From all outward appearances, fashion designer Kate Spade — raised in Kansas City as Katy Brosnahan in the years before her married name became a billion dollar brand — had it all.
Fame. Wealth. Friends. Family. A commitment to charity and helping others.
On Tuesday, the graduate of St. Teresa’s Academy who also attended the University of Kansas was found dead at 55 in her New York Park Avenue apartment from an apparent hanging suicide, police said. She leaves behind a 13-year-old daughter, Frances, as well as her husband, Andy Spade.
A housekeeper found Spade’s body in her bedroom hanging from a red scarf tied to a doorknob, police said. Spade was pronounced dead at the scene at 10:26 a.m.
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Spade’s husband was in the house at the time. The couple’s daughter was at school, according to The Associated Press. A note was left at the scene and, according to the AP, tells Spade’s daughter that the death was not the young girl’s fault.
It remains unclear how long Spade had been dead before she was found. A medical examiner will perform an autopsy.
“We’re devastated and grieving. Our thoughts and prayers are with Kate’s family,” said Kelly Cole, president and CEO of Halls Kansas City. The department store was one of the first local retailers to sell Spade’s line. She also made numerous personal appearances there.
“She was a dynamo who positively impacted the fashion industry,” Cole said. “She created clothes and accessories for the modern customer. ... She had a real love and respect for Kansas City.”
Spade, born in Kansas City on Christmas Eve 1962 with the middle name Noel, routinely returned to her hometown over the years, even after her name became synonymous with whimsical, colorful handbags sold around the world.
In 1993, after leaving her job as the accessories editor at Mademoiselle magazine, she started Kate Spade New York with her husband, an advertising executive who is the brother of actor and comedian David Spade. The couple met after she left KU and transferred to Arizona State University, where she earned a journalism degree.
The Neiman Marcus Group bought a controlling stake of the company in 1999. The company was sold in 2006 to the Liz Claiborne Co. for $124 million. Coach then bought it last year for $2.4 billion.
Kansas City’s first Kate Spade New York store opened in October 2011 on the Country Club Plaza. A Kate Spade outlet opened in The Legends Outlets Kansas City in March.
In 2016, Spade began a new brand, Frances Valentine, named for her daughter and linked to the middle name of her maternal grandfather, who was born on Valentine’s Day. She debuted the new line at Halls in Crown Center. And she changed her name to Katherine Noel Frances Valentine Brosnahan Spade.
Her interests went beyond her own talents. From 2000 to 2006, she hosted a benefit to raise money on behalf of the Brain Injury Association of Kansas and Greater Kansas City. Her dear friend Amy Thompson died in 1989 at the age of 26 after a three-year struggle with a brain injury from a gunshot wound. Then, in 2016, when Spade was launching the Frances Valentine line at Halls, she hosted another benefit for the association.
“She was so warm and personable. When you met her you felt like you had known her for years. She never forgot her hometown roots,” said Robin Abramowitz, the association’s executive director. “We were honored and humble, but she was the one who felt honored to be able to do this for her friend.”
The designer frequently spoke of Kansas City with deep affection.
▪ “I always have to stop by Winstead’s and get a cheeseburger with onion rings extra crispy. My daughter gets the Skyscraper. It has six scoops and that is a lot, but when I was kid, it was so much ice cream it looked like 16 scoops to me.”
▪ Her other hometown musts often included Halls and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. “I love the Kemper, too, but for nostalgic reasons, I am excited to go to the Nelson. When I was little, I adored going on field trips to the Nelson, and the addition is beautiful,” Spade said in 2016.
Rene Bollier, president of Andre’s Confiserie Suisse, spoke of how kind Spade was when she frequented Andre’s on her return trips to town. He recalled a time, about a decade ago, when Spade entered the Andre’s near the Country Club Plaza. A high school clerk, not knowing who Spade was, complimented Spade on her handbag. Spade thanked her.
“When Kate left, my mother said (to the clerk), ‘You know that’s her bag,’ “ Bollier said. “The clerk said, ‘Of course it’s her bag.’ My mother said, ‘No, it’s her bag. She made it.’ Kate was always so extremely kind when she came in.”
In 2006, she reflected on what she thought were the benefits of a Midwestern upbringing as she dived into the competitive East Coast-based industry.
“Not knowing much about the fashion industry kept me from being nervous,” she told The Star. “It kept me from being intimidated.”
Spade started her company based on six shapes of bags that she thought every working woman needed. It created a smash. From the original boxy handbags, she expanded into shoes, luggage and other accessories, as well as a home line, stationery and books.
“I grew up in the Midwest, where you have to have it (a fashion item) because you like it, not because you’re supposed to have it,” she told The Associated Press in 2004. “For our customers, fashion is in the right place in their life. It’s an adornment, not an obsession.”
Spade won multiple awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and was named a “giant of design” by House Beautiful magazine.
“I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to work alongside my fellow Kansas Citian Kate Spade for many years,” said Jeremy Scott, a fellow high-fashion designer from Kansas City who, in addition to having his own eponymous global brand, is the creative director of the Italian fashion house Moschino. “Being that we were both in the fashion industry and from Kansas City, it was a rare feat that we both held dear. I found her both charming and kind. My deepest sympathies to her loved ones.”
Last year, Spade was inducted into the Entrepreneur Hall of Fame at the Henry W. Bloch School of Management at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“Kate Spade truly embodied the entrepreneurial spirit,” said Jeff Hornsby, endowed chair of the university’s Department of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “She was a brilliant, innovative creator, but she also understood that effort and determination mattered just as much as talent.”
In 2002, The Star asked Spade what she learned about herself in the years her company was growing. Spade responded: “I don’t think I realized how resilient I could be.”
To get help
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.