Kate Spade: Celebrating the sparkling wit of a creative visionary

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Kate Spade poses for a portrait in her new handbag store on Newbury Street in Boston on June 25, 1999.
Kate Spade poses for a portrait in her new handbag store on Newbury Street in Boston on June 25, 1999. Credit: Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Kate Spade died yesterday.

I am crushed. I am disappointed. Angry. Confused. Frustrated. What she and Andy Spade created was a whole new space within the creative world. Inspired by the muses of 1960s Mod with an intellectual twist that felt so modern, they broke new ground and showed that selling your own creative wit really can make money.

A lot of us New York women in the '90s bought into the simple, chic colored leather bag ideas they were selling; to carry those bags into Bowery Bar was to be part of a moment.

But years later, for the advertising community, the brand became much more than that: It became a place where smart design and witty copy mattered. Where letting out your inner vintage nerd was cool. Soon, it became a new brand voice in fashion retail that was stronger, more intelligent, more playful than any other.

In my early copywriting days, an old Kate Spade brand guide booklet became my bible as it celebrated "creative cool." It was smart. Funny. Irreverent. Effortless. Curious. I craved the fabulous font treatments and gorgeous graphics. I wanted to jump into the photographs, to live in between the lines. I used it to evaluate my own creative wit. That booklet, published when Kate and Andy owned the brand, started me on a ride that still hasn't stopped.

Later on, after a stint in the J. Crew copywriting department and a return to creative direction in advertising, I finally made it into Kate Spade corporate headquarters. A marketing executive on the Kate Spade brand was looking to add more storytelling magic into the creative and had heard about the agency I was working for.

"How did you lose the magic? I asked. I knew the brand had changed after the Spades had sold it but wasn't it still the pinnacle of brand creativity for everyone?

"It just... is expected," she said. Like every good marketer.

"You have to have wit," I said forcefully, overstepping my executive creative director at the time. This was my meeting, I decided, and I owned its success. "Sparkling wit is the foundation of your brand. It's hard to create that kind of magic, but you must. You carved it in the air from nothing years ago and that space is still yours."

It was as close to Kate as I ever came, but she couldn't have felt further away. She and Andy had sold the company and there was a new executive team in place. Maybe this gave her the chance to focus more on her daughter, I thought. I don't blame her, if that was the case. This is our toughest decision as women. Despite my constant trying, you can't be 100% at your job and your motherhood; one has to give to the other. So her vision was now sold, packaged, perfected, squeaky clean and ready to ship anywhere across the world. The playful palette, the twists and turns of adjectives... you could tell right away. They just weren't the same.

Still, I cheered for her. For her person. For her motherhood. For her family. For her style. For what she brought into the world as a smart, determined woman. For the brand she started, which I hear is taking off again. For the new one she was creating that would break the mood for women once more.

What saddens me the most, what empties me, is the fact that a great woman, a creative leader, a visionary, a force for female creativity, is now gone. I counted on her. I counted on my vision of who she was and what she created. And now, this.

But we can still count on what she taught us. No one decides your fate for you, but you. So be yourself. Do it your way. Find your own inner brand voice, your own style, your own aesthetic, and just let it out into the world without worrying what others think. Be fearless. Live colorfully. Sketch, doodle, dream, design. People will remember you for what you create in this world. So make it beautiful, stylish, moving, yours.

Decades later, far from New York, living in Milan, even in her death, she is still inspiring me.

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