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Accessories to Her Expanding Empire

Kate Spade's success goes beyond handbags to cover lifestyle accents

September 22, 2002|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Handbag designer Kate Spade rarely sees a movie more than once. But she did go twice to "The Royal Tenenbaums," the 2001 cult hit about an estranged family of child prodigies. Like many style makers, Spade couldn't get enough of the exhaustively detailed set decoration of the family townhouse--the stuffed javalina boar's head, the rotary phones and the game closet.

She studied the costumes, too. "I loved Bill Murray's corduroy suit and Gwyneth Paltrow's fur coat. The whole sensibility of the film wasn't casual, but it was easy," said the former Mademoiselle editor, who in less than a decade parlayed a similar aesthetic into a $70-million-a-year accessories empire.

Her Tenenbaums fascination didn't end at the movie theater. A zebra tote in Spade's new spring line was inspired by the red, running-zebra pattern wallpaper in Margot Tenenbaum's (Paltrow) room. Spade hired the film's costume designer, Karen Patch, to create a quirky, old-money look for the Lawrences, a fictional family of five featured in Spade's fall ad campaign.

Instead of Margot, there's a dowdy chic Tennessee Lawrence dressed in a 1950s red coat with black gloves and an armload of what could be grandmother's baubles. Kate's husband, Andy, who designs men's messenger bags and totes under the Jack Spade label, directed a short film about the Lawrences, which will be shown at a special event in L.A. later this year.

It's easy to see why Wes Anderson's "Tenenbaums" flick resonated with Kate Spade. At her airy 25th Street showroom, boxy bags and preppy, round-toed shoes sit on shelves next to classic titles such as "The Journal of John Cheever" and "Poems of e.e. cummings." The dusty old tomes, collected from flea markets, used-books shops and the Internet, give a sense of history and place to Spade's fun, feminine accessories.

A wicker carryall from the spring collection looks as if it were plucked from a summertime flea market; Kelly green loafers with navy blue piping could have been borrowed from Mummy's closet; and oversized, round sunglasses could easily be relics of the Jackie O. 1960s.

The petite, 39-year-old, Audrey Hepburn-like designer grew up far from the fashion world, in Kansas City, Mo. (Three clocks on the showroom wall with the times for Kansas City, New York and Paris serve as a reminder of her roots.) One of five children, Spade was the daughter of a housewife, and her father ran a construction business. Spade's first purse was a pink velvet frame bag, with a tiny chain handle, that came with a matching pink dress. "When my mother gave the dress to my little sister, I said, 'You don't get the purse because I can still fit into that!' " she remembers.

She met husband Andy (whose brother is actor David Spade) in college at Arizona State University, when they both worked at the same clothing store. The two moved to New York City after graduation; Andy went into advertising and Kate into fashion. She would eventually become the accessories editor at now defunct Mademoiselle.

Unable to find any purses on the market that she wanted to carry, Spade used her 401(k) money to launch a small line of square-shaped totes in 1993. The night before introducing the line at a trade show, she made a snap decision to put the labels on the outside of the bags instead of the inside, which has become her signature.

Since then, Spade has won nearly every major accessory award and opened the door for a generation of handbag designers such as Lulu Guinness, Anya Hindmarch and L.A.'s Isabella Fiore, who are building their own lifestyle brands around purse lines.

Spade's business now includes stationery, shoes, pajamas, raincoats, eyewear and most recently, bath products and perfume. Produced through a licensing agreement with Estee Lauder, the new beauty line (prices range from $25 to $98) includes such potions as honeysuckle-scented cream and bath oil in packages lined with a flower print similar to that on the wallpaper in Spade's Southampton weekend cottage. The bath oil even comes with a terry cloth headband emblazoned with Spade's signature label.

"I've always been crazy about beauty products," said Spade, dressed in a black pleated Donna Karan skirt and a navy blue TSE cashmere sweater, her hair in a perfectly untidy up 'do. "At this time in my life, I buy into a lot of the anti-aging stuff, but what I wanted was for my beauty products to be more of a treat than a treatment."

Four years ago, Neiman Marcus paid more than $30 million for a 56% stake in Spade's company. She characterizes the relationship as "invisible." The retailer has no involvement in the creative process but has helped guide retail growth, according to Spade, who also has seven free-standing stores. (The L.A. store on Robertson Boulevard closed last year after a flood, but Spade is shopping for properties in South Coast Plaza.)

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