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Kate Spade’s Shiny, Sparkly Success Story

How has the billion-dollar brand remained on top?

Models at Kate Spade's fall 2016 presentation in New York City.
Models at Kate Spade's fall 2016 presentation in New York City.

Once upon a time (1991, to be precise) in a land not that far away (New York City, actually), a senior fashion editor at Mademoiselle magazine named Kate Brosnahan decided she was bored with handbags.

Brosnahan's style was "sassy but classy," as Cosmopolitan put it back in 2005. With personal fashion icons like Katharine Hepburn, Jackie O., and Björk, she appreciated feminine bags with a playful touch. She wasn't interested in the stiff classics from Chanel and Prada, nor the staid brown and black leather options from Coach and Longchamp. In fact, for many years, her bag of choice was labelless and wicker. Perhaps it was her Midwestern roots, but the Kansas City native preferred accessories that were both simple and fun.

Undaunted by her lack of design experience — and with the encouragement of her boyfriend Andy Spade, an advertising creative director she had met at Arizona State University — the then-30-year-old Brosnahan got to work with paper and Scotch tape, conceptualizing what in her mind would be the perfect handbag. Something "timeless" and "more personal, less serious," she told the Boston Globe in 1999; a bag that could "assume the personality of the wearer, not the reverse."

Her first sample was a square bag mocked up in burlap (her supplier was a potato-sack manufacturer she found in the yellow pages) and woven with raffia fringe. She produced a few more samples, all made of bright fabrics, and after brainstorming potential company names ("Olive" was a top contender), settled for "Kate Spade," a mash-up of her and Andy's names, although it would later become her own after the two married in 1994.

The duo evolved Brosnahan's samples into a collection of black nylon bags priced between $100 and $400 and took them to various trade shows around New York City. The night before her first show, Brosnahan told Forbes, she spent hours moving her black labels with their white "Kate Spade New York" logos from the inside of the bags to the outside after the idea wouldn't stop nagging her.

Much to her delight, Barneys and Fred Segal placed orders, as did Charivari, the same boutique that kickstarted Marc Jacobs's career. A few months later, Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom, and Saks Fifth Avenue came knocking. Andy, who didn't leave his advertising job for another five years, drained $35,000 from his savings account. The pair hired Pamela Bell and Elyce Arons, two of Brosnahan's best friends, to help out with the new business and worked around the clock from their Tribeca loft.

The clean nylon bags — which came to include totes, messenger bags, and mini backpacks, and were described as "preppy-with-attitude" by the Washington Post — caught on fast. Three months after a Vogue editor spotted Brosnahan's table at a trade show, the magazine featured Kate Spade in its pages, right next to Gucci, no less. Suddenly industry insiders like Anna Wintour and Linda Wells were carrying Kate Spade bags, as were celebrities like Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow.

"The purses became something of a handshake. When two women met and saw they were both holding Kate Spade bags, they'd nod at each other."

"The purses became something of a handshake," says Wall Street Journal fashion reporter Christina Binkley. "When two women met and saw they were both holding Kate Spade bags, they'd nod at each other and understand they were on the same page. It was very chic."

In a short period of time, the San Francisco Examiner noted in 2000, the Kate Spade logo had "joined the status signature company of Gucci's double-Gs, Chanel's double-Cs and Louis Vuitton's LVs." Sales jumped from $100,000 in 1993 to $1.5 million in 1995. As per a Vanity Fair profile, the Spades built a "business by knowing what they don't want to be — too luxe, too hip, too retro, too fashionable, too fast."

By 1998, sales had ballooned to $27 million, and the Spades had opened their first stores in New York City, Los Angeles, and Japan. It was at this point that the brand decided to expand into items like journals, photo albums, and personal organizers; the next year they introduced footwear. The couple launched a men's accessories line around this time too, and called it Jack Spade.

