Kate Spade’s tragic suicide yesterday has sent shockwaves through the fashion world, seeing celebrities and fans pay tribute to the designer whose eponymous brand has been a fashion fixture for 25 years. Although Spade sold the remaining 56% stake to Neiman Marcus in 2006 and exited the company, she will be remembered for revolutionising the handbags and accessories market with her quirky yet wearable designs at a more accessible price point than more high-end brands.
The news draws a sad parallel with the death of Alexander McQueen in 2010, whose brand was taken over by his longtime colleague Sarah Burton, with great success. Her appointment marked the end of a chapter and a new direction for the McQueen house; Nicola Glass became the new Creative Director of Kate Spade in November 2017, taking over from Deborah Lloyd. As Kate Spade’s death brings the brand back into the spotlight, there will be immense pressure on Glass to ensure that she guides the brand through this time of intense speculation and expectation. Burton dealt with her new role by imbuing a new, softer, feminine identity into a brand that had always channelled autobiographical stories into clothes. The challenge facing Glass is how to balance continuity and progression: Burton respects McQueen’s legacy but has moved it forward to create her own.
In America in particular, Kate Spade designs are synonymous with the transition into adulthood, a rite of passage as a grown-up woman. While Spade herself hadn’t been involved in the company for over a decade, the Kate Spade brand will now enter a new phase which will demand a stylistic signature to honour the designer. In August 2017, Coach acquired Kate Spade for $2.4 billion as part of its strategy to become a multi-brand company with more millennial appeal. With Kate Spade a solid fixture in the top 10 ranked luxury accessories brands globally, and the top 5 in North America, the acquisition got Coach’s growth back on track in the following months. 60% of Kate Spade customers are millennials, the main selling point for Coach, who have struggled to find their niche in the saturated handbags space.
Now, Kate Spade (and Coach) face a new challenge: it can be difficult for fashion brands to survive without their namesakes but Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Versace have shown that it is possible. The tributes to Kate Spade show that she has a place in the heart of thousands of women around the world; as long as Nicola Glass and her team channel and reflect this outpouring of love into their designs, the Kate Spade brand has the potential to live on.