For a generation of female style entrepreneurs, Kate Spade was more than a fashion icon. The vivacious, witty designer, who committed suicide June 5 at age 55, was the inspiration for pivotal choices that shaped their careers.
Now, some are reflecting on the pressures involved in merging personal identity and lifestyle brand — and wondering how to find a better balance.
Amanda Mitchell remembers coveting the black nylon bags that her friends carried on the bat mitzvah circuit as a teen. Her boyfriend gave her a Kate Spade bangle when they first started dating, and she donned the designer’s shoes when she married him years later.
When Mitchell decided to give up her teaching job and open Place & Gather, a housewares boutique in Charlestown, Spade was her role model for building a creative business.
“One of the pictures on my original vision board was just the words ‘Kate Spade,’ ” Mitchell recalled. By then, Spade and her eponymous brand had come to embody more than handbags, skewing heavily on the cheeky, optimistic end of the feminist spectrum.
“She represented that grit and determination and doing it with style that a lot of us want to stand for,” Mitchell said.
Spade started her life in fashion as an accessories editor at Mademoiselle magazine, then quit to pursue her vision of launching a handbag line. Her simple, structured bags
As her profile grew, Spade’s story became as compelling and well-known as her designs. In taking the risk to create a company without a safety net, she was seen as a role model for many creative women who decided to divert from their career paths to strike out on their own.
“Her background was in journalism, and she had pretty much no design experience, and yet she saw a need in the marketplace,” said Emily Keneally Cotter who designs the Alice Walk line of custom dresses from her studio in South Boston.
Cotter, who ditched Goldman Sachs two years ago to launch her own company, said she was inspired in part by Spade’s “naïveté, guts, and confidence. She went out and did it.”
Over time, Spade’s brand matured and expanded into other categories, like stationery, dishwares, and shoes. Through its iconic marketing and stores, her “Live colorfully” slogan became a worldview for her customers and begat a league of likeminded female designers who are now indistinguishable from their brands. Her influence helped usher in the current era of Instagram style influencers, lifestyle bloggers, and aspiring designers gathering images on their Pinterest boards.
“These women who started these lifestyle brands gave us the power to start our own,” said Robin M. Anderson, a Cambridge interior designer who, after leaving a legal career to raise her children, began blogging anonymously about decor in her spare time.
Seeing women like Spade succeed made Anderson willing to pursue a business under her own name. “I can’t imagine ever thinking to do that. I would have stayed an avatar forever unless those women put themselves out there,” she said.
But as the public face of an overtly idealistic brand, Spade, with her real-life struggles, may have felt incompatible with the world that she created.
“For me Kate Spade represented pure joy, which is one of the reasons why her death and suicide comes as a shock,” said Paige Lewin, a Reading-based owner of the design firm Tess & Ted. “Living a bold, colorful, fearless, and full life was a big part of what she proselytized.”
And while social media have made it easier for creative businesswomen to build online followings, many say they feel pressure to curate daily doses of visual perfection while
“We create these lifestyle brands that only fit into one box and you get stuck living that,” said Katharine ReQua, the cofounder of For Now, a marketing and design consultancy that runs a pop-up boutique in Boston’s Seaport.
“It’s kind of every minute of every day: How can I represent this and keep people up to date and in the know?” said Laura Macris, the co-owner of two Crush women’s boutiques and the Whitney + Winston children’s store.
Macris said she feels the pressure to update her Instagram pages and stories constantly. “To create a brand from the bottom up you need to grow it, and it can be overwhelming and all-consuming,” she said.
Spade’s death has prompted many women to use their social feeds to reflect on the chasm between the aspirational outward presentation they display and inner struggles they’re experiencing in real life.
“As someone whose profession is crafting stories that inspire women to design the lives they want, I am also acutely aware of the dangerous pressure that can build in the space between images and reality,” Donna Garlough, the Boston-based style director of Joss & Main and author of “Your Home, Your Style,” wrote in an Instagram post following Spade’s death.
The accompanying photo was an updated picture of her bathroom counter that Garlough had posted the day before. This time the bouquet of carnations was accompanied by a prescription bottle of antidepressant medication.
“Just as every pretty, styled room has hidden flaws — cords concealed by tape, wrinkles steamed out just before the shutter clicked — there’s another side to every story,” Garlough wrote.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or planning self-harm, there are resources available to help:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
A 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hot line available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
The Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention
An alliance of suicide prevention advocates. The website contains resources and information: www.masspreventssuicide.org
Crisis Text Line
Crisis Text Line is free, 24/7 support for those in crisis. Text 741741 from anywhere in the US to text with a trained Crisis Counselor.
Text 741741 to talk with a real-life human being trained to bring texters from a hot moment to a cool calm through active listening and collaborative problem solving.
Riverside Trauma Center
Offers services and referrals after traumatic events. The center’s Crisis Response Line is answered 24 hours.
The Trevor Helpline
This crisis intervention and suicide prevention hotline is focused on LGBTQ youth.