They then began to expand their kingdom by inking licensing deals, partnering first with Estée Lauder on fragrances in 2002, and with Lenox on home goods in 2004. The resulting eclectic mix of china, picture frames, linens, and towels the brand began producing made sense for a company whose founder gave every employee a copy of Emily Post's Etiquette (and who happened to write her own books on style, manners and home decorating).

The Spades had become bona fide tastemakers. The New York Times quipped that "if Dorothy Parker were a product, she would be a Kate Spade clutch." Perhaps Fortune put it best, noting that anything with a Kate Spade label "signifies sophistication, freshness, and impeccable good taste, all rolled into one." By 2006, Teri Agins of the Wall Street Journal reported, the company was enjoying $99 million in annual revenue.

The brand also went through its fair share of owners. In 1999, 56 percent of the company's stake was sold for $33.6 million to Neiman Marcus, a company that itself was bought by private equity firms Texas Pacific Group and Warburg Pincus in 2005 for $5.1 billion. In 2006, Neiman sold Kate Spade for $124 million to retail giant Liz Claiborne, which was ramping up its portfolio by buying up brands like Ellen Tracy, Lucky Brand Jeans, and Juicy Couture. Liz Claiborne changed its name to Fifth & Pacific in 2012, and by 2014, the company sold off all of its other brands and changed its name once again to Kate Spade & Company — a decision which Nomura Securities retail analyst Simeon Siegel tells Racked came from the "realization that they were sitting on the company's crown jewel all along."

These days, it seems, the company has permeated every area possible, yet is still rolling out new categories: just over the last year it's debuted a kid's collection, furniture, and athleisure. Revenue for 2015 was $1.1 billion, a figure that is actually not the brand's highest — in 2011, while almost everyone else was shaking off the effects of the recession, Kate Spade brought in $1.5 billion. This is a brand that has made a mountain of cash trying to be everything to a very specific woman.

Fans of Kate Spade the brand often refer to Kate Spade the person when lavishing praise: "I really feel like Kate knows the way to my heart with all her fun designs," an NYU student named Cindy tells me at a Kate Spade location on New York's Upper East Side. But Spade is no longer with the brand, and hasn't been for many years.

"It doesn't even necessarily matter that Kate is no longer with the company because her name has become a spirit."

In 2007, due to what they claimed were family obligations, Kate and Andy left the company. The pair has managed to distance themselves from their namesake brand over the last nine years, and just last month the Business of Fashion reported that Kate Spade had changed her name to Kate Valentine in order to align fully with her new shoe and handbag line, Frances Valentine.

At the time of the couple's exit, Liz Claiborne CEO William McComb told WWD that though the possibility of their absence at the brand had been troubling him for months leading up to the departure, "they so embody what the brand ideal is, and they have created very scalable DNA," so he was "comfortable we can build right on top of what they have been very successful at."

McComb, who stepped down when Fifth & Pacific changed its name in 2014 and was replaced by Kate Spade chief executive Craig Leavitt, was right. The company has retained the same DNA, so much so that it confuses shoppers like Cindy, who still believe Kate is running the show.

Still, Bloomingdale's home fashion director Emily Hull-Martin maintains that "people now think of ‘Kate Spade' as a full-fledged lifestyle more than a specific designer. It doesn't even necessarily matter that Kate is no longer with the company because her name has become a spirit."

Even with tumultuous ownership changes and the exiting of the company's founders, Kate Spade has managed to remain remarkably on-brand every step of the way.

"Kate Spade's motto is to ‘Live Colorfully' and everything they put out is consistent with this in image and personality," says Amy Dennis, the creative director of Nice Branding, a Tennessee-based agency. "The bows, the polka dots, the champagne — they master the ability to make everyone, no matter the income level, want to be a part of the Kate Spade lifestyle."

"It's hard for most brands to make everything playful, colorful, witty, and whimsical, but with Kate, it's always a success," adds Hull-Martin. "Shoppers think of them as a classically-chic brand and have learned to trust everything they put out because they feel confident in the quality and fashion element."

