There once was the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Now there’s the fashion icon formerly known as Kate Spade.
You can call her Kate Valentine. She sold off her famous brand a decade ago and, just recently, decided her own name could go with it.
Now she’s back with a new accessories company, Frances Valentine — the inspiration behind her name change — and is preparing for a launch party this week at Halls on Grand in the city where she began.
She may have grown into a New York woman, but Kate will always be a Kansas City kind of girl. (Her old friends from St. Teresa’s Academy and the University of Kansas knew her as Kate Brosnahan then.) She says the Midwest inspired her design sensibility.
“I remember someone once said there is a practical aspect to my designs, and I remember thinking that doesn’t sound so creative but that is actually the truth,” Kate told me from her home in New York. “There is a practicality to it. I don’t design just to design. There is a reason and hopefully an interesting reason behind it — that is where my creativity comes in.”
And one thing Kate has never lacked is creative mojo. In 1993, she left her job as accessories editor at Mademoiselle magazine to start Kate Spade New York with her advertising executive husband, Andy Spade. At the time, most high fashion bags stuck with neutral color palettes, typical shapes and the occasional all-over logo prints. Her purses were a success because she brought in the whimsy, playing with color, silhouette and, my favorite part, inside jokes.
One of my first Kate Spade New York bags was a Christmas gift. It was a bright-yellow satchel that made me smile every time I unzipped it: The interior was lined with polka-dots.
Frances Valentine is not much of a departure. The price range is about the same, $300-$600. For now, the focus is strictly shoes and handbags. The biggest change, she says, is she is re-entering an industry that now relies more on social media and e-commerce than brick-and-mortar stores. But the colors and cheeky styles? The fun little details that make Kate the designer we love? She’s here.
“I am not a different person,” says Kate, 53. “The aesthetic is the same as it was when I started in ’93, but it has evolved. I am paying more attention to the architecture, to the shape of the heel, the point of the toe, the sculptural details of the bag. It is all very interesting to me and I can make that as basic as I want as long as there is a sense of ‘Oh my God, I have to have you.’ ”
She, her husband and their longtime friends and business partners Elyce Arons and Paola Venturi have kept true to Kate’s original vision. Even the France Valentine basic ballet flat comes in shiny patent leather with a buckle on the toe. She has the classic black, white and camel. But she’s still herself: chic with a wink. So there are bright greens, pinks and yellows, too.
As soon as I saw the Pippa, a wicker basket with pink metallic leather straps and vivid floral print lining, I knew the purse was her design.
Those are the sorts of little things that she looks for as a shopper — like the gold Lanvin cape she spotted from the back of a taxi.
“We were driving up the street and I’m on my way home and I see this thing in the window, just a glimpse of it and I called my husband and asked him if he could drop by Lanvin and see if it was something I might like. He couldn’t believe it but he went by, called me and told me I was going to love it. And it’s like ‘Oh my God,’ I am going to wear it in Kansas City.”
The last time she held a party at Halls was in 2006. She used to have them every year. The parties were never just about her designs. The mission was to raise money for the Brain Injury Association of Kansas and Greater Kansas City. March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, and Kate’s good friend Amy Thompson died in 1989 at the age of 26 after a three-year struggle with a brain injury from a gunshot wound.
“We’re honored that one of our own is coming back to start the next chapter of her fashion story right here with us,” says Kelly Cole, Halls president. “Kate is an inspiration to us all for her example of looking ahead but always giving back.”
For Halls on Grand shoppers who mention the Brain Injury Association during Wednesday’s sold-out fundraiser and all day Thursday, 10 percent of purchases will be donated to the charity.
Around the time of her last Halls party 10 years ago, the Spades sold their company to Liz Claiborne Co. for $124 million. A year later they walked away from Kate Spade New York altogether. Now the brand is worth $4.3 billion, and in addition to the popular purses and shoes, the dishes are a regular on bridal registries and a furniture line launched last fall. But Kate has no regrets.
“I had recently had our daughter,” Kate says. “And we had worked so hard for so long, and luckily for us, it was a nice time to say let’s take a break.
“People would come up to me and ask what I was doing with myself and wonder if I missed the brand. No one realizes how hard parenthood is. I am not saying going into the office is easy. It’s not. But parenthood, as fun as it is, is not for the fainthearted. I am glad that I did it and I have enjoyed every moment off.”
Now her daughter is 11 years old. She didn’t grow up with Kate Spade the designer. She’s had Kate the full-time mom, Kate the room mother at school, Kate the philanthropist for causes like the New York Center for Children, for kids who have survived abuse and neglect.
But now Kate has pulled her sketch pads back out. She’s designing again. FrancesValentine.com is live and open for business. And Kate’s daughter is a sentimental part of the brand. Her daughter’s name is Frances, named after Kate’s dad and brother. Valentine is the middle name of her mother’s dad. He was born on Valentine’s Day.
“I think what’s nice is that she gets to see both the stay-at-home mom and the working mom and know there is an option,” Kate says “One is not better than the other. It’s my choice and that’s amazing. And even though we’re launching the new brand, she is my priority. And I’m still making time for class mom duty.”
Kate. Call her a Spade or a Valentine, she’s a designer with heart.
Kate’s Kansas City
Kate Valentine calls her visits back home a fat fest because there’s so much good food everywhere:
▪ “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.”
▪ Cafe Provence makes her heart beat with happiness. “I love it,” she says of the French restaurant in Prairie Village. “I love the people who run it, the snugly atmosphere and the great wine selection.”
▪ Other foodie stops: Ponak’s Mexican Kitchen and Stroud’s for fried chicken. And no, she didn’t forget the barbecue. “I used to stop for some kind of pulled pork sandwich every time I came home, but I am going less and less. But my dad is an Arthur Bryant’s guy. My brother goes to Gates, Jack Stack and Joe’s Kansas City.”
▪ Her other hometown musts? Halls, because of the childhood memories. This trip will mark her first visit to the expanded Halls on Grand in Crown Center. 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.”