The creators of Kate Spade are out to build
another global powerhouse with their latest launch, Frances Valentine
“Fries for the table?” Kate Valentine asks as she settles into a red leather banquette at the Lambs Club, an Art Deco power-lunch spot in Midtown Manhattan. Her companions—husband Andy Spade and business partner/close friend Elyce Arons—concur, and menus are relinquished.
In a room of conservatively dressed executive types wearing various components of dark suiting, the artist formerly known as Kate Spade distinguishes herself in a boldly patterned jacket, wind-blown coif, and gold kitten heels from her new line, Frances Valentine. (The designer legally changed her name earlier this year in advance of the brand’s launch.) Theoretically, she could be mistaken for an out-of-towner, perhaps in for the week from Palm Springs, enjoying a Cobb salad before a Broadway matinee. Valentine has only recently emerged from a prolonged sabbatical—she, Spade, and Arons all walked away from Kate Spade in 2007, after the brand was acquired by Liz Claiborne Inc. for $124 million. The integrity of Kate Spade has been preserved, and that’s enough for us,” says Valentine, who spent her time off volunteering at her daughter’s school and for the New York Center for Children. But the woman whose prior name adorns boutiques from Madison, Wisconsin, to Melbourne, Australia, remains a person of interest. A few tables away, a duo of lunching ladies whisper and nod. A manager takes notice. The fries arrive quickly and are eaten with relish.
In March, stores like Bloomingdale’s, Shopbop, and Nordstrom received the first Frances Valentine collection: shoes and bags, ranging in price from $225 to $725, infused with the optimistic vibes and sculptural shapes that have become the designer’s hallmarks. Take the Pippa bag, which resembles a shrunken wicker picnic basket, or the Dallas shoe, a spectator-style leather sneaker that’s a tweaked, modernized version of just the kind of thing your grandmother might have worn during her salad days. Shoes are the main focus, which surprised some retailers, given that Valentine was the first to make the modern concept of the It bag—once the exclusive territory of luxury houses—available to the masses. But Valentine was more attracted tothe detailed work of footwear design. “It was harder,” she says.
Valentine’s design process doesn’t involve dozens of mood boards or inspiration trips to far-flung locales. “It’s easier for me to design by first coming up with a shape,” she says, citing doorknobs and the bases of lamps as a few examples of her starting points. “On the side, I know there are materials I want to use, but I figure out shapes and then reapply them. Does it always work? No. Do we overdevelop in samples? Yes, but only because we’re at the beginning. We’d better not tell that to our financial guy!” She laughs alongside Spade and Arons.
The new label eschewed a flashy launch party in New York in favor of a meet-and-greet at Halls, a venerable retailer in Valentine’s hometown, Kansas City, Missouri. The understated approach was, like all things in the brand’s world, intentional. “If you’re going to make mistakes—which you’re going to—it’s better to do it on a smaller scale than a larger one,” Valentine says. “We didn’t start out with too broad a line. I like keeping things tight, but not so tight that it ends up looking over-merchandised.” The brand’s initials have emerged as a prominent design motif. “We exaggerated the FV on the bag. Instead of making it a little logo, it’s boom! As long as there’s a sense of humor and intelligence that’s more witty rather than silly,” she explains.
While the Frances Valentine team is extremely focused on the brand’s success, that doesn’t mean it’s seeking to build Kate Spade 2.0. “People say, ‘It’s similar to what you did before—there’s color!’” Spade says with a smile. “That always makes me laugh, because who owned color? My grandmother wore a yellow shoe once.”
Branding is Andy Spade’s domain, and his accomplishments in the world of advertising etc., starting with Kate Spade, are legendary. In 2008, he founded Partners & Spade, a branding studio that tackles retail design, experiential marketing, product development, filmmaking, and more. High-profile projects, including a wide-ranging role in the creation of J.Crew’s Liquor Store concept, have shown Spade to be something of a savant. (The latest addition to his empire is Sleepy Jones, a loungewear brand in which Spade is a partner that has emerged as Lower Manhattan’s premier pajama purveyor.)
Spade painstakingly tested names and logos before the partners eventually settled on Frances Valentine, a nod to the couple’s 11-year-old daughter, Frances Beatrix Spade, and several of Valentine’s extended family members. “We liked the sound of it, and we thought it had a reason for being,” he says.
“I’m not doing this to play around,” affirms Valentine. But according to Arons, she does love to joke. “I don’t think I’ve ever laughed more with anyone else in my life,” Arons says as she and Valentine launch into an old story about the grungy freight elevator at Kate Spade’s first office in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. “We had my wedding there—and we had rats!” reminisces Valentine, delighted.
Nearly 25 years after the birth of Kate Spade, its founders are more tightly knit and passionate about their collaboration than ever. “We were like the Three Stooges, and because we’re so close, it works,” says Valentine. “There’s such an uncensored atmosphere to our relationship that the business has such a genuine honesty to it.”
“I equate it to the Kardashians,” Spade says. “We’re like a family—we fight, we don’t fight, but we always sit down and talk it out.” Valentine laughs and adds, “All in front of our crew!”