(or What’s in a Bag?)
I vividly remember the first Kate Spade bag I purchased. Of course, by the time I discovered her, she had already sold her business to Neiman Marcus, back in 1999, but I only just learned that yesterday in reading her obituary. Some celebrity deaths catch you off guard and move you in ways you didn’t expect. Heath Ledger, Robin Williams and George Michael come to mind for me. It’s the kind of news that stops you in your tracks and makes your heart momentarily stop beating. I have no idea why, lives cut too short I expect. I don’t experience this with people I actually know. And I’m not sure Kate Spade was a “celebrity” but rather just well-known and well-respected. I could easily have passed her on the streets of New York and been none the wiser.
So when I started to see posts on Facebook last night, I was at first confused. What do you mean she died? And a suicide? That can’t be!
But it was. It was all true. Maybe in this day and age of fake news everywhere, it’s natural to hope that this was all just a hoax, some sick joke. And as I started to realize and process the truth in the story, I, like so many others, immediately thought back to my first bag.
It must have been about 2000. I was a young career woman, just starting out, only a few years into my first job. I was living on my own in Atlanta, earning a steady paycheck. Around this time, I started “commuting” to New York City each week. It’s not nearly as glamorous as it sounds – long hours at the office, long delays at the airport – but I was young and eager and actually just happy to be in New York. I had always had a love affair with the city – my mother’s side of the family hails from this part of the world – but it always felt just out of reach. But here I was, a young woman in my early twenties and I had finally made it to New York, even if it was just from Monday to Thursday.
At some point I started to notice these black box purses (or “handbags” for the Europeans) that other young women were carrying all over the city it seemed. The bags were simple yet sophisticated, architecturally elegant, well made. I had to have one.
Which is how I found myself scourging a mall in Atlanta one weekend, with my then-girlfriend in tow who I don’t think had ever bought, much less carried, a purse on her life. I think I started at Macy’s because it seemed like the kind of store that would carry such an item. But no luck. And remember, this was back before Google had become a verb so the purse scavenger hunt was on. Finally, someone at one of the many purse counters I visited that day directed me to Neiman Marcus (which now makes complete sense but I did not know that at the time!). I don’t think I had ever purchased anything at Neiman Marcus before, or since, but I was after this purse. Sure enough, the bag I coveted was in stock. I remember holding it in my hands, feeling the cornered edges and soft satin, absorbing the sticker shock of the price tag! As the New York Times described, her brand was “aspirational but within reach of some women who were starting their careers.”
I don’t remember exactly what I paid for that purse. It was several hundreds of dollars – definitely more than I had ever spent on a single item, or at least one that didn’t require a loan! I remember looking over at my then-girlfriend, to seek her approval. Was it really okay to spend that much money on a bag? Was it really okay to spend that much money on me? Was I worth it?
It turned out that the answer to all three questions was a resounding “yes.” Like many, it was my first designer purchase. Also, likely, the only “designer” brand I’ve ever owned, or even ever wanted to own. Again, the New York Times explained:
Her name became a shorthand for the cute, clever bags that were an instant hit with cosmopolitan women in the early stages of their careers and, later, young girls — status symbols of a more attainable, all-American sort than a Fendi clutch or Chanel bag.
And so I bought the bag and used it for many years. I do not buy things like purses and shoes and clothes to look at sitting in my closet. When I buy these thing, I use them. Which is why, unlike Chelsea Clinton, I do not still own that bag. I went searching for it last night, hoping that I still had it, but was not surprised that it wasn’t to be found. I think I used that bag until the square corners became round and the shiny satin faded and the handles frayed and magnetic closure would no longer hold. I probably gave it to a Goodwill, in the hope that it would bring someone else joy, perhaps by mending it and giving this well-worn bag a second life.
I’ve had many Kate Spade bags over the past two decades. And many have any found their way into the donation heap. But I still have two that I carry – both are big bucket bags, one in navy for spring/summer and one in gray felt for winter. As a mother, I would never be able to fit all that I am expected to carry for my children in that small black purse. I sometimes call these purses my “Mary Poppins” bags, such that quantity of stuff I seem able to carry inside.
But even these bags are showing their wear, despite the fact that I still regularly get compliments from strangers on the street (funny too as I neither designed nor made either bag, and both were gifs from my wife so I can’t even claim good taste in picking them out!). The corners of the gray bag are cracked, the felt is pilling, the handles are fading, the stitches are coming out. The blue bag is slightly newer, but the handles are fraying and it doesn’t look as new as it once did.
But this is because I love and use these bags. And bask in the compliments of strangers that I don’t deserve. My purses are functional but also feminine and I still delight in carrying them. And now with two children, I am much less apt to spend money on things like purses, especially when I still have two that are holding up just fine.
And much like my purses, it seems that people didn’t see the wear-and-tearedness that Kate Spade was carrying. Like my purses, I’m sure that everything seemed fine from a distance, to someone just passing by on the street. But when you get up close to look, you can see the fraying and rough patches and tears and holes. I know all too well the darkness* that can overcome and threaten to pull you under. I am blessed that I have found reasons to stay on this earth. But I know this isn’t the case for many.
Author Mark Twain once said that the two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you figure out why. Kate Spade, with a simple bag, gave a generation of young women confidence and self-worth. And that is a priceless legacy. I hope she knew the impact of her influence.
As for me, I will probably continue to carry my Kate Spade bags until the stitching actually comes undone. And then I will relent and buy (or be given!) a replacement. Probably another Kate Spade, that trusty brand that’s seen me through the ups and downs of two decades and hopefully many more to come.
*If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.