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One On 1: Designer Kate Spade

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of designer Kate Spade.

 View the full, uncut interview with our web-only "One On 1 Extra" feature at the bottom of the page.


Kate Spade's work is coveted all over New York and around the world. But a few years back, she couldn't even get her sister to take notice.

"I remember her saying when we first started, ÎWe’ve got to get mom a bag.’ And I said, ÎI make bags,’" she says. “But I was so quiet, I don't think anyone in my family really realized that we were as serious about what we were doing."

They realize it now. Kate and her husband Andy run a business with 19 stores in the United States and nine in Asia, a business with multi-millions in revenues. Mention Kate Spade's name among those in the market for women's bags and the response is almost Pavlovian. That's how popular they are.

She started in the early 1990’s drawing samples in her apartment.

“At the time I think people were thinking it was either functional or it was fashionable, and never should the two meet. And I disagree with that,” she says.

Spade created the company with her husband, and there has always been a clear difference in styles. Where Andy is adventure, Kate is caution.

“Andy is really kind of like one of those people in the grocery store who are throwing things behind you, and I'm [catching them] with the cart,” she says. “I love the details, I love the specifics, and he loves [the big ideas]. I also tend to be a little nervous when I come in. I just have to close my eyes and let him do it.”

So what are the issues when the person you build a business with is the person you're building a life with as well? Kate Spade says she used to have a problem deciding when the work day started and ended.

“Andy and I had to make a conscious decision to not talk about it 24/7, because that also is something I was doing,” she says. “I would bounce out of bed and before my feet hit the ground I was [talking] about all the things we had to do or what was going wrong. We had to make a conscious decision to not take our spare time out of the office and do that.”

The company has branched out from its signature bags to shoes and stationary. And with a baby girl at home, perhaps their latest endeavor — children’s clothing - is not surprising. There are also Kate Spade books on subjects like style and manners.

But when you mention Kate Spade, it still comes back to the bags. And with the success comes a problem - knockoffs.

“It’s so easy [to tell the fakes]; the labels, the way they're stitched on, the quality," she says. “I remember the first time I saw it I was sitting in a car in Southampton and Andy ran into a store for something and I looked at this bag and I thought, Kate Spade. And then I looked again and I thought, ÎI didn't do that handle on that bag.’"

She says it's not so much a financial issue as a quality control issue.

“The damage to people's perception of what the quality was like. That to me was the [worst] - ’That's not our bag!’” she says. “It just makes you want to scream in a restaurant when you see one."

It's a serious situation, but not without its funny side, particularly when Andy and Kate take on the offenders themselves.

“I walked in and I said, ÎAre these real?’ And he said, ÎOh yeah, they’re real.’ And I said, ÎActually, they're not. I'm here because I heard you were selling them. I'm Kate Spade,’" she says. “[And he was like], ÎOh my god - you're Kate Spade!" I was like, ÎNo, you're supposed to be nervous.’ He's like, ÎWhat are you doing here?’ [I said], ÎDon't you get it? I'm calling the police.’ He was like, ÎYeah, yeah. Have them call me.’ I was a real scare factor."

After living here for 20 years, Kate Spade is still a little New York City, a little Kansas City. Her sense of style was formed growing up in the 70’s in Kansas City on her mother's arm going to buy vintage clothing.

"She was excited because she thought it was so great because it was stuff that she had actually worn in her time, the late 50’s and early 60’s, so she thought, ÎI used to wear that.’ And that was fun,” she says. “But when I got home my sisters would be like, ÎWhat is that? I'm so embarrassed. Don't dare wear that when I’m with you.’"

Her approach to fashion was also affected by her Midwest surroundings.

“There's a cheeriness in Kansas City in how people dress,” she says. “They’re not really jaded by fashion. They weren't like, ÎOh, another collection - been there, done that.’ It was a sincere enthusiasm toward fashion.”

She majored in broadcast journalism at Arizona State, then came to New York and got a job at Mademoiselle Magazine. And she came to some realizations as she was working her way up.

“I started off tying people's shoes in photo shoots, the models, so they wouldn't wrinkle their outfits. I was down on the floor, tying shoes, and I remember thinking, ÎWhat do you mean they can't tie their own shoes? This is ridiculous. This is just out of control,’” she says. “And now I understand it was just because of the outfit. Still, I was like, ÎFour years of college and I’m tying their shoes.’”

And her Kansas City cheeriness was also in for a battle.

“You had to wear black, and that wasn't really what I wore a lot of. I wore color,” she says. “I remember one day kind of looking at my laundry pile and it was all black, and I thought, ÎYou know what? I can get back to who I really am and dress the way I dress.’”

She eventually became the magazine's senior fashion editor/head of accessories. But in 1991, she quit to start working on her own design for handbags.

Not everyone was amused.

“I remember my mom going, ÎWhat? What has happened? You're just getting a little ahead of yourself here, missy,’” she says. "I remember thinking, ÎKeep this on the lowdown. Don't talk too much about it, because if it doesn't work I'll hear about it for the rest of my life.”

Spade worked on the designs in her apartment along with soon to be husband Andy, who kept his day job in advertising. And so began a glass half-full, half-empty approach to building the business.

"I remember doing a show and saying, ÎWe only had a few orders and a few stores. I don't know if this is going to work.’ And Andy was like, ÎWho?’ and I said, ÎBarneys and Fred Siegel.’ And he said, ÎWhat? Katie - that's insane. That's great,’” she says. “[I said], ÎBut we didn't even cover the cost of the orders.’ He said, ÎWho cares about covering the cost of the show? These are great stores.’”

It all started to change in 1996 when Kate Spade won an award from the Council of Fashion Designers. More awards followed.

In 1999, Kate and Andy Spade sold 56 percent interest in the company to Neiman Marcus for $33.6 million. They've branched out into shoes, stationary, children's wear, and Jack Spade, a line for men.

Kate describes she and her husband as “fun sized.” And perhaps that's the key to the success of the bags, and everything that's followed - start small.

“It allows you to kind of get your feet wet, know what you're doing and figure it out before you go out with the big trumpet [saying], ÎWe're now doing shoes, or home.’ To me, that's an intimidating way to enter,” she says. “We started from our apartment. It was really just an idea, and everything was so tactile for us that it wasn’t as though we ever really saw it happening as it was happening. We were really still kind of paying the bills and stuffing the bags, and all of a sudden you were moving so fast that it was kind of, ÎWow, how did this happen?’”

- Budd Mishkin

ONE ON 1 EXTRA

 Take a behind-the-scenes look at this week's "One On 1" profile with Budd Mishkin's full, uncut interview in Real Video:

  PART 1

  PART 2

  PART 3

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