Original article appeared in The New York Times.
Buying a Kate Spade handbag was a coming-of-age ritual for a generation of American women. The designer created an accessories empire that helped define the look of an era. The purses she made became a status symbol and a token of adulthood.
Ms. Spade, who was found dead Tuesday in what police characterized as a suicide by hanging, worked as an editor before making the leap to designing, constructed her first sketches from paper and Scotch tape. She would come to attach her name to a bounty of products, and ideas: home goods and china and towels and so much else, all of it poised atop the thin line between accessibility and luxury.
One of the first of a wave of American women contemporary designers who emerged in the 1990s, she built a brand on the appeal of clothes and accessories that made shoppers smile. She embodied her own aesthetic, with her proto-1960s bouffant, nerd glasses and playful grin. Beneath that image was a business mind that understood the opportunities in building a lifestyle brand, almost before the term officially existed.
Her name became a shorthand for the cute, clever bags that were an instant hit with cosmopolitan women in the early stages of their careers and, later, young girls — status symbols of a more attainable, all-American sort than a Fendi clutch or Chanel bag. Ms. Spade became the very visible face of her brand and paved the way for female lifestyle designers like Tory Burch or Jenna Lyons of J Crew.