Kate Spade's Shocking Death: A Quiet Pain That Shadowed Her Enduring Love Story, Amazing Rise in Fashion and Iconic Brand

The 55-year-old designer built an iconic brand and had a daughter with husband and business partner Andy Spade, but she battled a sadness she was unable to shake

By Natalie Finn Jun 05, 2018 7:30 PMTags
Kate SpadeAP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Nothing seems more glamorous than being at the top of the fashion world.

Jetting between New York, Paris and Milan. Runway shows and sleek displays in high-end department stores. Celebrity friends, mentions in Vogue every month and becoming a household name.

Kate Spade, founder of the eponymous brand that is seemingly in everyone's home, be it in the form of one of her ubiquitous handbags or wallets, an iPhone case or a set of salad plates, was found dead Tuesday morning at her Park Avenue home, having apparently committed suicide by hanging. She was 55.

It's fairly impossible not to think of Alexander McQueen, the couture wunderkind who hanged himself at 40 in his London home in 2010—or, more recently, 49-year-old American designer L'Wren Scott, who killed herself in her New York apartment by hanging herself with a scarf. 

People close to Spade knew she battled depression, but that in no way mitigated the shock of hearing the news this morning.

So much sadness, amid so much creativity, glamour and renown. But by now it's obvious that a glossy sheen mainly reflects back what we want to see, and can only smooth over so much. That sort of pain does not discriminate among incomes, levels of fame or industry.

Celebrity Deaths: 2018's Fallen Stars

While the creators create, fashion is above all else a business, one that you may not realize is chewing up and spitting out your favorite brands, or is resulting in a product that the person cited on the label no longer has anything to do with.

In May 2017, Coach purchased Kate Spade for a reported $2.4 billion, a few months after the business was put up for sale with CEO Craig Leavitt citing a "challenging retail environment" and the desire to do what was best for the company and shareholders. Fourth-quarter sales reported that February had shown 10-percent growth, to $471 million, but had still slightly missed analysts' quarter estimate, by $2 million.

Coach CEO Victor Luis said that his company, also known for its high-end but department-store-attainable handbags and associated leather goods (and like KS a New York-born brand), planned to "unlock Kate Spade's largely untapped global growth potential." In October, Coach Inc. changed its name to Tapesty Inc., to reflect that it was a collection of multiple brands, including Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman. Bloomberg just reported last month, meanwhile, that Tapestry was struggling due to varying issues with its non-Coach brands. For Kate Spade, it was that shoppers had become more accustomed to frequent sales and coupon opportunities, and Tapestry was looking to refashion the brand as a luxurious, all-brands-marked-down-except-for-this-one name again.  

But Kate-Spade-the-brand's current struggles were in Spade's rearview mirror.

Spade and husband Andy Spade had sold off their remaining stake in the brand over a decade ago, and therefore didn't see a cut of that of that 9-figure sale. Not that they walked away with nothing.

Having become a major success practically upon arrival when Kate Spade New York handbags surfaced in 1993, they sold a 56 percent stake to Neiman Marcus in 1999 for a reported $34 million, staying on as creative directors, and then sold the rest to Neiman's in 2006 for $59 million. After other partners got their share, the Spades could have ended up with about $46.5 million, before taxes, Forbes estimated. (Neiman's later sold the lot to Liz Claiborne, which rebranded as 5th & Pacific, and then again as Kate Spade & Co., which was responsible for the since-shuttered Kate Spade Saturday brand.

Kate Spade Dead at 55: Designers and Stars React to the Tragic News

Meanwhile, Kate and Andy had since started something new, rooted in a love story that started more than 30 years ago.

Katherine Brosnahan of Kansas City, Mo., met Andy Spade, a brother of David Spade, when they were students at Arizona State University and working at the same Phoenix clothing store in the mid-80s.

"And one day, his car broke down and he asked me for a ride home," Kate recalled, laughing, on NPR's How I Built This in February 2017. "And we really started off as really great friends."

"And the car continued to break down, so I think it nurtured our relationship along," Andy quipped.

But truly, "that's how we got to know each other, and I realized I just loved her company," he also recalled to Vanity Fair in 2002. "It just kind of happened organically—we were dating! I don't think we ever said officially what we were doing."

