Kate Spade, the New York fashion icon and co-founder of her eponymous handbag company, has been found dead of an apparent suicide, according to several press reports. Law enforcement officials told NBC that Spade was found hanging from a scarf on a bedroom door at her Park Avenue residence.

The investigation is still in its preliminary stages. Spade was 55.

The Kate Spade brand has become a household name in fashion--synonymous with the simple yet elegant modern woman, a self-possessed "leading lady." But Spade, like many founders, came from humble beginnings. More than two decades ago, while working as an editor at a fashion magazine in New York, Spade (née Brosnahan) found herself at a crossroads: Unsure of whether she wanted to continue in the publishing industry, her then-boyfriend, Andy Spade, encouraged her to take a stab at design. "I wasn't sure the next step was the one I wanted to make," she told Fortune in a 2003 interview. Still, "Growing up in Kansas City in the 1970s, I liked fashion, but I don't think I ever thought I'd start a handbag business."

Dedication to Design

Then, in her one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, Spade created a handbag out of a swatch of construction paper. "I knew immediately what the shape would be--a very simple square," she continued. "At the time, no one was doing anything that clean. The shape gave me a real flexible canvas for applying all the ideas I had for a lot of colors, patterns, and fabrics." The conceit was indeed simple, but far from easy: Create a handbag that straddled luxury and standard retail, selling for just $155 apiece.

The business officially launched in 1992, though it was far from an overnight success. "We were showing in five markets a year, which means doing designs five times a year," Spade added, noting that she received pushback from retailers in the early days. "I remember Barney's saying, 'Yup, you showed us those shapes last time. It's just new fabric.' And I said, 'Well, that's the idea. That's the concept.' "

Yet Spade's reverent commitment to the original design is what catapulted the business to success. "One thing we did right was taking it slow," she noted. "The pressure and encouragement to keep going into different categories was big." But she and Andy, who served as the brand's co-founder, stayed the course. Ultimately, Kate Spade--the brand--expanded into other fashion categories, including shoes, clothing, jewelry, and bedding. By 1999, Neiman Marcus took a majority stake in the company, and the Spades cashed out their remaining shares for a whopping $33.6 million in 2006.

Reinventing Kate, Again

Kate's entrepreneurial journey didn't end there, and she quite literally reinvented herself. Since that time, the designer changed her name to Kate Valentine and launched Frances Valentine, a footwear and accessories brand with a minimalist but similarly empowered aesthetic. "We're not trying to be cheeky or coy," she told Business of Fashion in 2016. "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."

Although it's been more than a decade since Kate Spade was involved with her original label, the company continued to reap the rewards of her success: In 2017, Coach bought Kate Spade for $2.4 billion, in an attempt to assert itself as a more luxury brand. Today, the company has more than 140 retail shops and outlet stores across the country, and more than 175 locations internationally.

Andy Spade, speaking with Inc. in a 2014 feature, reiterated how much the brand was always about who Kate was as a woman--as well as her aesthetic as a designer. "It was about this world we were creating, which was about graciousness," he said. "We built it around Kate's personality."

The late designer is survived by Spade, her husband of 24 years, and her daughter, Frances Beatrix Spade. Should you need help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-8255.

Published on: Jun 5, 2018