I made two major wardrobe purchases in the summer of 2001, the year I graduated from college. The first was a tailored black pantsuit for interviews (picked, mostly, by my mom and the department store sales clerk). The second was a Kate Spade purse, bright as a persimmon and boxy as a present, lined in a floral print and tied up with a little bow, like a secret. Can you guess which one made postgraduate life seem like fun?
It surely wasn't the suit, which made me look like a stranger to myself in the dressing room mirror. I remember twisting, recto, verso, frowning at my reflection, while my mom reassured me — "The trousers are supposed to be long. They'll be the right length when you're wearing pumps." But the suit was dull, and I didn't own pumps. Rather than grown up, I felt old.
The Kate Spade bag was altogether different. I discovered it on my graduation trip to New York, my first time in that city without a parent and with a credit card, and I was dizzy with freedom. My friend Anne Marie and I skipped the tour of Ellis Island, because we could, and instead walked the streets of SoHo, staring in the shop windows, eating soft serve and imagining our futures aloud.
Kate Spade was one of the few stores we actually dared to go in. There, a blond sales clerk with a cherry-coke manicure offered us something fizzy to drink and pulled bag after bag for the two of us to try. The store smelled of fresh-cut peonies and crisp paper. We were giddy. Shopping there felt like a party – one that we had been expressly invited to. It's the warmth of the shop that I still remember today, the way two young girls wearing shabby T-shirts and flip-flops were made to feel welcome, rather than intimidated, as we had been in the other boutiques.
I left that day with a purse, my first real bag — one which would replace my L.L. Bean backpack and mark my transition from college student to grown woman. I think it cost $200, which was a fortune for me at the time, but I knew even then that I was buying more than just a purse. I was investing in Kate Spade's vision of the adult world, one where being a grown up, particularly being a grown-up woman, was not going to be gray and boring. Adult life with that persimmon bag was going to be fun.
I was the right generation — and, of course, class — of women to respond to Kate Spade's cheerful aesthetic when she emerged in the late '90s and early 2000s. When I graduated from college (and, simultaneously, from our undergrad uniform of Abercrombie jeans and sweaters), there seemed nowhere to go, sartorially speaking, but into the ubiquitous Washingtonian wardrobe of tailored black pants and button-down shirts. At that time, there was a yawning gap between accessible stores like Banana Republic and luxury brands like Louis Vuitton. Kate Spade's prices were higher than Banana's, but not unattainable for young professionals, and she filled that niche. She elevated young women out of the generic mall-store doldrums, but she did it with a refreshingly preppy practicality.
The black nylon Sam bag that was everywhere was popular for good reason: It was both chic and truly functional. Though it was large enough for a flip phone, a spiral-bound agenda and a magazine, it remained graciously proportioned. In general, her bags were constructed out of fun fabrics, rather than serious, heavy leathers. They were a modern alternative to the briefcase — ladylike, versatile and cool. You might be wearing a nondescript office uniform, but if you owned a Kate Spade tote, you were really wearing the handbag.
The details mattered. The bags were thoughtfully designed with many of the same luxury details the old leather houses offered: Engraved hardware, cleverly placed pockets, elegant, even seams. And there were little touches: the protective dust cover that came with each bag, the whimsical little notes tucked inside, like this one a friend of mine still has, more than a decade later:
"occasionally she dreams of italy. she dreams of cheese shops, persnickety fiats, and very fine leather goods. . ."
Like preppy fortune-cookie predictions, the notes were mysterious and enticing. Who was she, you wondered. Was she me?
And, indeed, you suddenly found yourself on the subway daydreaming about that study abroad trip to Rome and marveling at the pleasures and adventures of life.
Years later, when I was working as a fashion editor, I attended the Kate Spade Fashion Week presentations. The brand has changed hands several times since the Spades sold it to Neiman Marcus in 2006, and the ethos had changed slightly, too. The whimsy was still there, but it favored frivolity over function. The colors were brighter, the hardware flashier, everything dialed up a few notches. If shopping Kate Spade was still supposed to feel like a party, it had turned into the kind of party where the host is always hovering nearby, asking whether you are having fun, insisting you have another drink.
Unlike that first black interview suit, which I wore only a handful of times, I carried my Kate Spade bag every single day — no matter the occasion, no matter the weather — for years. It was the item that most made me feel not just like an adult, but like the kind of adult I wanted to be. A woman who was both practical and creative. Thoughtful and whimsical. Confident and warm. Not a woman of leisure, but a woman of adventure.
Perhaps fashion industry veteran Jen Mankins put it best in one of the hundreds of tributes to Kate Spade that flooded social media Tuesday after news of her apparent suicide was published. Kate Spade, Mankins wrote, "represented all the possibilities of where life could take you." This is why Spade touched a nerve with my generation — because she celebrated all those possibilities, and designed bags for embarking on those adventures gracefully.
Kerry Folan is a writer and teacher living in the Washington, D.C., area.
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