Kate Spade’s design legacy is summed up in one classic handbag

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The bag that effectively launched Kate Spade—the designer and the company—was created almost on a whim.

It was the early 1990s. Spade was then still Kate Brosnahan, a young Kansas City-native who had studied journalism at Arizona State University before moving to New York. She had landed a job as an accessories editor at Mademoiselle magazine, but she’d realized she didn’t want to keep climbing the fashion-publishing ladder. She and her then boyfriend, Andy Spade, whom she would later marry, were out having dinner at a Mexican restaurant when he made a suggestion.

“And he just said, what about handbags?” Kate, who changed her surname to Valentine in recent years but is still widely remembered as Kate Spade, recalled to NPR’s Guy Raz a few months ago. “And I said, honey, you just don’t start a handbag company. And he said, why not? How hard can it be?”

Kate Spade's Sam bag in updated styles for its 25th anniversary
For its 25th anniversary this year, Kate Spade New York released a collection of Sam bags in updated styles.
Image: Kate Spade

On June 5, Kate Spade was found dead of an apparent suicide. The news prompted an outpouring of grief on social media, as women shared their memories of her brand. Kate and Andy had actually left the business more than a decade ago, after the company known then as Liz Claiborne bought it. But it was still the brand they started, the one that sold a large number of American women their first designer handbag in the 1990s.

Most likely that bag was the “Sam.” Of the six different styles that Kate Spade New York was founded on in 1993, the simple, black rectangle called Sam was the cornerstone. A little bit prim yet unfussy, especially in its original waterproof nylon, it was easy for women to take to work or girls to take to school—versatility fashionably objectified. It was a bit expensive, but at around $200 it was not French-luxury-label expensive, which combined with its look, made it more attainable and relatable than its pedigreed European counterparts.

“In 1993 when Kate Spade started her business, that was during the boom of business-casual dressing,” the journalist Teri Agins told NPR. “She chose a bag that was rectangular in shape. It had the long skinny handle, so you could tuck in under your shoulder. So it looked very sleek, and it was, like, under $200.”

One New York Times columnist recalled it as a rite of passage for girls and women in the posh parts of Manhattan (paywall), but it added a bit of understated polish to any arm it dangled from. And it neatly encapsulated the vision of Kate Spade, a brand formed by a woman who actually had no design background.

What she did have was a fairly complete knowledge of what the handbag landscape looked like when she was creating her line. As an accessories editor, she had an impressive personal bag collection, as Andy Spade recounted on NPR. “And then she knew every handbag company in the market,” he said. “And I thought she understood it better than anyone.”

It gave her a view of what was missing, which she explained in the interview:

At the time, things were very—bags were too complicated. And I really loved very simple kind of architectural shapes. And 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.

So—and they were all very square and simple. And I thought, gosh, I mean, why can’t we find something just clean and simple and modern?

Clean and simple and modern is what the Sam was—and still is. ”I think that bag started Kate Spade 25 years ago, but it’s still relevant today,” Deborah Lloyd, then the chief creative officer of Kate Spade New York, told Glamour in 2017, after the company announced it would reintroduce the Sam in updated styles for its 25th anniversary this year. “So many people that speak to you about that bag say, ‘Oh my goodness, it was my first bag!’ It became one of the first It Bags.”

It wasn’t easy for Kate and Andy to get the company to that first success. In its early days, they spent every dollar they had on it, and without a design education, Kate had to find pattern makers who could help her turn her ideas—rough prototypes assembled from paper and Scotch tape—into real products, which she took to a trade show to find her first customers.

But from that conversation over dinner, with a lot of subsequent work, Kate Spade New York has grown into a major force in American fashion with more than $1 billion in annual sales from bags, as well as clothing, jewelry, and home goods. The brand now has more than 200 total stores around the world, which means more women than ever have a Kate Spade bag dangling from their arm.