Friday
Jun152018

Ooh-La-La: Coming of Age as a Kate Spade Girl

In 1998, it happened: I could finally afford my first one. Boxy and slate-gray, designed to go with everything I owned. It mixed with my sales-rack GAP shirts and my rainbow of cardigan sweaters, secondhand finds, vintage broaches, and back ballet flats, in a way that made me feel-put-together, if not ladylike and refined. That first Kate Spade Sam handbag moved seamlessly from jeans and T-shirt to little black dress, making the hodge-podge of my wardrobe, the best representation of my life in my twenties, into something a bit upscale and classy, a little less messy and undefined. The simple, functional shape imposed architecture on a young me not yet owning discernable form.

Perhaps this is what people mean when they describe items like handbags or clothes or cars as “aspirational,” although at the time, I’m not quite sure what I aspired to. I bumped through jobs I never quite liked but seldom outright hated. I yearned to become a writer, only to second-guess the urges as whims, where my reach might not allow for my grasp. I drank a lot of coffee, made a many sandwiches, and bought books like Bridget Jones’ Diary to read, but only when they came out in paperback.

One thing I did know was that Kate Spade happened to be an actual person, not just a fictional creation to have a namesake on a brand. For some reason, it made a difference. I’d glimpsed her likeness—her dark hair messily pulled up, crisp white blouse, colorful stud earring, zebra-print sandals—in fashions magazines I’d flip through at Borders. She seemed so put-together, but in a quirky, laid-back way I might emulate. Her look felt within reach, unlike the sleek, impossibly thin Giorgio Armani or Prada models, or the completely unapproachable chic of Chanel. If I couldn’t afford much more than a handbag, I could scrounge up thrift-store 60s-print scarves I practiced tying like the Kate Spade advertisements and window displays.

As I grew into my adulthood, I found the Kate spade label—now more an idea of her than under her design—my style touchpoint. I never quite quit the cardigans, the vintage, or the ballet flats, which mix in with the Spade-finds: bright floral bucket hat, crab-shaped wicker purse, bright sparkly baubles. This all felt like part of the Kate Spade oeuvre. I collected totes and clutches and clothes, inspired by her bright and witty sensibility, hoping it might become my own. And even as my body felt prematurely broken down from years of rheumatoid arthritis taking its toll on my joints, I could escape into the colorful and pretty world that proclaimed, “She has a way with words, red lipstick, and making and entrance.”

In a way, I would make an entrance, or at least quit the less-than-inspiring jobs to pursue an MFA in creative writing. And even here, Kate Spade felt like style for the bookish set, paying homage in designs inspired by Austen, Dickens, and Fitzgerald. Gatsby both in and on the tote.

It could perhaps be all marketing, that slick, stylized way consumer culture makes us think we’re getting something special even as we become products of the mass produced. And sure, I’m willing to admit I’m in on the ruse to a certain extent. But I want to believe it goes beyond that. I like to think my Kate Spade accessories have been a catalyst to some of my better moments, when I wasn’t so hard on myself and thought about the world in a different, less jaded way. I felt like these carefully selected items were an invitation to embrace my own quirkiness, and perhaps take some joy in putting myself together—not to show off, but as a means to better enjoy my world. Did Kate Spade’s designs help me choose to sing along to “Moon River” or dance to “Come Fly with Me?” Reread Emma? Scribble a note to a friend for no reason at all on creamy paper that felt good to the touch? Yes, perhaps. These items served as a reminder to find fun in daily activities, to fill the shelves of my life with interesting experiences, simple indulgences, a bit of sparkle and shine.

Of course, I never knew the person Kate Spade at all. She seemed charming and witty from my far-off distance. She seemed creative and well-curated. I couldn’t know the things that haunted her, the things that caused her pain or doubt. I only know the news of her death felt crushingly sad, and I’m not sure I can fully articulate the reasons. I don’t know if she knew what her creations meant to so many of us who were just trying to find our way from girlhood to womanhood without a clear path. She created something beyond just an accessory label or lifestyle brand. She helped me grow up without sacrificing the best parts of my youth. She helped inject my days as a minor writer and untenured assistant professor in West Virginia with a little New York City whimsy.

Maybe she never knew how she shaped a generation of women just figuring out how to carve out our lives. We grew up with Singles, Clueless, and Reality Bites. We read High Fidelity and How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Birds of America. We were at once deemed slackers, listless Gen-Xers, the “X” as if crossed out, while also being told we should focus on our careers and that we would break the glass ceiling. In this swirl, my desire was to morph into some version of Audrey Hepburn and Katherine Hepburn, a side of Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy. Often compared to Holly Golightly, Kate Spade became our gamine, our carefree spirit. Except we often forget that Holly Golightly depended so much on others, wasn’t quite a call girl but certainly lived off the favors of men. Holly demanded $50 for the powder room. She didn’t exude happiness all the time. She could be cruel and sad.

We loved her anyway.

Maybe, collectively, we needed to love Kate Spade in this same way, beautiful in both perfections and blemishes. No one person can always be fun and charming and adorable, no the mythical Holly Golightly and not the woman whose name blazed across boutiques internationally. Still, Kate Spade shared a delicious slice of life as it could be, proclaimed to eat cake for breakfast. Ooh-la-la. She showed us what we didn’t have to give up the loveliness of being a woman. For this gift, I will always be grateful. Be quick and curious and playful and strong, she intoned. Live colorfully.

And, occasionally, spike the punch.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

« Summertime Tastes | Main | Unofficial Start to Summer »