They married in 1994, a year after Kate launched her now iconic handbag line, inspired by the timeless style of Jackie Onassis and Katharine Hepburn, encouraged by Andy and anchored by a square-shaped purse she designed after spending seven years at Mademoiselle in New York, working her way from assistant to senior fashion editor overseeing accessories.

Andy didn't leave his job in advertising just yet, figuring it was best to have a steady paycheck, but he eventually joined the business full-time in 1996.

"...I just thought, well, we're both 29, 30 years old, and, you know, it's time to do it. We don't have children. Let's not quit," Andy told NPR in 2017. "Even if we lose everything, you know, Kate can always go back to a fashion job. You know, I can continue to work in advertising."

Steve Azzara/Corbis via Getty Images

For the first few years, the couple ran the business out of their TriBeCa loft.

"We had no air conditioning, and it was August. We had put everything into this. I put in my 401(k) money," Andy Space told CNN Money in 2003. "Our friends were buying their first homes. They had money in the stock market. We didn't know for sure that the business was going to work.

"I thought, 'This is exhausting. We can't manage all this.' We talked about paying off all our debt and closing the business down. But I had to believe in it. I couldn't blink. If I blinked, she'd fall. I had to keep her hopes up. We got to a point where we couldn't do it alone."

In 2003, the Kate Spade brand was practically synonymous with the word "handbag" among chic women with at least a little disposable income, and they had expanded into sunglasses, stationery, shoes, men's bags, fragrance and bath products, with housewares just around the corner. Andy started a men's label, Jack Spade. Kate released a trio of booksMannersOccasions and Style—in 2004, which was also the year they went international with their first store abroad, in Tokyo. By 2005, they had 16 freestanding boutiques in the U.S. as well as nine in Asia, and were sold in more than 600 department stores—and they were venturing into the great unknown of E-commerce.

"Kate is the girl next door," Leonard Lauder, whose Estée Lauder licensed the Kate Spade name for a fragrance line, told Vanity Fair in 2002. "I've been acquainted with so many fashionistas over the years, and she is the anti-fashionista, and because of that I just love her. Andy's style is brimming with enthusiasm, smart, and—what I'm going to say to you sounds almost crazy—opinionated and flexible. That's his brilliance. They are a pleasure to work with. Absolute sweethearts."

L'Wren Scott's Apparent Suicide and 7 More Shocking Deaths in the Fashion World

Their biggest collaboration to come, however, was the birth of their daughter, Frances Beatrix Spade, in 2005.

"It was something we always wanted to do, but you get caught up in the moment of the business," a pregnant Kate told Fast Company in 2005, regarding the desire to have children. "This industry is very, very competitive."

Added Andy, "And I didn't want to feel guilty about not spending time with a child. But now, we have a business, and it's strong. So I think there's an advantage to being our age and at this point in our lives. We can do this."

James Devaney/WireImage

For a decade Andy and Kate Spade were the picture of a power couple (Kate jokingly called their physically diminutive stature "fun-sized"), as friends, colleagues and seemingly everyone they came across in the business world marveled over their successful partnership. Andy was the one who had endlessly encouraged her to strike out on her own, while she was the cautious one. 

"Andy can see further out—without being nervous," Kate said. "I can see too—but I know what could happen." Her first trade show was more of a splish than a splash, but she got orders from Barneys New York and Charivari. Precious real estate in the pages of Vogue came next, in 1995, she won her first CFDA Award and in 1998 annual revenues reached $27 million. 

"I couldn't imagine doing this with anybody else," Kate said of her husband, whose name she hadn't even taken yet when she launched her brand, which was originally a purposeful combination of their respective names.

It was becoming parents that helped Kate and Andy determine that 2006 was the right year to sell their remaining stake in the company. Moreover, it wasn't exactly the greatest being business and life partners 24/7.

"I remember this one horrible fight over whether a pink was the right pink," Andy told New York magazine in 2010. "Ugh. And then it was important for everyone to think we were so happy all the time."

On a trip to Cabo San Lucas, with their business partners (and Kate's BFFs) Pamela Bell and Elyce Arons and their families, they didn't talk about work and therefore knew they'd made the right decision, Andy recalled. 

"I haven't even been into a Kate Spade shop since we left," Kate added, having just picked up an Eloise tea seat for their daughter (known familiarly as Bea) and some makeup at Bergdorf Goodman. By all accounts, she was loving being a full-time mom.

