#MyFirstKateSpade: Women pay tribute to late designer

As news of Kate Spade's death rippled out into the world, women of different backgrounds began sharing personal stories online about their first Kate Spade purchase, underlining the designer's impact as a pioneer of accessible, aspirational style.

'This thoroughly American young woman ... changed everything,' says Vogue's Anna Wintour

As news of Kate Spade's death rippled out into the world, women began sharing stories of #MyFirstKateSpade, underlining the American designer's widespread appeal. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

Noreen Flanagan has a story similar to the one many women are sharing online following the sudden death of fashion designer Kate Spade on Tuesday.

Having just gotten her start in fashion journalism, and on one of her first press trips to New York, Flanagan had one thought: "I really need to up my fashion game."

And so, finding herself in SoHo, she ventured into a Kate Spade store.

"I wanted everything, but I settled on a pair of green cat-eye sunglasses ... I think that was the most that I had ever spent on anything at that point. But I was absolutely thrilled, and I still have them to this day," recalled Flanagan, now Fashion magazine's editor in chief.

As the shocking news about the designer's death rippled out into the world, an interesting thread emerged: women of different backgrounds tweeting personal stories about their first Kate Spade purchase.

Many of the #MyFirstKateSpade posts describe rites of passage or milestones, such as a young woman acknowledging her first "major" job, and marking the occasion with a new handbag by Kate Spade.

It was the wants and needs of regular women that the accessories editor-turned-designer had in mind when she created her first line of purses in her early 30s. She wanted to fill a hole she saw in the industry: practical, affordable handbags that were also pretty, cheerful and sophisticated to boot.

Spade's designs balanced an unapologetic femininity and playfulness with power and authority, Flanagan said. 

The message her designs sent to women? That you didn't have to hide your whimsy in the working world. 

"You could be very girly, but also very powerful and bold," Flanagan said. 

Aspirational yet accessible

Spade's upbringing offered a pragmatism that gave her quirky creations heft, carrying them beyond mere flights of fancy. The Kansas City-born designer eventually helped shape the concept of accessible luxury, starting with simple but stylish creations that were durable for everyday use and more affordable than high-end European "status" handbags. 

Early Spade bags cost between $100 and $400 US, whereas those of her rivals cost in the thousands.

"The whole point of starting the company was to make sure that [each piece] wasn't so outrageous that you couldn't afford them," Spade said in a 1996 interview with CBC's Fashion File.

Practicality balanced with playfulness was key to Spade, seen with a display of her handbags in a New York department store in 1996. (CBC)

And when asked why she decided to create handbags from sturdy nylon or plastic-coated linen, she jauntily replied: "Growing up in the Midwest as a Catholic girl. Did I have a choice?"

That Spade's handbags — full of joyful colours and cheeky prints — debuted in the early-1990s era of fashion minimalism also set her apart. There was a time "when you couldn't walk a block in New York" without passing a woman carrying a Kate Spade bag, fashion heavyweight Anna Wintour recalled on Tuesday.

"She launched her label at a time when everyone thought that the definition of a handbag was strictly European, all decades-old serious status and wealth. Then along came this thoroughly American young woman who changed everything," Wintour, Vogue's editor in chief, said in a statement.

"Kate designed with great charm and humour, and built a global empire that reflected exactly who she was and how she lived. Long before we talked about authenticity, she defined it."

Spade's designs, which eventually expanded to include apparel, jewelry, shoes and an entire brand of homeware (china, stationary, luggage and beyond), were seen as an extension of the designer's own approachable, relatable persona.

You might wear the same Kate Spade handbag with jeans or a ballgown. Her dinnerware could be the backdrop to an elegant dinner party and, the following week, used to serve takeout from your favourite neighbourhood shop. 

'Kate designed with great charm and humour, and built a global empire that reflected exactly who she was and how she lived,' said Vogue's Anna Wintour. (Adam Rountree/Getty Images)

"There was an irreverence about the way she saw the world and fashion ... She understood the power of fashion: to uplift us, to just make us feel better about ourselves and about the human condition," said fashion journalist Jeanne Beker. 

"She had all this creative drive, this wonderful way of seeing the world, and an understanding of what woman of her generation — and even in a younger generation — wanted." 

Spade's death, which police are investigating as an apparent suicide, has been a shock to longtime devotees, as well as a stark reminder that Spade's happy-go-lucky persona was but a public face.

Still, many are choosing to remember her as an important figure in American fashion: a trend-setting woman who turned her idea about what women want and need into a global business empire.

"One of her mantras was that she was designing interesting pieces for interesting women who wanted to have interesting lives," Flanagan said.

"I think that's a good mantra for us all to have."