The Spades’ New Bag

Photo: Tina Barney

To understand the way Andy Spade works, consider this tale of retail alchemy:

Engaged by J.Crew in 2008 to reimagine that company’s approach to menswear, Spade and his partner, Anthony Sperduti, suggested putting a J.Crew shop in an out-of-business Tribeca bar called the Liquor Store, which still had its vintage sign out front. They insisted that no J.Crew sign replace it and that the original bar remain, with the register behind it, and that the mantel be decorated with toy soldiers from Andy’s personal collection. Music must come from a stereo whose dials and knobs would be visible to customers, and the speakers should emit just enough crackle to remain credibly lo-fi. There should be three colors of a T-shirt, say, rather than eighteen. Inside the closet-size dressing rooms, there should be “exhibitions” by downtown artists and photographers. There should be books chosen from the Strand, and a mug full of pencils munched on by famous writers (like Max Blagg) for sale as well. The staff shouldn’t come from the world of retail, but preferably from the world of art or high design.

J.Crew did it all—a massive departure for a company whose stores are mostly in shopping malls. According to J.Crew creative director Jenna Lyons, the Liquor Store “far exceeded” expectations. “Far, far exceeded!”

Andy Spade’s explanation, the key, he says, to his marketing success?

“The bigger you get, the smaller you act.” By which he means: The more personal a brand, the more stuff it can sell.

Andy Spade is the lesser-known half of a great New York power couple, with their fairy tale of homegrown megasuccess. In 1993, Spade’s college sweetheart, Kate Brosnahan (as she was named then), returned home from her job at Mademoiselle magazine to the small apartment the couple shared with an idea for a handbag that was simple, functional, and not a million bucks. The bag would be a perfect rectangle of ripstop nylon with a webbed nylon strap. Its only adornment, in the end, was a little KATE SPADE NEW YORK label sewn on the exterior.

Andy Spade was working at an advertising agency in those days, and he had some ideas for how to sell Kate’s bag. (First idea: Call the company Kate Spade, which was not, yet, even her name. “He’ll never marry you now!” moaned Kate’s Irish Catholic mother down the phone from Kansas City, but no one could deny that it did sound nice.) He gutted his 401(k) account of its $35,000, and Kate got to work. “I was super-conservative,” Kate says, remembering those early days, “and Andy was like, you should just do it!” The couple ate a lot of cheeseburgers—it would be years before Andy’s credit was good enough for an American Express card again.

But it worked. In 1993, the business did $100,000 in revenues; in 1995 it did $1.5 million, and Andy felt he could finally quit his day job as a creative director at Chiat Day. Kate’s two best friends, Elyce Arons and Pamela Bell, joined the company. They referred to Andy as “Charlie,” themselves as “the Angels.”

Handbags are never really about the nylon, the leather, the pockets, or the straps. Once you have all those things and they are all working together and looking nice enough, handbags become about the house you wish you lived in, the film star you most admire, the music you’d like other people to think you like. “If you look at everything that was going on in fashion at that time,” Andy says now, “there was not a voice that just said hi or hello. There just wasn’t a lot out there that looked real. But there’s something great about suburbia. There’s something great about innocence. A Peter Pan collar is sexier than a bustier.”

In 1998, Andy launched a collection of similarly simple bags for men called Jack Spade—messenger bags for grown-ups, really. He didn’t want to use his own name so he chose Jack, because there have been so many good Jacks over the years, like Kerouac and Parr.

A few months later, the Spades sold 56 percent of the two companies to Neiman Marcus for $34 million and agreed to stick around to creative-direct the company.

But then in 2006, Neiman Marcus decided to sell Kate and Jack Spade, and the Spades, trying to suss out their own next move, conducted an experiment: They would count the number of decisions they were called on to make in the course of one day. How many times would they have to sign off on the length of a zipper or the number of rhinestones on the toe of a patent-leather shoe? Which is the best shot for the ad campaign? Who should be the new assistant to the assistant of the head of PR? What color ribbon should wrap around which color stock on these very tasteful thank-you notes?

