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Entrepreneurship

What made Kate Spade a great entrepreneur

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When Kate Spade, her name eponymous with the working woman’s handbag, died this month at 55, the news was a blow to the fashion and corporate worlds. Those who studied her career are certain of the entrepreneurial legacy she left behind.

In 1993 Spade was an accessories editor for Mademoiselle magazine when she started her handbag company with husband. She was in a great place in terms of her career, said MIT Sloan senior lecturer in managerial communication Neal Hartman, and she took a risk to start her own handbag line.

Hartman, whose teachings include leadership and working in teams, said Spade was playful and creative at heart, and her brand reflected those qualities.

“I think she had a terrific sense of what women wanted, so she knew her customer base and had a good sense of what they wanted more than what they needed,” Hartman said. “She wasn't going for the $3,000 bag, but she still wanted something that looked good, that was clearly fashionable.”

She told the New York Times in 1999 that she wanted “a functional bag that was sophisticated and had some style.” In an interview with the Toronto Star, she said she wanted her company “to be like a fashion version of L.L. Bean, never in or out.”

A good leader with a good team

Hartman said the other thing that Spade did to ensure her success was assemble a really good team.

“She had a combination of family and non-relative professionals who helped to move the organization forward and Kate paid close attention to both the U.S. and global operations,” Hartman said. “She looked for the right people who fit with the culture and fostered an environment where people wanted to stay with the company.”

Spade left her company in 2007, after then-Liz Claiborne Inc. bought it for $125 million from the Neiman Marcus Group, the Associated Press reported. The company Coach (now known as Tapestry) bought the brand in 2017 for $2.4 billion.

“Her name immediately you associate with her brand, with her product,” Hartman said. “Essentially everyone looked at her as being very successful. Of course it begs the question of were she still with us and continuing in her work, what would be next, where would it go?”

Building an enduring brand

That’s important to note: the question is what’s next, not will the brand survive. Hartman pointed to fashion designer Gianni Versace’s 1997 death as an example — while there were likely some periods of uncertainty for the fashion house, the brand continues today.

The same could be said of the Kate Spade brand, Hartman said, in part because of the team she built at the beginning of the company.

While she was the icon and spokesperson for the brand, others closely connected with her helped make that brand happen, Hartman said, and despite changing hands several times, the brand has endured.

“It’s a brand that people know, it's a brand that people respect, and again, it's classy, it's bright, it's fun, it's colorful, it's functional, it’s high quality, and it's affordable,” Hartman said. “You essentially have of all the ingredients of a very successful product line.” 

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