While Kate Spade has an air of spontaneity (playfulness! whimsy!), the brand is incredibly calculated when it comes to crafting its own narrative. The explanation that the brand is catering to "interesting women leading interesting lives" is used so often, it's practically a mantra at this point.

"Our story lives in the tradition of all of the spirited, madcap heroines who have come to New York City and made it both the inspiration for and the location of their story," says Kristen Naiman, Kate Spade's vice president of brand creative. "So if you think of the heritage of Sex and the City, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Nora Ephron, and Joan Didion, it's all of those women that come to New York looking for that story, and it's the adventures that they have along the way that truly comprise it. We're in the business of telling that story: the imperfect journey, and the perfect dream."

"If you think of the heritage of Sex and the City, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Nora Ephron, and Joan Didion, it's all of those women that come to New York looking for that story."

This story, of course, is open to interpretation, but Naiman says that all Kate Spade items cater to these seeking women. An innate sense of adventure is woven into all of the brand's products, as well as its marketing efforts.

One popular online series is literally called "Miss Adventure" and stars Anna Kendrick as a hapless, quirky girl who gracefully overcomes New York City disasters while decked out in Kate Spade. The brand's magazine ads star big-name models like Karlie Kloss and Jourdan Dunn alongside more everyday talents like literary agent Anne Borchardt and Vogue's resident sex columnist Karley Sciortino. Unlike other mid-priced labels that try to elevate through luxe, glossy branding, Kate Spade aims to be approachable and endearing.

"Kate Spade has a very esoteric brand promise," says Mary Beech, Kate Spade's chief marketing officer. "We're not inviting her to join a club, we're not saying this will give you status. We're acknowledging her dimensionality."

The brand's voice also shines through digitally, says Liz Elder, a fashion research analyst with L2. "They have great product photos that perfectly represent the brand, but their inspirational quotes also give it meat," she explains. "Their Instagram photos, for instance, exemplify exactly who the Kate Spade woman is and what she wears. They really stand out at communicating their message. They excel at crafting emotion and speaking to a consumer even when she's not shopping."

You can see the bubbly Kate Spade persona in just about every part of the brand. Place an order on the Kate Spade website, and your items will be sent to you packed in fancy tissue paper and confetti. Go to one of the 352 Kate Spade stores around the world, and you'll be bombarded by wallpaper, furniture, and tchotchkes just as vibrant as the clothing being sold, as well by sales associates the brand recently decided to call "muses" that come equipped with candy and birthday candles. But arguably, the best place to see Kate Spade come alive is at its biannual New York Fashion Week presentation.

The fall 2016 collection was unveiled in early February, 65 floors above New York City, under the iconic glittering chandeliers of the Rainbow Room. Show attendees were greeted by a live jazz band, while waiters in suits handed out hors d'oeuvres and champagne and Kate Spade employees wearing big pink floral skirts, cat-eye liner, and knockoff Valentino Rockstuds acted as cigarette girls, handing out branded pale pink pens, pins, and T-shirts.

Some two dozen models stood on a raised, revolving podium. Most had their hair pulled into neat, low ponytails tied with black velvet bows ("Not too wispy!" the beauty notes read), and their makeup was decidedly simple and fresh. Some items from the collection hinted at the ‘70s — peasant dresses layered with ruffles, pleated and trimmed with lace — but because this is Kate Spade, there was also plenty of floral, plaid, polka dots, and jeweled collars. A few of the girls held kitschy handbags, like one that resembled a theater marquee and read "It's All an Act"; another was shaped like an old-school boombox. Almost everything had a pussy bow.

It might have been the free-flowing champagne at 10 a.m., or the spirited covers the band was ripping through, but as Heather Cocks of the Fug Girls exclaimed to me that morning, "Everyone here is so happy!"

"Kate Spade is one of the few shows that you can come to and actually feel like, ‘Oh, I maybe can wear that as a regular human being!'"