At the end of the day, they tallied it all up: 266 decisions, and it hadn’t been an unusually busy afternoon. Kate had recently given birth to their first child, an adorable brunette they’d named Bea. She was in her early forties and determined not to miss out on motherhood entirely. Andy’s interest in books and movies and contemporary art had begun to eclipse his passion for messenger bags and china patterns and a white-flower-based perfume. And working together wasn’t, let’s face it, the surest route to marital bliss. “I remember this one horrible fight over whether a pink was the right pink,” Andy says. “Ugh. And then it was important for everyone to think we were so happy all the time.” So they exercised their put option and Neiman Marcus acquired the remaining 44 percent of the company for $59 million and promptly sold the whole kit and caboodle to Liz Claiborne.

The friends—Kate, Andy, Elyce, and Pamela, plus spouses and kids—checked in to the Twin Dolphins Resort, which is on a sandy strip of beach near Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. “We were there for a week,” says Arons, “and we didn’t once talk about the sale.” The consensus was they were done.

“Someone said to me, what about your legacy?” Andy said a few weeks ago, a look of extreme incredulity on his round kewpie face, “and I said, what about my life?” He held up his hands at the obviousness of the thing. “You know,” he said, “there are a lot of interesting things going on in the world.”

But Andy didn’t retire, and a complete inventory of what he’s up to now is a quickly moving target. He’s working from a storefront gallery on Great Jones Street between Bowery and Lafayette called Partners & Spade, which sells a constantly changing collection of stuff that’s caught the eye of Andy or, as the name would suggest, one of his aesthetic partners in crime, of whom there are gobs. The main partner is Sperduti, but then there are all these clean-cut guys in their twenties and thirties, wearing reissued K-Swiss scuffs on their feet, and there are friends, like the artists Maira Kalman and René Ricard.

Spade is also writing some films and producing others. The production side mostly means facilitating the work of a bunch of 24-year-old guys (Kalman’s son among them) who call themselves Red Bucket Films. This year their films made it into Sundance and Cannes, and they even won some prizes. It also means producing a show for HBO from brothers Casey and Van Neistat. There are books, too—Spade has an imprint at HarperCollins that publishes photographs he’s snapped on his iPhone (sample topics: six months in the life of an airport-hotel marquee, helium balloons stuck in trees). If you drop by a party in his shop, you may notice that you’re being offered a nice glass of Partners & Spade red. “Oh, did I mention that I’m making wine?” says Andy. “I bought a patch of a vineyard in Napa.” There’s another gallery down the street called Half Gallery, in which Spade is a partner and where this spring he’ll curate a show by Lola Schnabel.

Partners & Spade is not a retail endeavor per se (no money was made, for example, last April 15, when they hired an accountant to sit in the window and give tax advice on a first-come, first-serve basis). It is instead a trip inside Spade’s peripatetic mind, and, therefore, a helpful place to begin understanding why so many men in this city have been wandering around in flannel shirts and Red Wing boots, taking their meals in restaurants with walls covered in a mishmash of antlers and art. Spade’s particular, nostalgic, classically American taste has been massively influential in the past ten years. When Andy first opened his Jack Spade shop, on Greene Street, in 1999, he announced himself by loading up a hundred canvas wallets with all sorts of stuff—vintage ticket stubs, old library cards, yearbook photos of plain-looking girls with flips on the ends of their auburn bobs—and sending them all around the city to various other tastemakers. He and designer Steven Sclaroff decorated the shop with a torn leather sofa held together by duct tape and twine. Alongside the waxed canvas messenger bags and plain leather totes were articles he’d clipped from old copies of the New York Times, antique globes, and a heavy metal lighter shaped like a dog that shot flames from its butt. It was like a dorm room from Hamilton College in 1980, the year the Preppy Handbook—with its carefully annotated line drawings of various prep habitats—was first published. Situating the bags among this well-curated detritus gave them a sort of class by association, elevating them to the exalted plane occupied by such familiar brands as Wayfarers and Chucks.

Spade is not the first person to mine the annals of the Wasp world for inspiration. One needn’t look further than Ralph Lauren to understand that consumers go bonkers when shown attractive people in cleverly updated versions of old-fashioned clothes. And he isn’t the only person to have worked this look to profitable effect in downtown Manhattan either (see: Alan, Steven).

A decade later, of course, it’s hard to see any of this as unique; Spade’s aesthetic has been knocked off all over the map, but Soho, circa 1999, was in the throes of the clunky heels, the color black, and the addition of spandex in places it really had no right to be.

