My cousin sent me a link early Tuesday morning June 5, 2018 about Kate Spade passing away. I was shocked and saddened. In the past week of remembering and reflecting on my experiences with Kate Spade the brand, and what I knew of her as a person, I realized how much I treasured being a part of this coveted American designer brand as an employee, consumer and vendor.
When I first heard of the Kate Spade brand, I was working in the buying offices for Macy’s West. In spring of 1999 there was a bit of a buzz about a particular handbag brand the buyers would purchase when they would travel to New York City. That brand was Kate Spade.
Seemed like everyone was getting one. The black nylon Sam. It was cute, practical and tastefully branded with a subtle label on the outside of the bag. Who was this Kate Spade person? Did I need a Kate Spade handbag? I didn’t travel to New York as I was an Assistant Buyer. But the name of this coveted brand was now on my radar. In May of 2000 I had a big birthday. I invited my pal Adele from San Diego to meet me in New York for some shopping and dining in the big apple. She offered up the fact that we could stay with her friend, Valerie. Valerie was a seasoned, non native, New Yorker, lived in the meat packing district and was dialed in with all the “it” brands. She owned several Kate Spade handbags including a leather, hot pink baguette style that I had never seen before. I didn’t even inquire about where I could get one. I assumed it was way out of my reach.
Later that year I changed jobs for a hot up and coming online gifting website called RedEnvelope. It was at one of their seasonal kick off meetings that I heard the VP of Merchandising say “We are looking at what Kate Spade is doing” regarding products, photography and branding. I must admit I didn’t understand all the fuss about this brand. I really only knew it as a few black nylon bags with a small label on the outside. What was it that was so captivating about this brand? I would soon learn.
On September 11, 2001 I was in New York City. I had recently lost my corporate gifts job with RedEnvelope due to restructuring and I had the plane ticket that had already been purchased for the trip in hopes of drumming up some holiday business. The ticket was booked in my name of course so I decided to travel just for my own pleasure. I had gotten a small severance package and thought I had plenty of time to find a job. Why not go to NYC as planned, and have some fun?
Due to the tragedies that unfolded on 9/11, I was stuck in New York for an extra 6 days (which included a side trip to the Hamptons), I was soon back in San Francisco and needed a job. I went to an in person job interview for a pharmaceutical sales position. When I arrived at the venue for the interview/screening I saw that there were at least 50 people in line for this one position. I thought, they’ll never hire me, I haven’t got a shot at this. I left. Since I was all dressed up I thought, I should go walk around and see if any of the stores in downtown San Francisco have any openings. I walked by the Kate Spade store on Grant Avenue and spotted a Sales Associate wanted sign in the window. At first I was uncomfortable about the prospect of working for a brand that felt excluded from and didn’t understand what the hype was all about. But, I needed a job. I went in and applied. One month later I was an employee of Kate Spade.
The team I worked with was fun, young, smart and welcoming. Of all the places I worked in 25 years of living in San Francisco, I met the best, warmest and most talented people at Kate Spade. I learned about handbags, shoes, small leather goods, the collections, how Kate named all the bags after her friends, how the corporate directives included propping merchandise with vintage books and found objects. I learned about the brand and the brand philosophy including the fact that pink and lime green were Kate’s favorite colors, that the merchandising strategy was that of the boutique and that you never put every bag in every color on the floor. The idea was that the sales associate would engage the customer and stir the interest by suggesting that there might be something else in back stock. I learned and absorbed as much as I could about this hot brand. We carried outside vendors like M & J Savitt and Kenneth Jay Lane, so it was my first introduction to a lifestyle brand. It was fun. Our staff was fun. Even the Jerome the weekend store guard was fun and part of the Kate Spade San Francisco team.
After only a couple of months, my old employer, Gump’s of San Francisco called me and offered me a job. I said yes. But I loved the Kate Spade gig. I opted to go part time and work every other weekend. Even as a part time employee I still got great perks: your choice from the nylon collection handbags when you started – I got a black messenger bag and still use it – complimentary sunglasses, seasonal shoe allowance, everyone got a bottle of perfume when the KS perfume collection launched, and an employee gift at holiday time. I enjoyed my time at the boutique. However at one point it got to be too much to work both jobs and I had to quit in fall of 2003.
