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Kate Spade Built a Fashion Empire Worth $2.4 Billion Out of Her 1-Bedroom Apartment

Alix Langone
The first Kate Spade handbag was made out of a burlap potato sack

The legacy of Kate Spade’s billion-dollar brand she built from the ground up was remembered Tuesday after the 55-year-old fashion designer was found dead of an apparent suicide in her New York City apartment.

Spade built a formidable business empire — one she started out of her one-bedroom Manhattan apartment with her husband — over the course of two decades. The Kate Spade brand started as a collection of handbags known for their clean lines and understated aesthetic, receiving praise from fashion critics and developing a loyal following as it morphed into a international business valued at $2.4 billion that made her worth an estimated $46.5 million, according to Forbes.

Before she was Kate Spade, Kate Brosnahan was a woman from Kansas City, Mo. who wanted to be a journalist. She said in past interviews she was always interested in fashion, but fell into a career as a handbag designer almost by accident. After college, she moved to New York City and landed a job as an assistant editor at the Conde Nast magazine Mademoiselle in 1991 with a starting salary of $14,000. As she worked her way up the fashion ladder to senior editor, her husband, Andy, an advertising executive, suggested she start an affordable, yet chic handbag line that highlighted her expertise in accessories.

Together, they built the Kate Spade brand from the ground up with no experience in retail design or production — the couple had to learn everything themselves, using their apartment as an office, design studio and home, according to Inc. Spade quit her job at Mademoiselle and freelanced as a stylist on nights and weekends to make ends meet. She made her first handbag samples out of paper, cutting out the shapes she envisioned and bringing them to a pattern maker she found in the back of a Women’s Wear Daily.

The Kate Spade Collection officially launched in the early ’90s, with some saying the brand took off as early as 1991 while others say her $155 pop-of-color bags hit the market in 1992 or 1993. The couple nearly walked away from the fashion industry after three years of making no money, despite having snagged key customers including Barney’s New York and Fred Segal. But they turned a corner after big department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus started carrying the Kate Spade handbag line in their stores nationally. During the same time, Spade also won a Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) award, further elevating her profile in the fashion business.

Spade leaves behind her husband and 13-year-old daughter Frances. Following the news of her death, many fellow designers, celebrities and longtime Kate Spade fans honored her quirky designs that defined a sleek and simple era of fashion.

“Kate Spade’s tragic passing is a painful reminder that we never truly know another’s pain or the burden they carry. If you are struggling with depression and contemplating suicide, please, please seek help,” Ivanka Trump tweeted with a link to a suicide prevention hotline.