When she looks at straw she sees feathers, and wool boucle makes her think of marabou puffs. When other women are trying to stuff all their essentials into one handbag, she is wondering how she can make the bag girlish and fun.
Kate Brosnahan left her home in Kansas City a few years ago to land a job as accessories editor with Mademoiselle magazine in New York. From that perspective, she found handbags mostly too serious, stuffy and pricey. She resigned her job at the magazine and leaped into what she saw as a big hole.
Eighteen months and lots of feather-trimmed straw bags later, she has bagged a bit of big-city success. She and her partners have an impressive stack of press clippings from magazines such as Vogue and Mademoiselle .
They sell bags to more than 150 retail stores. They are shipping to retail customers as far away as Italy, Australia, Germany and Japan, and Harrods in London will soon have a supply. Overall they expect about $400,000 in sales this year.
The business is called Kate Spade, a combination of her own name and that of her partner and fiancee, Andrew Spade, a creative executive with Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Agency. When they are married later this year, as she put it, "Kate Spade will really be Kate Spade."
The lighthearted bags are an interesting reflection of the '90s mentality. They might not have taken off in the 1980s when status bags with initials, chains or celebrity names such as Hermes' Kelly bag had considerable appeal. Like men's funky conversational ties or earrings in the shape of animals, we seem to be drawn to objects that make us smile these days.
From the beginning, Brosnahan loved "handbags that weren't so wild that people would stare at, but that were whimsical. I like ties, accents, too."
She trimmed straws with feathers for summer, and this fall she moved beyond leathers to wool backpacks and book bags fastened with giant peacoat buttons. Schoolgirl plaids and red corduroys are fashioned into backpacks. Square-shaped sacks are trimmed with fake fur or grosgrain straps. The color palette is as broad as black and navy, orange and lime green. Prices run from about $70 to $150 in the stores.
In an interview one recent morning in her New York showroom, wearing pink barrettes in her hair, she recalled how when she left the magazine, she "sat at my house, nervous."
Her first idea was natural linen bags trimmed with daisies. "I thought them up and I put them down on paper." She had them made up, remade "to get them right" and sold them to the trendy department store Barneys, New York, her first account.
Then came bags in burlap with raffia fringe like a hula skirt. She went to trade shows. Word spread among retailers and, with contacts among her old pals at the magazines, the credits began to pile up. Last fall she provided the bags models toted in designer Todd Oldham's runway show, noted for its whimsy and jolly spirit.
The products have attracted stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Halls in Kansas City, where she'll make a personal appearance for a trunk show the two days after Thanksgiving.
"The handbags are fun and they're functional," said Renee Scherer, the accessories buyer at Halls. "She does trendy things, but in a way that you can wear them."
Her quirky sense of style began to emerge early in her life. In high school, she carried a Pierre Deux bag like many of her peers and wore a uniform to St. Theresa's Academy. But she couldn't help experimenting with the uniform to set herself apart, shopped thrift stores and, as she remembers, "used to borrow all my mother's jewelry."
She went off to study journalism at the University of Kansas and later Arizona State University. Her wardrobe by then included lots of thrift-shop fifties-like clothes such as cigarette slim pants, T-shirts, Laura Petrie and Grace Kelly dresses and anything that looked like "Breakfast at Tiffany's." One favorite was a cashmere sweater, trimmed in daisies.
Her mother, June Brosnahan of Kansas City, remembers how she had her own ideas about clothes. "She would say she wanted a peacoat and I would go to the Army surplus store and get her one. She wanted horse-riding boots long before they were popular."
She was an entrepreneur by the age of 10. "She would gather all the children in the neighborhood and take care of them while the mothers went shopping," her mother said.
"At the end of the day, she would say, `I have $35,' " But with six brothers and sisters in the family, she would invariably give the money away before the night was over, her mother said.