In June, not long after designer Kate Spade was found dead by suicide at age 55 in her New York apartment, the employees of Frances Valentine, the accessories label she helped found in 2016, gathered around an oval table. They were in their airy headquarters, a former artist’s studio that looks more like the pied-à-terre of a magpie tastemaker than an antiseptic company showroom.
“We just thought, ‘Can we go on?’ ” said Elyce Arons, chief executive and a founder of the label (as well as Spade’s best friend from college), sitting at that table two months later. After all, the label was less than two years old, just beginning to take root. It has only 10 full-time employees. Arons was not the only one asking the question.
Now everyone has an answer.
A series of collections will roll out over the next months of Spade’s designs — before her death she had overseen the current fall collection as well as the soon-to-be-available resort collection and the coming spring line — as well as homages to her as guiding spirit.
All of them are marked by the same interaction between the person and the product that made her work so intensely appealing. There’s a story behind every piece, most of them grounded in Spade’s own mythology and worldview.
“We had such an outpouring from customers saying, ‘Please keep the company going,’ ” Arons said. “It became obvious that’s what we needed to do: Go forward and honor Katy.”
(The Kate Spade New York brand, which Spade left in 2007 and which is owned by the fashion group Tapestry, is also going forward. It held its first runway show ever recently.)
First up at Frances Valentine (at least after the reorders of the fall collection, much of which sold out within a week of going online Aug. 1) is the Kate, a new version of the first bag Spade made. Originally called the H120, it was the label’s debut style in 1994, catching the eye of Barneys New York.
The reborn bag, which will cost $195 (a percentage of sales will go to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America), is a minimal nylon satchel in primary shades with a gold zipper across the top and a signature embroidered valentine heart inside: utility for the light of heart, which is kind of a Spade thing.
See, for example, the canvas tote that makes an appearance for resort. It features a sketch of Spade made by her friend Matt Grenby of Parker Thatch, when he and his wife were on vacation with Kate and her husband, Andy: her hair in its signature messy updo, thick-framed glasses perched on her nose, martini in hand.
Or see the tutti-frutti hula bag, complete with generous fringe. Or, for that matter, a dress — “the accessory to our accessories,” Arons said — that is about to go online for pre-order: a bright red traditional Mexican smock embroidered in white peacocks and inspired by one of the many Mexican dresses in Spade’s own closet.
“We took a big, big family trip together to Mexico in 2006 after we sold our first company, and we did a lot of dress shopping,” Arons said. “She loved to shop in markets, and she’d always come back with baskets and hats.”
There’s also going to be a vintage-inspired cardigan stitched with multicolor flowers that echoes one of Spade’s own sweaters on offer. (A clothing rack in the showroom is still jammed with many of her pieces, including a geometric Marni coat, a vintage pale yellow 1940s tea dress and a richly tinted evening skirt, all of which were used as the wardrobe for the company’s campaigns and look books.)
Signature heel, closure
Less nostalgic is a new signifier — a slice of the geode that formed the first hit Frances Valentine heel, now reappearing on ankle bootees and transformed into a closure for purses and a charm on bigger totes — and the bag Spade designed for spring: an architectural jigsaw of bright patent rectangles or picnic plaid etched in beige leather.
Spade never saw the finished sample, but if she had, Arons said, “She would have thrown her hands up in the air and said, ‘love, love, love.’ Then she would probably have grabbed the green sample out of the showroom and started using it immediately. We always knew she really loved something because it would disappear the next day.”
According to Arons, Spade left behind enough ideas to power many future collections. Tote bags full of slippers from the Moroccan souk, tasseled rattan pouches and piles of test patterns, all stored away in the nooks and crannies of the showroom.
“She’s the best editor I know,” said Arons, who has a tendency to use the present tense when talking about Spade, before catching herself. “We’d do all this work, and she’d look at it and say, ‘I love it, but we need to focus.’ We could lose half a collection. But we still have everything that was cut. Now we can do it all. She’d be happy about it.”
Arons looked at another bag for spring, which features a classic portrait of a gentleman — who happens to be Kate and Andy’s Maltese, Po.
“Her designs live here,” she said.