So many women have a Kate Spade bag story, and they’ve shared them on social media in the hours since the designer’s tragic death on Tuesday. The “first adult job” designer splurge, the celebration of major life milestones, the gifts from boyfriends who didn’t last as long as the bags did.
I bought my first Kate Spade bag in 2011 at age 28 ― not only did I have to save to afford the designer-lite price tag that made the bags such a hallmark of adulthood for many young women, but the bag that I coveted was an old one that I had to lie in wait for on eBay.
When I finally purchased the red leather shoulder bag that was designed to look like a typewriter, I loved it so much that it became part of a Racked.com shoot about what staffers at my former job wore to work. I posed with the bag slouched artfully beside me on a couch and described my style as “a modern pinup girl wandering the streets of NYC with a Kate Spade bag.”
In the photos, I also wore a Kate Spade necklace, a tiny gold envelope with a removable letter.
Long before I had a Kate Spade bag, I had a diagnosis of major depressive disorder. Since young adulthood, I have known that without some regimen of SSRIs (changing, because my depression tends to outsmart them eventually) and therapy, it gets harder and harder to get out of bed, until even the simple act of getting undressed for a shower feels impossibly difficult, my limbs like bags of sand. Trying to feel happiness when I’m depressed feels like trying to taste food when you’re sick. The world simply lacks any sweetness or flavor.
My mental health is mostly well-managed these days, but a few years ago, a series of bad life blows triggered my oldest, darkest depression. And that depression had apparently been doing push-ups since I saw it last, because nothing that had helped before was working this time ― not medication, not exercise, not meditation or calling a friend.
I started to feel like I had no skin and everything, the whole world, was scraping up against me. It felt like the air around me was vibrating with sadness and I would sob at every commercial, every news story, over nothing at all. Listening to music hurt.
I couldn’t imagine finding life meaningful again. I didn’t know how to live inside one second of that feeling ― that black, drooling monster feeling with fangs and claws ― much less for days on end.
We don’t know much about what caused Kate Spade ― who, from the outside, seemed to have everything to live for ― to make the decision to die by suicide. But if she felt anything like that, I can understand the impulse.
Part of what makes her death feel so tragically counterintuitive is that for me and many others like me, Kate Spade’s particular brand of whimsy and fun was a dose of cheer in the midst of a world that sometimes feels so painful.
Because if one feels down, and if life feels hopeless, what better distraction than carrying a handbag in a shade of pink that could be seen from heaven, or wearing a sweater sporting a giant bow that you can’t help but smile at every time you glimpse yourself in the mirror? What better antidote to sadness than designs that whimsically integrate flamingos, cakes, picnic baskets, colorful polka dots, oversize chevron stripes and AstroTurf?
When depression overtook me, it slowly drained the color out of my world. Kate Spade helped add some of it back in.
Lily Burana, an author who, like me, has struggled with depression her entire life, counts Spade’s designs among the things that can provide comfort.
“Sometimes the most trivial things can shift your mood for the better. Therefore, they must be taken seriously,” she told me. “The fun, well-constructed cleverness of Kate Spade was among them ― sure, her stuff was ‘just fashion,’ but seeing quality production wedded to frivolous aesthetics, all tied up with a demure bow, satisfied that trifecta of female longing: to be seen as substantial but fun and self-possessed. Pleasing to the eye, warm at the heart, and built to last. An anti-depressant you could dangle from your wrist or slip your feet into.”
Bonnie Dillard-Fein, a stay-at-home mom who has anxiety, says she celebrates major life triumphs, from “therapy milestones” to “dumping an asshole,” with a new Kate Spade bag.
“The culture of the brand was a ray of sunshine and hope in dark times and provides extra sparkle in the good,” she told me. “Yesterday was a reminder to me that the light does not exist without the dark and to keep working on myself and keep striving to embrace both polarities in me.”
A tweak in medication eventually got my last bout of depression under control, happiness slowly flooding back like the first warm spring breeze on my shoulders. But of course, you don’t need to be depressed to enjoy the irresistible jolt of fun and beauty Spade’s designs imparted.
Alexia LaFata tweeted that she was sad on Monday, so she browsed the Kate Spade store in SoHo to cheer herself up. “Simply looking at her products is always enough to make me smile,” she wrote.
Jo Weldon, a burlesque performer and teacher, says she responded most to the brand’s playfulness. “I think of the way I dress, when I’m dressing for fun, as an opportunity to not only express myself but to lift my mood, and sometimes even the mood of people around me,” she said. “Kate Spade was such a mood lifter.”
Allison C., who has suffered from anxiety and depression since she was 11 years old, saved up to buy her first Kate Spade bag on eBay because she couldn’t afford to pay full price. She says the whimsical designs help alleviate her “crippling self confidence issues.”
“I love myself a little harder when I wear clothing items or accessories that speak to me and how I want to present myself to the world as an individual,” she told me. “Now that I’m in a more stable place, and in celebration of all the beauty and fun that Kate brought to the world, I think I will finally allow myself a little splurge and buy one of her bags at retail price. Self love and self care are so exceedingly important; I’ll remember that now when I walk around with one of Kate’s bags on my arm.”
No accessory, no matter how colorful, is an antidote to depression, just as all of her success was not an antidote to whatever feelings led to Spade’s death. But I can say with complete honesty that her designs have brought genuine joy to my life. And when you know darkness, joy is never taken for granted. May we all feel it often.