And in the end there is something especially accessible—and enduring—about the Spade brand: It is friendly, and it is almost goofy, and, most important, it offers a way of being fashionable without looking absurd. Twenty years from now, you’re not going to look at pictures of yourself in a button-down and cords and wonder what you were thinking. And it manages to be preppy without the whiff of the restricted country club: It takes much more delight in the world than that. “It’s the world of Dobie Gillis,” says Andy’s friend Glenn O’Brien. “It’s just a more casual and user-friendly experience.” It’s preppy, yes, but it is definitely not Republican.

It’s possible that all this works because Andy Spade comes by it so naturally: The brand he built is an honest version of himself, of who he is and also of who he aspires to become. “I look back at pictures of all of us from college,” says Elyce Arons, “and there’s me in some goofball trendy outfit, and there’s Kate in the perfect navy peacoat, the perfect fisherman’s sweater. Kate and Andy have both always been exactly the same.” Arons laughs. “The thing is, back then I used to think that I was the fashionable one.”

The Spades are from the Midwest. They like to get together with their old friends and stay up late. They like things to be classic and they like the color Kelly green. They came to the city, but they didn’t set about erasing the people they were before they got here, and they still have that outsider’s endless thrill of how cool is this art gallery? How great is this weird smelly record store?

Kate likes to cut sandwiches for Bea in the shape of a heart. “The other mothers think I’m insane,” she says.

If anything, they’ve often worked on transporting city folk beyond the five boroughs—and not to Europe either. Tierney Gearon photographed the company’s second ad campaign, which featured a good-looking (but not scarily so) family in the yard of their big (but not huge) white clapboard house. “It was being in the backyard and throwing your kid up in the air, and the kid is wearing a Halloween costume,” Andy says. “I mean, what’s better than that? Being on a yacht is definitely not any better than that.”

“Someone once told me that if you ask a woman What is the favorite thing in your closet?, she’ll pull out her newest dress,” says Jenna Lyons. “If you ask a man, he’ll pull out some tattered old thing he’s had forever. That’s the big difference. And that’s what Andy gets.” Essentially, he understands that men are happy to have their shoes resoled again and again, and that they’d like to buy shoes that deserve it.

On a recent morning, Spade was sitting at one of the two long tables in the back of Partners & Spade, wearing his usual uniform of wide-wale corduroy pants, a gingham button-down shirt, and a tweedy blazer. Across from him, a skinny boy in skinny jeans was sifting through an enormous box of photographs of other people’s families. (Found photography has become a passion of Andy’s, and he buys crates of other people’s pictures at flea markets.) The boy was looking for interesting designs on the back of the prints, where the photographs had become unglued from their original albums, leaving abstract bits of construction paper and glue. Andy found these shapes unusual and thrilling, so when the assistant finds enough, Spade will pick his favorites, frame them, and hang them on a wall. (Customers can take one home for $150.) The photo-backs project is reminiscent of the clothing labels he flipped over and framed because he thought their threads looked “like Rothko.” They are also for sale at Partners & Spade, for $99, right below a tiny plastic banker figurine suspended from the ceiling of the shop by a golden parachute. “The last golden parachute!” Andy explains. There is also, in the shop, a giant drawer full of pistachio nuts, and a selection of customizable self-esteem trophies. Mounted near the entrance is a box of security cameras that Spade bought from a spy shop just because he found it hilarious. (The cameras are not hooked up, but maybe they should be: The store was robbed the other night.) There are more-serious pieces of art as well, oil paintings in heavy gilt frames over which René Ricard has painted the words of his various poems.

The business bit of Partners & Spade, though, is not all of this stuff. The business bit is branding, and current clients include the Swanson winery in California; Owl, which is AOL’s answer to Wikipedia; Target; and Hudson’s Bay Co., the oldest company in Canada, which is mostly famous for its ivory woolen blanket with colored stripes.

For the Swansons, Spade and Sperduti prescribed illustrations by Jean-Philippe Delhomme, a mid-priced bottle of red whose label reads THANK YOU, which they think makes a perfect hostess gift. It’s just a label: a bit of white paper printed with a simple black font (and two blank lines to pencil in to and from). But buying it suggests that one has been invited to a dinner party by people who don’t take themselves so seriously that they drink only important wine. It’s a pretty signature Spade touch: The style is classic, its placement slightly unusual. It’s twee, yes, but it acknowledges the obvious: Downtown folk often like a certain kind of just-barely-ironized twee, the way other people might like their cards to come with Hallmark messages.

