I felt a personal sense of loss, as though she had been a friend. Clearly, I’m not alone. Chelsea Clinton tweeted about receiving her first Kate Spade bag from her grandmother. Lena Dunham also paid tribute on Twitter, writing that Spade “had a quirky visual language that captivated Bat Mitzvah girls and artists alike.” Some of my high school friends posted on Facebook, including Straus News contributor Caroline Rothstein, who wrote, “Your work was integral to my own well-being in ways that shaped and changed my world.”

These sentiments are no exaggeration. For those of us who came of age with Kate Spade bags in our orbit, she sent a message about who we could be in the world. Her bags carried many young women into adulthood, and for that, there is collective sense of indebtedness.

When I went downtown on weekends, my father’s girlfriend taught my sister and me how shop the markdowns at Filene’s Basement and TJ Maxx on State Street.

She carried a knockoff Chanel purse with padded sides, a double C clasp and that signature strap, a gold chain woven with leather. The Chanel aesthetic appeared gauche to me. It was flashy; Kate Spade was understated. At the time, I was keen on rejecting looks of my youth — particularly the puffy headbands with bows and pink outfits of my father’s girlfriend bought for me. Being grown up meant being simple and sophisticated. Kate Spade represented this aesthetic. She was Kate Spade New York, and New York was the epitome of style. New York was where things happened, where I imagined a smarter, bolder version of myself would move someday to become a writer. There was hope: Kate Spade was from the Midwest, and she had become very New York.

In retrospect, the thing about that Kate Spade bag was that it functioned as a backdrop. The bag didn’t define you. It allowed you to define who you wanted to become.

By the time I moved to New York City in 2009, the Kate Spade heyday was over. The height of the brand’s popularity coincided with that of “Sex and the City,” when the statement bags became a talisman of success. This year marks the show’s 20th anniversary, and certain aspects, like the faux empowerment via consumerism it peddled, have not aged well.

The parts of SATC that still resonate are the same things Kate Spade tapped into. Like Carrie Bradshaw waltzing around in an outlandish tutu and simple tank, she knew how to merge cutting-edge and classic. Kate Spade made fashionable purses accessible, and she gave us permission to desire them. She let the world know that a woman can be serious and ambitious, and still carry a bright pink wallet. Yes, her bags were mainstream, but what she did was pretty radical.

Spade taught us that dressing up is not just fun and games. It’s like scaffolding — it supports the self we want to present to the world. But it’s also very delicate. The minute we stop believing in the worlds we create with our image, they crumble.

It would be unfair to speculate about the circumstances surrounding her suicide, but the loss of Spade is a reminder that the people who bestow the most brightness and beauty on the world often do so to stave off their own darkness. Her death is testament to the fact New York success stories are always part truth and part illusion, and that an impossibly cheerful brand image many have hid, and hurt, the human being behind it.

Some people might wonder what all the fuss is over a purse. The fuss, I believe, is the way certain items mark our lives. A friend wrote to tell me about the parrot green Kate Spade bag gifted to her by an ex that she still holds onto because receiving it felt like she had arrived. Another friend told me about two pieces she purchased from Kate Spade’s Saturday’s store in SoHo that she cherishes — a refined square neck red shirt and a three-in-one striped canvas bag that she loves “like a child loves a stuffed animal.” The bag has carried her from coast to coast and to places in-between, a steady companion in a period of change.

In a world where the shadows seem to be creeping in from all corners, there is something radical about wanting more for yourself. And if it takes an elegant bag that makes you feel like you’ve already arrived to get there, then so be it.