"I really love coming to Kate Spade shows because they always give me snacks and there's always something to drink!" Cocks joked. "But really, I think they are really smart at creating an entirely cheerful atmosphere for the presentation, which is what the brand is all about. It's just brilliant."

"Kate Spade is one of the few shows that you can come to and actually feel like, ‘Oh, I maybe can wear that as a regular human being!'" Jessica Morgan, Fug Girl #2, piped in. "It feels more relatable to my life than anything else I see on the runway. Like, I love that coat," she said, pointing to a white tailored jacket with big black buttons, accented with a giant bow. "I would take that off of her and bring it home if I could."

It was hard not to notice that everyone at the presentation was wearing Kate Spade, many in the signature brand look of a silk blouse tucked into an A-line midi skirt. Gabriella Ginsberg, a 21-year-old upstate New York native, turned out in a Kate Spade Hope dress, glittery Kate Spade Krysta heels, sheer Kate Spade tights that read "Cha cha Cha" on the back of the calves, and a small Kate Spade crossbody bag. "The clothing is fun, feminine, and flirty, and I feel happy wearing it all together," enthused Ginsberg, an editorial coordinator for Hollywood Life.

Morgan and Cocks expressed their fandom in a more understated way, chuckling with delight when they realized they were both carrying similar Kate Spade handbags.

"The great thing about the brand is that you can choose to walk out wearing it head to toe — and it'll look like a lot — or you can choose their quirky pieces and make it the star of your outfit," said Cocks.

Ginsberg calls herself Kate Spade's "absolute number one fan," but she has plenty of competition for that title. Julia McCrank, the 34-year-old events planner behind the blog Kate Spade Girl is the self-proclaimed owner of 139 Kate Spade dresses and 40 Kate Spade handbags (diaper bags included). She says the brand has such a dedicated customer base because its "timeless style is able to hold an audience forever"; "I have dresses from 2008 that I can still wear in 2016," she says.

While the Southern Californian McCrank admits she has a "love affair with East Coast style," she believes Kate Spade taste is appropriate anywhere. Its marketing might be all about New York, but "the Kate Spade style is applicable for party girls as well as suburban housewives." McCrank has readers as far as Australia that devour her fangirl posts. She's in touch with many of them via text and shops for them often, whenever she visits a Kate Spade outlet store.

Kate Spade's aesthetic doesn't just transcend geography, it also defies the age gap that most fashion brands must contend with. McCrank, for example, bought her first Kate Spade bag — a black nylon Claire purse — at a Nordstrom in Dallas in 1999, an experience she calls "love at first sight." After begging for the out-of-production Claire, her 11-year-old daughter recently inherited it.

Binkley finds the brand's ageless appeal remarkable. She's watched several women she knows carry Kate Spade bags as teenagers more than a decade ago, and though she keeps "anticipating they will grow out of Kate Spade after they hit college, they don't!"

"It's an extraordinary leap, from teens to young adults to moms," says Binkley. "There was a time when I thought it would be another Juicy Couture — lose focus and then cheapen — but Kate Spade manages to hold on."

"There was a time when I thought it would be another Juicy Couture — lose focus and then cheapen — but Kate Spade manages to hold on."

Trends like normcore might make headlines, but Kate Spade will forever be selling colorful kitten heels and patterned caftans because it caters to the Kate Spade woman and only the Kate Spade woman, someone like McCrank who craves "all things girly-girl."

"So many brands are afraid to hone in on one thing in fear of isolating other customers," says Dennis. "But Kate Spade knows exactly who its customer is."

Nomura analyst Siegel says this is a strategy of thinking deeply versus broadly. Instead of selling one handbag to everyone on the planet, "Kate Spade would rather sell one person their entire life."

Though its offering is largely predictable, Kate Spade also chases after trends — see its take on the bag bugs and furry key chains first seen at Fendi. Paula Rosenblum, a retail analyst with RSR Research, points out, though, that it can create of-the-moment items because even its trend pieces look undeniably Kate Spade. Certainly not everyone loves the company's shtick, which Morgan from the Fug Girls calls "your quirky old aunt's style," but that's besides the point.