For Owl, Spade and Sperduti commissioned artist Geoff McFetridge to come up with a logo. The result is a shaky line drawing of a giant head balanced on two scrawny little chicken feet. It’s a completely low-tech approach to something big and modern, and suddenly the whole thing has a sense of humor, which Wikipedia really doesn’t. Sperduti smiles at it. “I can’t believe they went for it,” he admits. On the stereo system are old love songs sung in foreign languages.

“I didn’t want to have a huge staff to manage people,” Spade says, “I wanted to have more of a collective. We know a lot of people; we bring them in when it makes sense.”

The Spades don’t talk about Kate and Jack Spade now, about what they think of the new company’s attempts to sustain their state of mind. “I haven’t even been into a Kate Spade shop since we left,” admits Kate one drizzly afternoon at the Oak Room. She’s just picked up an Eloise tea set for Bea’s birthday (not that she would be happy if her daughter adopted the character’s nasty brand of sass), as well as a bit of makeup at Bergdorf Goodman across the street. When the salesgirl saw her credit card, she began to gush. “I never know if I should tell people that it’s not me anymore,” Kate says about the Kate Spade brand. “I only do if they start really getting into it.” Her dark hair is in her signature beehive, and she’s wearing her signature black cigarette pants. Kate laughs a lot, and she is generous with her favorite word, which is “darling” and which she uses as an adjective. Since selling the company, she hasn’t felt even the slightest urge to go back to work. She’s been pretty much full-time taking care of Bea—they ice-skate together at Wollman rink, they invite friends over for music class, and when Kate makes her a sandwich, she cuts it into the shape of a heart. “The other mothers are like, ‘Okay, whatever,’ ” she says, laughing. “They think I’m insane. But I want to be able to do this while I can. When she’s like, ‘Mom, get away from me!’ then I’ll think about what else I want to do, but I’m incredibly glad I can do this now.”

The family lives on Park Avenue, smack in the middle of the Upper East Side. Their apartment is big enough for the three of them, but it is not enormous. It is covered floor to ceiling in framed artwork, all of it jammed together; there is no hierarchy in its display. “Before I came to New York,” she says, “I only had a few pictures of the city in my mind. And you know That Girl? Marlo Thomas jumping with her hat? I always loved that, and I wondered what that double street she crosses is. And it’s Park Avenue! And that’s what I can see out my window.”

“Not,” she is quick to point out, “that we have some important view.”

The Spades took Bea to Disneyland for the first time at the end of January. A few days after they got home, Andy had a party at Partners & Spade to celebrate the release of the first two of six books of photographs he had taken with his iPhone. The books were tied to the bottoms of clusters of balloons and hanging in midair. Everywhere there were friends, collaborators, admirers: Here is Anthony Sperduti, who estimates he’s in his sixteenth year of his Spade collaboration, and there is Suzanne Martine, who was the first person to hire Kate at Mademoiselle, and little Bea, wearing red leather Mary Janes over navy-blue tights and a great big bow in her side-parted hair. Towering over it all is Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth in a shapeless black coat.

In the back of the room is Andy, drinking a plastic cup of Partners & Spade wine. He’s moved by the presence of so many old friends and reflecting on how he and Kate have been together 25 years, a long time by anyone’s measure.

“You know,” he says, “I was just thinking about this time that Katie defended me. It was so hard working together, it was so exhausting. And then one day we were in this meeting with the Neiman Marcus execs who owned the majority of our company, and someone had a copy of a magazine that had a write-up of Paperboys, which was the first film I produced at Jack Spade. He pushed it across the table and said, “Is this what you’re spending money on?” I couldn’t even talk. I was totally freaked out. And then Katie just totally went to the mat for me. She was like, ‘This is what makes us relevant.’ ” He flushes pink at the memory.

Martine smiles. “You made it out!” she says. “Alive!”

“I see all these people who just keep going and going and going, and I just feel like, ‘Hey! You made it!’ ” says Andy. “But they get up every day and just keep going. You love the game, but the game for us? We just wanted to be in fourth place. We just wanted a good little company.”

The Spades’ New Bag