The designer Kate Spade died Monday, in an apparent suicide, at the age of 55. The news was not just tragic but shocking: Spade’s eponymous line of handbags and, later, clothing and housewares, exuded a chic and colorful whimsy, a kind of cheery stylishness. Though Spade left the company in 2007, it’s hard to separate the founder from the brand.
And for those of us who came of age in the late ’90s and early aughts in affluent suburbs where the Kate Spade bag was the ur-status symbol, the brand feels viscerally linked with those most formative, vulnerable years.
The Mini Sam was the Kate Spade starter purse, small and square with a strap wide enough only to sit delicately on your forearm. “I had the nylon mini in the prettiest slate blue color,” my friend Irene texted as our conversation shifted from processing the news to reminiscing about our own Kate Spade bags, “for cotillions and bat mitzvahs and dances.”
Irene grew up in North Carolina, where things like cotillions and dances existed. In my Long Island town, it was bar and bat mitzvahs all the time. It wasn’t uncommon to go to three bar mitzvah parties in one weekend—Saturday afternoon after the temple service, Saturday night, and Sunday.
My grandparents got me a Mini Sam during the height of bar mitzvah season. It was a silky black material, with four simple flowers embroidered on it. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I slipped my hand through its tiny straps and practiced the 90 degree arm angle required of fancy purses. I had never felt so ladylike. The purse was the perfect size for someone who didn’t have to carry very much at all: a small silver Nokia phone, handed down from my mother, to be used for emergency calls home and heated games of Snake; Mac lip gloss; assorted mints to ward off temple breath and assist in the event of an unexpected slow dance; a seating card and the seasonal coat check ticket. What else did a 12-year-old need?
I paired the purse with my go-to daytime bar mitzvah outfit, a mid-calf length skirt and a shrug sweater set, and I immediately felt more grown-up. Its outsized femininity and almost cartoonish geometry made me stand up straighter and affect the posture and posturing of someone older—a Busy Important Woman who had meetings and lunches and plans. And then I’d go to Temple Emanuel and play yet another game of Coke and Pepsi. But the promise of the Mini Sam bag—that more was waiting beyond just gawky boys and gossipy girls—remained potent and mesmerizing.
Kate Spade helped me feel confident and self-assured at the most outrageously awkward time of my life. She helped me pantomime the poise and presence I imagined young adulthood to require, bringing me one step closer to figuring it all out. That’s what makes the news of her death so deeply jarring—that the person behind the pocketbooks, onto whom we had projected aspirational visions of future perfect lives, was someone we didn’t actually know at all.
And that for all she did for us, there was nothing we could do for her.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.