"We should never forget the art of the merchant," says Rosenblum. "If you stay true to your ethos, but evolve with your customer demographic, you can create a good mix between ‘classic' and ‘on-trend.' It seems they've done that."

Preserving all the specific bits that go into the Kate Spade brand, season after season, is no small task. This is where Deborah Lloyd comes in.

Lloyd has been Kate Spade's president and creative director since 2007, and her offices are exactly what you'd imagine. On one side, a hot pink couch sits atop a striped black and white rug and below a frame wall of fashion sketches by artist Tanya Ling. Directly across the room is a wide, wooden desk where you'll find a vase of white peonies, a bowl of candy (labeled "candy" in bubble lettering), and a stack of design magazines. A credenza that stands against a patterned wall displays coffee table books, framed family photos, and iconic Kate Spade images, as well as a giant golden-dotted glass bottle of the brand's Twirl fragrance. The windowsill is home to antique owl figurines Lloyd collects, and a stack of vintage suitcases sits in the corner.

The room is essentially a Kate Spade museum, and the 52-year-old Lloyd might as well be a specimen in head-to-toe Kate Spade: she wears a pleated red dress from the upcoming fall 2016 collection, sparkling silver sandals, gobs of costume jewelry, and a pop of pink lipstick.

In 2009, Harper's Bazaar called the British Lloyd "the perfect person to reenergize Kate Spade." WWD had written in 2006 that the brand had "veered off the path of its tried-and-true nylon handbags bearing the brand's minimal black-and-white logo into too many categories." Kate Spade had begun to lose its way, and then came the departure of the Spades. It was time for new blood.

Undoubtedly, the decision to hire Lloyd came from a mix of her professional experience as head designer for both Banana Republic and Burberry, as well as her hyper-feminine personal style ("People tell me that what I wear every day is what most people would wear to a wedding," she told Harper's Bazaar, admitting that if her husband Simon is away for too long, "the curtains might suddenly turn pink").

Sitting now at her desk, Lloyd says it was daunting to take over the label — Kate Spade the person, after all, had infused the brand with such a precise aesthetic.

"I remember writing a letter to Kate and Andy when I first started that said something like, ‘I promise to never disappoint you,' and that's always stayed with me," she says. "I have such respect for the name and what they built."

The result is a Kate Spade that's moved beyond nylon bags and into cheery, cheeky merchandise — a transition McCrank calls "cute to cutesy."

Lloyd's vision for Kate Spade has stayed relatively close to the original one. She took Kate's look and ran with it, injecting her own quirky, girly spirit into the Kate Spade prototype. The result is a Kate Spade that's moved beyond nylon bags and into cheery, cheeky merchandise — a transition McCrank calls "cute to cutesy." Lloyd directed the company into selling ready-to-wear and jewelry in 2008, and while 70 percent of the business still comes from handbags, these new categories have helped elevate the status of the brand.

It also exists at a sweet spot in the market. Kate Spade isn't cheap — flats are priced around $200 and dresses run from $300 to $400, with its higher-end Madison Avenue line charging double that — but it's sold at a price point that's accessible to shoppers who desire luxury brands but can't quite afford them.

Sandee Royalty, a Kate Spade blogger from Houston who proudly boasts that the label makes up 90 percent of her wardrobe, says she recalls buying "out all of Banana Republic" during the years Lloyd was designing there. She believes Lloyd's introduction of Kate Spade clothing, much of it with a winking retro flair, completely transformed what shopping was like for many women.

"The style of late ‘50s, early ‘60s didn't exist anywhere — no contemporary clothing line was making full skirts like theirs before Deborah Lloyd," she says. "Nobody was embracing a girly style and it finally felt like someone was having fun with clothing."

