Kate Spade hadn't actually been associated with the Kate Spade brand for over 10 years, but for many shoppers, she is — and always will be — the name and face of the brand.
Soon after news of Kate Spade's death by suicide broke last week, fans began posting messages on social media to celebrate her work in fashion, sharing memories of the first time they bought a Kate Spade handbag and how her designs had touched their lives.
Some even dashed to Kate Spade stores to buy handbags.
But not all would have realized that Kate Spade hadn't actually been associated with her namesake label for more than 10 years, as for many she is — and always will be — the name and face of the brand.
"When you think of the Kate Spade brand, you automatically have a picture of Kate Spade in your mind," Lizzy Bowring, catwalks director at trend-forecasting company WGSN, told Business Insider.
Kate Spade launched the brand in 1993 with the encouragement of her future husband, Andy Spade, who quit his job to run the company with her in 1996. They had married in 1994, and the brand name was a combination of her first name and his last name.
By 2006, the Spades had sold their final stake in the company to Neiman Marcus.
It subsequently changed hands twice and is now owned by Tapestry, the parent company of Coach.
The couple stayed out of the fashion world for almost a decade. Andy returned to advertising, and Kate dedicated her time to bringing up their now-13-year-old daughter, Frances Beatrix Spade.
But in 2015, the couple reentered fashion with the launch of a new handbag-and-shoe brand called Frances Valentine, which was named after two of her relatives. As a mark of the new era she was entering, Kate Spade changed her name to Kate Valentine.
"I really did want to make sure that we distinguished that we didn't in any way disturb our namesake, something that we worked very hard establishing and something that they're working very hard at maintaining," she told People magazine in 2016. "So we wanted to make sure that there was a distinction between the two brands."
At the time, she said that having the same name as her former brand didn't affect her.
"I don't mind being associated with the fact that we started it, that we were the founders," she said to People. "I see bags. I see stores. I hear people refer to it. It's very funny … I was really good at distancing myself from me the person and the company. So I kind of was already prepared for that. So having left, it was the same feeling. It wasn't odd."
For many, Kate Spade will always be the face of a brand that she hadn't had creative direction of for more than a decade. It is telling that even in the wake of her death, she has rarely been referred to as Kate Valentine.
This puts Kate Spade, the brand, in a complicated position.
After she died, the company immediately paid tribute to her on a social media, sharing the following statement: "Kate Spade, the visionary founder of our brand, has passed. Our thoughts are with her family at this incredibly heartbreaking time. We honor all the beauty she brought into the world."
This message was also posted in the windows of its stores.
In a statement to the press, the company clarified that neither Kate Spade nor her husband, Andy, had had a role in the brand for the past 10 years.
"Although Kate has not been affiliated with the brand for more than a decade, she and her husband and creative partner, Andy, were the founders of our beloved brand," the company said.
Since then, the Kate Spade brand has not posted any marketing on its social media channels.
Now, it faces a new set of challenges regarding how it continues without its founder and namesake.
"The tributes to Kate Spade show that she has a place in the heart of thousands of women around the world; as long as Nicola Glass and her team channel and reflect this outpouring of love into their designs, the Kate Spade brand has the potential to live on," Florence Allday, a fashion research associate at Euromonitor wrote in a blog post on Wednesday.
Kate Spade's death has been compared to that of fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who ran his namesake brand until he died by suicide in 2010. McQueen was quickly replaced by Sarah Burton, who had worked with him for 14 years prior, starting as his personal assistant and working her way up to become head of womenswear.
"The brand has gone from strength to strength," Bowring said of Alexander McQueen, adding that Burton hasn't strayed away from the concept, belief, or humility of her predecessor.
"Even when really tragic things happen, brands can still become something else. The most successful brands have diverged from what they used to be," Allday told Business Insider.
Glass, who became creative director of Kate Spade in 2017, is now challenged with balancing "continuity and progression," Allday wrote — meaning it must pay tribute to Spade, but also move the brand forward. Both Allday and Bowring are expecting there to be minimal change, at least for the next two years.
"It is a brand. It is established, it has many followers, admirers, loyal customers, an identity that not only is enduring, but is also nostalgic. Nostalgia plays a very large role in much of how we approach our lives today," Bowring wrote in an email to Business Insider.
Frances Valentine has an entirely different set of challenges.
The lesser-known brand is left without a creative director at the helm, and many customers are wondering whether it will continue to operate. Both the founder information and press inquiry areas of its website appear to have been taken down temporarily.
A day after Kate Spade's death, all 25 handbags listed on Frances Valentine’s website were sold out, but still, it is the Kate Spade brand that has truly been in the limelight.
It is a tragic irony that the brand that Kate Spade was actually a part of at the time of her death may not have the lasting power to honor her legacy. Some may never know this as they pay tribute to the Kate Spade brand.
However, this may well give Frances Valentine more room to take a different direction in the future.
"It has more chance to grow and not be set to a such a strict set of guidelines," Allday said.
"Frances Valentine represents newness — Kate Spade is tied to its past."