To walk into a Kate Spade boutique is to enter an alternate dimension. It doesn’t matter where you stumble in from, be it a hectic shopping mall or a crowded street — as soon as you enter, you’re immersed in a pastel-colored dream world. From the bright, mid-century-inspired clothes to the playful handbags — sometimes even shaped like takeout boxes or cupcakes — everything in the store is a shameless indulgence in the playful and the feminine.
The few times I worked up the courage to walk into a store, doing my best to avoid looking at price tags and dodging sales associates, a feeling of hopefulness washed over me. The official definition of the retail space Kate Spade occupies, alongside brands such as Michael Kors and Coach, is “aspirational luxury.”
Unlike Kors and Coach, however, the Kate Spade brand’s lifestyle is an unselfconscious imagination of what a professional woman’s life could be. When a casual shopper is bombarded by Spade’s whimsical designs, they start to imagine themselves on the commute to their dream jobs, a pastel satchel in tow. Even the most cynical customers have to crack a smile at the brand’s unrelentingly positive vision.
That so many women feel a personal, even formative connection to what is essentially an affordable-luxury label could appear frivolous and superficial. To some people, it must look as though Spade the designer’s audience was just women susceptible to persuasive advertising campaigns.
Are feelings of ambition, confidence and joy any less real because they occur when one walks past a window display? The Kate Spade handbag was a symbol of transition for countless women who viewed it as a gateway into adult womanhood. It might seem incongruous that such emotional resonance could come from a commercial enterprise — but then again, much of Kate Spade’s story is about unusual combinations.
Obsessively arranged and meticulously curated, darkness and self-doubt had no home in Spade’s idyllic vision for her brand, though they affected her own life. She died at 55 years of age on June 5. Spade’s sister, Reta Saffo, shared in an interview that Spade had been privately struggling with depression for years, but refused to seek help lest word get out and sully the brand’s upbeat reputation.
Dress for the job you want, or so the saying goes. Clothes tell stories — they protect us and they allow us to dream. They can also allow us to hide.
The end of Spade’s story comes as an enormous shock to those who were close to her company’s identity. Her designs presented themselves as a refuge from the hardships of day-to-day life, acting as bright lights in a dark world.
Unlike other companies that cater to professional women, the Kate Spade brand has no strong attachment to pragmatism. There’s no sense that the Kate Spade woman wants to blend in at a meeting or machine-wash her dress. Her brand is an assertion that femininity and professionalism aren’t mutually exclusive, that one can be both girly and successful at once.
For those who have not struggled with depression, the realization that overwhelming sadness existed in a woman who created a world of unapologetic joy is a devastating return to reality. Spade’s story is a frightening reminder that anyone can experience depression — even those one might least expect. While it may be an obvious lesson to learn from a fashion designer, it’s an important one — appearances can be deceptive.
There’s no way for us, the public, to know Spade’s personal story. Morbid speculation about why she made her choice doesn’t have a place in the media’s bigger discussion about mental illness.
What we can take away from her death is to always take the time to reach out to loved ones, friends and acquaintances, even when it might feel awkward. Always practice empathy, even when everything may seem to be going well for someone.
Contrary to her alleged fear that a struggle with depression would tarnish her brand’s image, Spade stands as proof that optimism and hope can exist alongside despair, and depression can’t completely put out the brightness one emits in the world. Kate Spade fought hard for her fantasy world. The joy she created lives on with everyone who can’t help but smile when they walk past one of her window displays.
Jasmine Garnett covers fashion. Contact her at [email protected].