The brand has indeed become more playful under Lloyd, a shift that is particularly evident in its handbags. Every season, Kate Spade comes out with novelty items built around a specific theme. This means you'll see purses shaped like cupcakes, cars, cameras, penguins, Dalmatians, Klondike bars, and license plates. (Royalty says a sales associate from Anthropologie followed her around the store once, gawking at her owl purse.)

While brands like Moschino are only recently jumping onto novelty accessories, and J.Crew dips its toes into this kind of merchandise every now and then, Kate Spade has been doing it consistently and successfully for years. These pieces even turn into treasures once a season ends; you can find many of them sold on eBay.

"The novelty bags are very popular," says Erica Russo, Bloomingdale's fashion director of accessories and beauty. "The uniqueness makes them like collector's items, only available in that season, so they are a hot sell."

Lloyd believes the overt wit, which some would call kitsch, the brand puts forth is what's helped Kate Spade maintain loyalty. She explains that specificity is key. "I remember when I first started eight or nine years ago, our girls liked us but didn't really love us," she says. "It really was talking to this imaginary person. Now, with everything I design, it's like, ‘How is she wearing it? Where is she wearing this to? How does it fit into her life?' So there's really this constant connection to our girl. She's not a mystery, she really exists."

Kate Spade's novelty items might appeal to many, but not all fans of the brand buy into them. McCrank feels the company is trying to reach younger and younger consumers, often alienating its older customer demographic in the process. Binkley finds Kate Spade "cheesy." The brand is often considered "basic," lumped in with Starbucks and Ugg.

Lloyd believes the overt wit, which some would call kitsch, the brand puts forth is what's helped Kate Spade maintain loyalty.

This is something the brand is aware of. Each season the design and marketing teams painstakingly discuss just how far they are going to push the cute factor.

"There's so many meetings and filters that go into it!" Lloyd says. "And I often wonder if my designers and myself are going to get fatigue, but then we'll start on another season and all these ideas just come out. We like to say our customers are quick, curious, playful, and strong, so we're constantly updating."

"When I think about the voice," adds Naiman, "I always hope that the things we're saying evoke certain feelings, but we're leaving her to connect the final dots. We need to allow the customer to feel like she's in on the joke — I use that a lot as a barometer."

While Lloyd is steering Kate Spade towards becoming a full-fledged lifestyle brand, not everything has worked under her auspices. Lloyd admits some category launches "are a marketing vehicle and other things are for sales." One failed venture was Kate Spade Saturday, the brand's diffusion line that was launched in 2012, allegedly to compete with Chris Burch's revenge brand C. Wonder, which shuttered in January 2015 but was revived last month by QVC.

The line was supposed to "capture the spirit of Saturday every day of the week," CEO Craig Leavitt told WWD, and was more affordably-priced than the main Kate Spade line. But shoppers didn't bite, and the venture was eating away at the company's bottom line. Kate Spade closed all 19 of its Saturday stores last year, in addition to the retail locations of its men's brand Jack Spade.

"Saturday didn't catch on because it wasn't as timeless as the other clothing Kate Spade makes," posits Royalty. "It was missing that classic element. You never felt bad buying a nice Kate Spade dress because you know you'll always have it in your closet, but it didn't feel right buying casual clothes like Saturday's from Kate Spade."

Reflecting on the closure of Saturday, Lloyd says it "wasn't a decision we took lightly" and was ultimately a necessary move.

"We realized we have this amazing brand with Kate Spade New York and we haven't tapped into anywhere near the potential," she continues. "But you do have limited resources, and we felt it wise to invest our time and our energy into our key brands. Kate Spade Saturday is an incredible idea, however I don't think we were ready to put the amount of investment behind it, and we couldn't split our time and our money to build two brands at the same time."

The company is now applying some of the lessons it learned from Saturday to Broome Street, a new line it launched in February. With the motto "wear everything, with everything," the first collection appears similar in concept to Saturday, except way pricier, with $900 leather jackets and $130 striped T-shirts. Lloyd describes the new line as a mix of "weekend spirit and French flair: iconic, essential pieces that ground the overtly colorful pieces from Kate Spade New York."