In 2004 I had the itch to do something with vintage jewelry. I designed a few one of kind bracelets reconstructing vintage costume jewelry and had a bit of success getting into local boutiques and even landing a necklace on the cover of the SF Chronicle Fall 2004 Fashion Insert. Through my Kate Spade friends, I got my collection in front of Kate herself. She loved the bracelets and I got my first order that very fall. I was thrilled that she believed in me and wanted to carry my one-of-a-kind bracelets in her stores.
My bracelets were hot. A reorder was placed in early December and that was quickly designed, assumbled and sent. I was the number one vendor for jewelry for Kate Spade and was super excited to be a part of this brand. My biggest order came for the fall of 2005 for 250 pieces. It was so much fun to be a part of this brand. Being in the Kate Spade stores, including Kate Spade Japan, opened other retail opportunities for my jewelry. I got into Henri Bendel, Anthroplogie, Nordstrom, and many small independent boutiques in the USA and Canada.
I got to meet Kate Spade in 2007 at the Hugo Guinness art opening at the Grant Street Kate Spade store. Later in the year, I heard the news that Kate Spade had been sold. This was not entirely unexpected, as there had been rumors floating about regarding someone buying the Kate Spade brand. Then the news came through they were moving to do all of their collections and products in house, under the Kate Spade brand. I was not surprised. I was grateful that I had a chance to be part of an amazing brand as a vendor. My jewelry evolved to where I am currently selling vintage jewelry, accessories and home decor and coaching jewelry and accessories designers with merchandising, selling and online marketing strategies. You can check out my Etsy store here.
As I moved forward with my jewelry collection I found myself constantly inspired by the Kate Spade brand and realized how much I had learned being part of the brand as an, employee, vendor and consumer. Andy and Kate Spade were ahead of their time.
There are few brands in which one can reference them like “Oh, that’s so _________” (insert designers name). You hear it for extremely well known fashion names and houses like Chanel or Valentino. Kate Spade is one of those names that you will hear people say, “oh, that’s so Kate Spade”.
The top things I learned from Kate Spade:
- The importance of etiquette and manners. I was taught very good manners at home. But I never had a company express the directive that every employee was expected to conduct him/herself with good manners.Each employee was issued an Etiquette book by Emily Post. Every job description ended with the phrase, “must be polite”. Each sales associate was given instructions on how to write a thank you note and follow up note. We were taught that one good way to sign off on, or close a client note, was to use the word “Best” before signing your name. I still use it today.
- Vintage. This was the first store I worked in that would use vintage books and found objects to prop with the merchandise and create and ambiance with vintage furniture. A couple items I remember were a the book It’s A Wonderful Life, a vintage copy of an Ian Flemming book and a 1960s transistor radio. It was all on brand and exuded and created a clever experience. I had come from much more traditional retailers such as Macys and Gumps, which never ventured into vintage items from the 1950s or 60s. I had always enjoyed cool vintage mid century modern and working at Kate Spade validated my interest and got me even more interested in vintage fashion, accessories and home decor.
- Limited edition products and collaborations. My first Christmas season at the KS, a few pieces of vintage jewelry embellished, miniature Christmas trees arrived at the store for sale. There about 5 or 6 of these and they were snapped up and quickly sold. Other limited edition products followed which was a great way to create excitement and interest with regular customers.
- Stories. The Kate Spade brand would use one sentence, that could connect with their ideal customer that would express and entertain, and charm and delight customers. One example was that on all the hang tags, there would be a short sentence that would say something like, Share your last piece of gum. A good example was the way the paper products would capture and deliver the essence of the brand with statements like, “I bought one for myself” on a gift enclose card, or “Chat with the person next to you” on a dining place card. (See examples in the photos included in this post) Kate named every hand bag after her friends and relatives. Again, this added more charm, wit and whimsy to a customers experience.
