A fashion name to hold onto

Kate Spade's accessible accessories appeal to mothers, daughters and grandmothers.

May 26, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | By Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

TYSONS CORNER, Va. -- A festive din fills Neiman Marcus, where designer Kate Spade has come to promote her new line of beauty products and fragrance.

A 90-minute queue of chattering Spade acolytes, all female, winds through the cosmetics department. They sip lemonade from pastel glasses and nibble cookies that look like miniature Kate Spade handbags.

Sales associates, dressed in circle skirts and wearing pert little ponytails, a la Audrey Hepburn (a Spade inspiration), are deployed through the store to draw a crowd. Pouty models draped in snappy Kate Spade bags work the line.

Spade herself awaits fans at a petite glass table, graced with a vase of fluffy pink peonies, where she will spend nearly two hours autographing her products, cooing at babies and chatting like an old friend with about 125 reverent strangers. Her high-spirited yet accessible designs for a broad clientele have made Spade a celebrity.

While she champions femininity, Spade denies imposing rules or standards of propriety on the clothing conscious. "Rules? No, no, no, no, anything but structure," she says before her signing marathon. "Fashion should be enjoyed."

Crosses generations

Spade wears a black cashmere, A-line Valentino skirt and a dark cashmere top. Multiple wrist bangles and fanciful earrings reveal her affinity for retro chic. Her thick dark hair swoops in a loose chignon, and her legs are bare. On her feet, of course, are feminine but kicky Kate Spade mules.

More than a few of those waiting in line are mothers and daughters who share a passion for Spade. They include 54-year-old Sherry Joyce of Clifton, Va., daughter Tiffany and two daughters-in-law, Susan Joyce of Richmond and Gretchen Joyce of Pinehurst, N.C.

"I told all my friends I was going to meet Kate Spade and they thought that was very cool," says Tiffany, 15, who owns a Spade purse and pair of shoes.

"You would not believe how many people are truly envious of my diaper bag," Susan, 33, says while holding baby Ellie. "Not because it says 'Kate Spade.' It's functional and fun and cute as well."

Gretchen, 32, has avidly followed Spade's career "ever since she came out with handbags," she says. "It's fun to watch how she's expanded."

"She has things we can all be comfortable using, because they just sort of go with everything," Sherry Joyce says. "I don't know how she does it; she just seems to appeal to several generations."

In a midriff universe of in-your-face fashion, Kate Spade is a family-friendly oasis of playful but safe and pragmatic conservatism. She has marked out common ground where mothers and daughters can share an enthusiasm without risking fashion faux pas.

"Classic" and "fresh," are two of the words frequently uttered in reference to Spade, known for bright splashes of color, clean geometric lines and surprising touches of whimsy.

A current Vanity Fair profile of Kate and husband / business partner Andy Spade captures the couple's genius for restraint, noting that they "have built a $70 million business by knowing what they don't want to be -- too luxe, too hip, too retro, too fashionable, too fast."

Mary-Frances Wain, public relations manager for Neiman Marcus at Tysons, sees in Spade's designs an "homage to the '50s and '60s, and etiquette and entertaining," while creating "something really modern and fresh and new."

In concert with his wife's designs, Andy Spade's marketing strategy taps subtly into nostalgia for a romanticized past collectively dreamed up by purveyors of popular culture and baby boomers' own impressionistic memories of Mom dressing for a party in tropical dresses and flowery sandals before whisking into the sweet summer night.

Reserved in fashion

With her beguiling overbite and twinkly eyes, Spade comes across as a straight arrow with a sharp sense of humor and an underlying reserve that naturally protects her from extreme fashion statements. But that doesn't mean she disapproves of impulse shopping. Appealing to customers' whims is a key consideration in Spade's focus on accessories. Whether designing shoes, eyewear, playing cards, stationery, luggage or dog leashes, she keeps in mind "how I like to buy things," she says. "I'm drawn to things I don't necessarily need."

That is why Spade doesn't think she will ever design clothing. "To me, these are the surprises," she says, pointing to her baubles. "I may need the black pants, but I'm over there looking at the coral bracelet."

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