Broome Street coexists with the rest of Kate Spade's ready-to-wear on the brand's website and in stores, but it's unclear exactly what problem it solves. This more "casual" line doesn't look very casual at all. There are no cute-but-comfy sweatshirts or athleisure-leaning leggings, but rather Oxford shirts, trench coats, and culottes. This is, however, what the brand thinks their core customers want to wear on their off-time. As Leavitt said in a statement about shuttering Saturday, "We now have a better understanding of our customers' weekend style."

"We don't want to be everywhere, we want to choose our partners wisely and work with people who make our brand look good."

Kate Spade has big plans — $4 billion plans, to be exact. Leavitt told Bloomberg he expects the brand to do $2 billion in sales by the end of 2016, and that he had his sights set on becoming the next Ralph Lauren. But with these great aspirations comes great uneasiness. Many of the sentiments Leavitt has shared with analysts during earnings calls over the last year have revolved around overexposure. These days, Royalty says, "there's a serious amount of Kate Spade spotted at my local church on Sundays." Whispers of Kate Spade meeting the same dreaded fate as its competitors are hitting the company from every angle.

"Michael Kors is so overexposed, it's embarrassing," says Rosenblum from RSR Research. "I went on a Mediterranean cruise last year and there was a Michael Kors store in the airport, on the boat, and in every port. That's a dangerous game."

Executives are on alert — "quality of sale" is a phrase used a lot — and a blueprint is already being executed on. First up, Kate Spade is significantly revamping its discount strategy, and has asked department stores to take Kate Spade off its list of brands that get discounted for promotions like friends and family sales. It's stopped the frequency of sales on its retail channels. Additionally, on a conference call back in May, Leavitt confirmed the brand was putting a hold on the expansion of its outlet store business.

Lloyd says Kate Spade not only wants to appear to higher-end, it also wants to "stop educating the customer just to buy things on sale."

"We don't want to be everywhere, we want to choose our partners wisely and work with people who make our brand look good," she says.

The brand is also talking about applying a more limited distribution model. Noting the popularity of the brand's novelty items, Lloyd says Kate Spade wants to "do things in small runs" so shoppers will be conditioned to "see it, love it, and think she has to buy it because she knows it's going to go."

As Siegel notes, "the hardest part of succeeding as a luxury brand is marrying exclusivity to distribution. It's the forbidden fruit because it's hard to regain that air of exclusivity once you've bit hard into sales and Kate is feeling the pressure."

Compared with competitors like Kors and Coach, though, Kate Spade is much smaller (Kors saw $4.4 billion in revenue in 2015, Coach saw $4.2 billion), and although it lost the insider edge it had in the ‘90s long ago, retail experts don't believe it's going to fall out of favor any time soon. Binkley, for one, doesn't think Kate Spade is at risk of overexposure. For proof, she points to the fact that luxury resale sites like the Real Real still stock the brand.

"Kate Spade is one of our top five contemporary brands," says Sasha Skoda, the Real Real's women's category director. "It is a widely searched term on our site, with handbags and shoes being top sellers, followed by dresses in the ready-to-wear segment. We also see this grouping of popular contemporary brands selling well to our luxury customer, who looks to brands like Kate Spade for their 'off-duty look' or weekend outfitting."

Skoda adds that while the Real Real categorizes Kate Spade as contemporary, it considers the label within the luxury market because it "is a brand that holds its resale value." But Kate Spade also evokes a sense of luxury because of its airtight branding and dedicated cult-like following.

As long as Kate Spade continues to design for the Kate Spade girl, the Kate Spade girl will keep coming back. Superfans like Ginsberg, McComb, and Royalty might be disappointed when they can't find their favorite brand on the sales rack, but they'll still continue to shop Kate Spade. How else will they be able to live colorfully?

Chavie Lieber is Racked's features writer.

Editor: Julia Rubin


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