Bennett Raglin/WireImage

Talking about her habit of cutting Bea's sandwiches into a heart shape, she told New York, "The other mothers are like, Okay, whatever.' They think I'm insane. But I want to be able to do this while I can. When she's like, 'Mom, get away from me!' then I'll think about what else I want to do, but I'm incredibly glad I can do this now."

They had just taken Bea on her first trip to Disneyland that January.

After focusing on other business and philanthropic endeavors for several years, Andy and Kate announced the launch in 2016 of a new accessories venture, Frances Valentine. They partnered again with Elyce Arons, as well as shoe designer Paola Venturi, and—publicly but not splashily—Spade added "Valentine" to her name (she became Katherine Noel Frances Valentine Brosnahan Spade) and started referring to herself as Kate Valentine.

"It kind of makes [me] sound kind of cool, like a rap star or something," she joked to Business of Fashion in 2016. "But we're not trying to be cheeky or coy. It really was to distinguish the name, and separate the two worlds. Obviously we're super proud of Kate Spade and we want to be respective of both."

Mark Sagliocco/Getty Image

Asked why, seemingly all of a sudden, she was back in the designing game, Kate said, "Why bother? I felt like doing something. I've been really involved with my daughter, her school, and not to sound like I'm some kind of philanthropist but…" She had been devoting a lot of time to the New York Center for Children.

Andy chimed in, the two of them finishing each other's sentences, as always, "I can say why I wanted to do it. Kate loves to create and we obviously love working together. She loves shoes. It's a time, you know, when our daughter is—" "Getting older," Kate finished. "She's in school, studying a lot, a little more hands-off."

Talking to The Cut in November 2016, Kate described a typical day: "I feed the dog; I feed the fish. My husband, Andy, runs to Starbucks because he doesn't want any part of that banter. I'm in my daughter's room going, 'Oh my god, I asked you 20 minutes ago and you're still in your pajamas.' It's a little mini battle. She's jealous of our dog because he doesn't have to do anything."

Ultimately, "Work is different every day. Our home life is much more predictable. My daughter goes to school; we pick her up; she has tennis. We're committed to getting home to eat dinner every night together. It's a thing that Andy and I decided to do when she was little. When she got older and she had all these activities, it became a little more difficult, but I still made it a point to have our dining-room table set, just so she knows that there's structure. We want to sit together as a family and talk about our days."

Spade was a runner, enjoying a jog around the reservoir or, if need be, a run on the treadmill she had in the basement. She communicated what sounded like a little anxiety about going back to running a business while she was used to having more time to dote on her tween-age daughter.

"I've never missed any of her events, but I know one is coming up in February and I'll be gone," Kate lamented. "I have to be at a personal appearance. This weekend, I went away. My daughter asked me when I'd be back and I told her tomorrow night and she said, 'Why so early?'" 

A Closer Look at Celeb Outfits from the Kate Spade Fall-Winter 2018 Presentation

Despite the everybody-knew consensus coming out of woodwork now about Kate's struggle with depression, she was not someone to focus on herself in conversation, or open up too much about her private life when it wasn't in relation to her enduring relationship with Andy.

Jim Spellman/WireImage

Recalling their battle with finding a work-life balance back when they were running Kate Spade, she told NPR in 2017, "...we had to make a conscious effort not to talk about it 24/7, which is—as you can tell by how quickly I talk—my tendency. And I also am very—a nervous person. I worry a lot. And Andy could not be more different."

Asked if she had a lot of sleepless nights, she agreed, adding, "And always, you know, the sky is falling. And Andy was like, oh, you know, it's fine."

Interviewer Guy Raz asked if she still felt an emotional attachment when she walked by a Kate Spade boutique or saw the Kate Spade New York label.

"It's funny because I do look at it, and I don't—people have said, 'oh, do you have any regrets?' And I remember thinking, oh, I hope I don't, and I never have," Kate explained. "And I think they've done such a good job that luckily I don't have to have. And we do walk by the stores.

"And I have a funny story that we actually walked into a store to buy my daughter something—we went to the cash register, and [the clerk] said, 'Are you on our mailing list?' And I said, 'I don't think so. And so then I used my maiden name. And I said—she said Brosnahan. And then my daughter kind of kept nudging me. She was dying for me to say something, and I didn't. And then I remember thinking, you know, no, I'm not on your mailing list, but I think I helped create it."

"That's the end scene of your movie?" Raz asked.

"Yes," Kate Spade replied.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.