Mary Sanchez

Kate Spade’s life and suicide resonate with women. Here’s why

A postcard at the Kate Spade store on the Country Club Plaza bore a tribute to the designer.
A postcard at the Kate Spade store on the Country Club Plaza bore a tribute to the designer. The Star

Twelve hours after news broke that Kate Spade had taken her own life, the store that bears her name in the city where she was raised displayed a message as tasteful and lovely as the designer herself.

A single blush pink rose lay in the space outside the glass doors of the closed shop on the Country Club Plaza.

Next to the flower was a note, one of the whimsical postcards available free at the counter of her stores: “We will miss you! She is quick, curious, playful and strong. RIP Kate Spade,” a translation of the French on the flip side.

Perfect messaging, perfectly staged, even at this grim time.

The serene scene stood in sharp contrast to the sharks that were gathering as details about her suicide spread, with much of their bite being posted online.

A tainted brand, some mused, as more learned of Spade’s struggles with mental illness in recent years. And then they rushed to take careless swipes at her 55 years of life, as if how she chose to end it undercut everything that came before.

Some suggested that beauty and baubles were merely a distraction from more substantive issues. As if even trying to achieve a higher standard of appearance should be suspect, a cover for the weak of will.

In much of the commentary, you can hear the myths that many Americans tell themselves about depression, manic behavior and suicide — that it only happens in some families, that it can be fought off by sheer will and that it is the juice fueling so many creative talents.

The Star published a difficult-to-read interview with Spade’s older sister, Reta Saffo. Her voice is virtually screaming in pain, anger and frustration.

It is the voice of someone who has struggled with a mentally ill family member for years.

“I’d come so VERY close to getting her to go in for treatment,” Saffo wrote in an email.

She discussed the pressure of keeping up the Kate Spade image, admitting that it was part of the reason that her sister was reticent to seek treatment.

Doesn’t society own a bit of that response? After all, it’s fed by a reluctance to understand mental illness, to see its treatment in the same light as we do physical ailments, like breast cancer.

Saffo also revealed that her famous little sister had used alcohol to self-medicate in recent years. That fact alone should resonate with women.

During the hours that followed Spade’s death, I had a wide array of boldly honest, mostly unsolicited conversations about suicide. And that is saying a lot for a reporter who has spent quite a bit of her career writing about mental health.

Suicide is that prevalent.

I listened to women talk about their children — some in treatment, some refusing it — and of spouses and schools that step up to manage the grief, and those that don’t.

A woman can’t stave off depression, her own or that of a loved one, with a glass or two or three of wine, or paper over it with a pretty bow. And yet, there is a dignity that can come with how we present ourselves, no matter the price point.

To me, Kate Spade embodied a modern, empowered version of Audrey Hepburn glamour. The tailored lines were feminine but without frills to complicate how a woman is perceived professionally. Her line made that style accessible. Nearly every item I own was purchased at a discount.

The first was a silver and gold purse, not too big, not too small. It had been $600 early in its retail life but was marked down 75 percent. I was mesmerized by the glide of the zippers, quality that I’d never owned. I carried it for more than five years until it was ragged like a child’s favorite plush toy.

Kate Spade’s final, most eloquent statement is yet to come.

It will be how the women who adored her style choose to parlay the lessons from her death. My hope is that we move forward a step, that we judge less, listen more and appreciate the inherent beauty in all women, even as they struggle and no matter what they are wearing.

As Kate taught, those are the details that shouldn’t be left to chance.