Kate Spade Interview: From J-School to Fashion Designer, Living the New York Dream, and Starting Frances Valentine

If you’ve scrolled through my Instagram for a hot second, I bet you can assume that I already have my Kate-Spade themed wedding planned on Pinterest (you’ve been warned future hubs)! So when I was invited to interview Kate Spade herself (my inspiration both career-wise and stylistically), I was SHOOK. First Tyra Banks, then an interview with Rachel Zoe a couple weeks back, now the queen of fun sophistication — in DES MOINES?! What is this madness?? And it finally clicked — this is why I was sent to Iowa.

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As if that wasn’t enough to make me weak at the knees, Kate Spade also graduated from ASU with a journalism degree (class of ’85). She actually majored in broadcast journalism, was the senior editor at Mademoiselle (Condé Nast) in New York, then decided to start a handbag line, which got her to where she is now. So we had much to chat about, and I think she was quite surprised to find a Sun Devil in Iowa.

Before we get to the interview: Let’s just take a peek back at when I first found out that I’d be moving to Des Moines, before I knew I’d meet my fashion idol.

I remember very few things as vividly as the moment I received the job offer email from my boss (and amazing mentor, friend and big sis here in DSM– Katelyn of Katalina Girl) at Meredith. I just got my nails done, and was chatting with my nail gal (shoutout to Ashley) about how this might be last nail appointment with her for a few months if I move to Iowa. Ten minutes later, I’m walking out of the salon and get the job-offer email that read: “GET PACKING!”

My grin would have outdone Buddy the Elf. I cried. But Des Moines? What could be there for me?

From learning an immense amount about affiliate marketing, partnering with more brands I could imagine for the blog, and meeting three of the most influential women in the fashion and beauty world, it all made sense why I ended up in this big-little city. The saying “big fish in a small pond” couldn’t be more applicable here.

Now that I’ve been here for three months — the mystery of Iowa has been solved. So who’s coming next? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Until then, read a little bit about the intimate group interview I had with some bloggers and journalists at Von Maur with the queen of Spades about why she left her namesake brand, took a break from working, and started her newest line Frances Valentine.

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Photos courtesy of Frances Valentine

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Kate Spade and I paying tribute to our Alma Mater!

Life As An Accessories Editor 

I was actually always so interested in it (fashion), but it didn’t end up transferring through honestly (journalism education). What I ended up doing in the fashion department (at Mademoiselle) was very different from what I would have done in the articles department…I wish I had honed in on my writing skills a little better. I always thought that I wanted to be Holly Hunter from broadcast news and Mary Tyler Moore. I never imagined being an anchor — being Brian Williams or anybody — I always thought it would be more on the organizational side.

Climbing the Fashion Magazine Ladder 

You know it’s funny. It wasn’t as complicated as people might think. My husband and I were having margaritas and Mexican food on the Upper West Side in New York, and I said ‘I don’t see going forward (at Mademoiselle).’ I started as an assistant, so honest-to-God I was tying the shoes of Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford (and she’s actually very punctual), so I was doing a lot of that, and then they promoted me to associate editor, so I was in charge of all accessories, and then they promoted me to senior fashion editor. And then I kind of looked ahead and thought (I’m not saying this rudely) ‘ I didn’t really want her job (the woman who ran the department), so now I feel like I’m wasting time a little bit. I was about 28 and I thought ‘I gotta move.’

Kate Spade Handbags is Born

So I spoke to my husband, and he was like ‘Just start a handbag line.’ No big deal. I said ‘I don’t have any design experience or pattern-making experience, so it was very scrappy. I went to Women’s Wear Daily, I called them and asked for them to see if they knew anyone that did patterns, and I met this woman — she worked out of her apartment. We didn’t really do a whole lot of business our first year or so at the shows, but we had really great stores -Barney’s and Bergdorf Goodman. That and the editorial credits really helped us. We were really highly supported by the fashion editors. The big thing was ‘Oh, we don’t have a lot of sales, but we have a lot of credits — who cares? Our credits are going to pay off.’ And they did.

Did you always want to move to New York and work in fashion? And what advice do you have for someone moving to New York? 

I actually always thought that I’d be in San Francisco. It was kind of San Francisco/New York, but Elyce had moved here (we were all supposed to go to Europe). {Kate visited Elyce and decided to stay}. Well, I couldn’t afford to leave (New York). Now I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

It’s actually so safe. It’s oddly safe. I feel more nervous when I go home to Kansas City when it’s so quiet. If you’re screaming, someone’s hearing you. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s expensive, but you can live inexpensively. {Then we debated whether or not Brooklyn really is cheaper than Manhattan :)}

So what makes Frances Valentine different? 

I think it’s more reflective of where I am now. I was lucky, when we sold the company (Kate Spade), to take some time off and spend a lot of time with my daughter, which was a treat, and now she’s getting to the point where she’d like some privacy, so we did (get back into business).

Elyce: We started with shoes originally because we both love shoes so much, and all the buyers came in to the office and said ‘Where are the bags?’

KS: We had a meeting with Anna Wintour, and she said ‘Oh OK, well you’re doing bags right?’ And I go ‘There will be bags!’

What’s Next? 

I want the same luxury that I had when we started Kate Spade, which was to start slowly. To build a base of confidence from our customers and figure out what’s right. Everyone thought I was going to come out gun’s blazing — shoes, bags, housewares and everything. We grew into that at Kate Spade, and there’s an opportunity to grow into it at Frances Valentine, which is my daughter’s name.

What advice would you give women who are looking to rebrand?

Don’t be nervous. I think there was a part of me that was a little hesitant about the idea of starting a new business because we had succeeded and done well — I didn’t want to step on any toes, but at the same time you want to do what you want to do and make a change, and it wasn’t one that I expected. I didn’t set out thinking when I sold the company that I would come back — it was very natural, so it was an eye-wakening experience. I’ll have to see if my daughter likes it.

Where do you draw your inspiration from? 

Really mostly from things I want to wear. You hope it works and that people feel the same. I don’t have this big design room — it’s really by style, by the kind of the shoe  — and I figure out what I want to do with it. {It’s allll about the details for Mrs. Spade!} I’m really crazy about color and material and the architecture of the shoe.

Favorite emoji?

The heart. The red heart — I send it to my daughter. That, and the kissy face.

Who’s the typical client for Frances Valentine?

I feel like she’s maybe evolved a little bit (since Kate Spade) but I do think it’s someone who’s really interested in personal fashion, and isn’t driven by trends — just by whether or not they’re in or they’re out.

Thanks Kate for the sit-down chat! See you in New York some day 🙂

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