Monday, Feb. 09, 2004

Kate Spade

The handbag designer who persuaded women in the '90s to trade what she calls "the nothing black bag" for a purse with personality is launching a home collection this spring. If Spade does for sheets what she did for the once sleepy luxury-handbag category, now a $2.5 billion business in the U.S., nesters will have more to covet than thread count. With her husband Andy, Spade runs a $70 million company selling purses, shoes, perfume, eyeglasses and stationery, all designed with a nostalgic wink. "I don't think you need to neglect the style of something that's functional," says Spade, whose neat updo and clipped Midwestern accent reflect the fresh-scrubbed femininity of her products.

Spade's notion that something as everyday as a handbag should tell a story — easy summer afternoon, for instance — springs from her mother's Kansas City, Mo., closet. "She had clutches, oranges, pinks, chocolates, huge pearl buttons," she says. While an editor at Mademoiselle in the early 1990s, Spade found little on the market that lived up to her mother's collection. So in 1993 Spade began sketching boxy totes in her Manhattan loft and buying burlap for her bags from a potato-sack manufacturer found in the Yellow Pages. "One fabric supplier said to me, 'Honey, you look like a nice girl,'" Spade recalls. "'You don't want to get into the business. Settle down.'" Instead, Spade rocketed into the fashion élite, as Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman began selling her nylon totes. She soon opened her own boutiques in the U.S. and Japan. In 1997 she launched a men's line designed by Andy. Two years later, the Spades sold 56% of their business to Neiman Marcus for $33.6 million, and partnered with Estée Lauder.

This year the Spade aesthetic will quite literally take flight, as employees of the new budget airline Song start wearing Spade-designed uniforms. Also, Spade's company will release three lifestyle books with Simon & Schuster called Manners, Occasions and Style. Spade is often asked when she'll do a clothing line. "I never say never, but I really can't imagine doing it," she says. "People are realizing accessories are important now. If I'm in the mood to shop, how fun is a great bag?"