- Color. When I started at Kate Spade I learned quickly how much Kate Spade embraced and enjoyed color. A black handbag, while chic and safe, is not nearly as much fun as a canary yellow or Kelly green one. Hot pink and lime green were Kate’s most favorite colors. Many shoes would come in a choice of black, pink or green. We would sell the bags and shoes expressing the color strategy to customers. It was always great fun convincing a customer that she’ll stand out way more at a party with a colored bag and that turquoise, pink or red go with everything. Furthermore, Kate had certain color combinations that would be seasonally repeated such are navy blue and kelly green, pink and chocolate brown, orange and camel, red and sky blue. Another product in which we were always educating the customers on the benefit of color were small leather goods. “a pink wallet is so much easier to find in your handbag than a black wallet”. I still think black is boring and over rated. Color is fun. I tell people to go out and look at nature and see how good all the colors look together, like a red tulips against a blue sky.
- Details. Kate Spade was known for color and attention to details. Especially details that were unexpected. This was often evidenced on the interior of her handbags. On many items, you would open a bag to find hot pink lining, or navy and white cotton stripes or chocolate suede with pale blue polka dots. This attention to detail again enhanced the customers experience and was a smart way to entertain clients with clever details.
- Accessories. Accessories are the punctuation to your outfit. They express who your are more than almost any article of clothing can. It’s one of the easiest ways to update your outfit of wardrobe with a new handbag, pair of shoes, scarf, sunglasses or jewelry. There are many inexpensive options inlcuding vintage pieces that can help you achieve a seasonal look or simply expand upon you own style. And I’ll repeat, color is your friend. Do not be afraid of color. Wear it and enjoy it!
- Handbags. Handbags are one of the best investments you can make. They are not only ornamentation, they serve a purpose. Who doesn’t need to carry some stuff around all day? And it follows that one needs different handbags for different seasons, occasions, travel, moods, taste and practicality. Learn what features you prefer in a handbag and learn about details that denote quality, craftsmanship and good design. Good quality bags will have feet, those tiny studs – usually 4- on the bottom of the bag. This protects the leather on the bottom of the bag. Look for lining – a well made bag will be lined in most cases. Don’t buy fake handbags. They never last. I bought one fake handbag, (a faux Kate Spade bag) and it fell apart the first time I wore it. Keep the stuffing that comes with your handbag and keep it stuffed and in the duster/ And finally a colored handbag is far more interesting than a black handbag. The standard ( and the best way in my opinion) to set the bags on display called for all bags being zipped, and closures lock because that is how a woman would walk down the street with her handbag. The other mandatory directive was displaying bags with the strap crossing across the front of the bag. This was achieved by taking the top left strap, and crossing it diagonally across the front of the bag, and tucking it under the bottom of the lower right corner of the bag. Further, bags with 2 handles were always set so that the handles folded over to the other side. Both visuals created a neat and tight presentation.
- Branding. The Kate Spade brand was such a cool brand to be a part of. They did innovative marketing and branding because they could. And it was fun and they knew the power of creating an experience in the stores and in their ads. I absorbed as much as I could when I was an employee and that experience continues to influence me in business today. Kate Spade clearly paved the way for other American lifestyle brands such as Tory Burch.
In 2016 Kate Spade was back on the fashion radar with her new collection of shoes and handbags called Frances Valentine. I checked it out and was excited to see what Kate and Andy Spade came up with. I ordered shoes, handbags, and small leather goods. The quality was nice and the colors and details creative and beautiful. I gave some items as gifts and proudly shared with those recipients that this was the new Kate Spade collection. For every gift I gave, I made sure to buy myself one too!
Following are photos of my Kate Spade and Frances Valentine collections. Some of my older items have been used and loved, and show a little age.
Last February I heard a 2017 interview on NPR with Kate and Andy Spade about how they started and built their business. Just last month one of my best friends came to visit me in Los Angeles. We sat by the pool one afternoon and played the interview on speaker phone. We met when we both worked at Kate Spade. You can listen to that Podcast here.