My First Designer Bag: The Kate Spade ‘Sam’

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photo of my daughter in CityCenter DC carrying what I hoped to be a replacement for my first designer bag, the Kate Spade Sam.
My daughter with my Kate Spade ‘Sam' bag

My dad died in March of 1998. I was working as an Assistant Manager of an Express, my sister was still in college. It seemed that spring was just about trying to function. We needed so many copies of his death certificate to deal with student loans in his name, cars in his name, medical bills in his name. To be honest, I don’t remember much of that period of time.

I remember wearing a brown matte jersey skirt and top to his memorial service, it was from The Limited. I didn’t want to wear black. I didn’t want to wear brown (I didn't “do” brown) but I was tired of looking. I remember family, some being amazing and some being complete assholes. And I remember a lot of paperwork, time at the MVA (I inherited his car), a lot of feeling numb.

That summer, my mom suggested the three of us go on a vacation to escape, we chose a cruise to Bermuda. Sadly, I don’t remember much of Bermuda. I bought an amber ring; my sister bought a garnet pendant (our birthstone). My sister didn’t have the money for the necklace, my mom loaned it to her.

My sister was still in college and didn’t have the money to pay back my mom when we got back from the trip. Eventually, my mom gave up on getting paid back and told my sister that she was absolved of the debt but to keep things fair, I was able to get what I wanted with the same amount of money.

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My First Designer Bag: The Kate Spade ‘Sam'

I wanted a Kate Spade purse. More specifically, I wanted the Kate Spade ‘Sam’ bag in black. It was a rectangular, boxy bag coated in black nylon. The Kate Spade label was black with small white writing, sewn on the front. I never owned a bag nicer than what I could get with my employee discount at Express. I felt this bag was the epitome of chicness and yet also so practical.

My mom tasked my sister with finding the bag for me. Seems as though everyone wanted the Kate Spade Sam bag in black. All the local Nordstroms were sold out. No, I didn’t want brown. I didn’t “do” brown. I wanted black. Debbie called around and finally found one at a Nordstrom in New Jersey and they mailed it to me (Nordstrom has always had exceptional customer service).

I carried that Kate Spade purse EVERYWHERE. It went with everything. I felt having such a cool bag completed my look, made me look more sophisticated, more stylish, better matching the Alison I had in my head, the Alison of the future with an impressive office job and a car she bought herself. I was 23, and felt this was a wardrobe investment, one I'd carry for years.

A year later, I was carting my lunch to work in my Kate Spade Sam. I was on the Metro, the bag by my side, my arm through the straps. A man got on the Metro and without looking sat on my Sam. In the bag was a container of La Yogurt (Pina Colada always). He crushed the bag, crushed the yogurt, the foil top burst off, the yogurt exploded all over the interior of my Sam.

I got to work and did the best I could to clean off Sam with the rough brown paper towels in the employee bathroom, hand soap, and water. The yogurt got into every nook and cranny, seeping into the cardboard-like frame between the layers of nylon.

The bag reeked of Pina Colada but I still carried it. That is until the Pina Colada scent was replaced by the stench of molding yogurt on cardboard. I left the bag out in the sun, I even cooked it at a very low temp in my oven, but the smell never completely left and the moisture caused the bag to become misshapen.

Even so, I didn’t get rid of my first designer bag until I got pregnant, a decade later in 2008. My Kate Spade ‘Sam' moved with me from my parent’s house to an apartment in College Park, another apartment in Annapolis, and then to where I currently live. When Karl and I moved in together, Sam resided in a large Ziploc bag in the guest bedroom closet. But when that room was going to be a nursery, I felt it was time to say goodbye to Sam.

Last year, I was thinking about how my style had evolved over the past two decades since I left college and began my career in apparel. What did I own back then that I would still wear or use? I thought of my Kate Spade Sam and went for a look on Poshmark.

I found what I thought was the same exact bag and only $15. I bought it. It arrived and it was a bit smaller and had longer straps, but it reminded me of how iconic Kate Spade was two decades ago, and how iconic the brand continued to be.

Emerson at Kate Spade in 2017 with my Kate Spade Sam Bag 1
My daughter at Kate Spade City Center DC with the Kate Spade ‘Sam' bag

Last February, Bubbles & Bloggers, a monthly meetup for DC bloggers created by Dani of Blonde in the District hosted an event at the Kate Spade store in City Center. My daughter loves Kate Spade; she inherited the passion for fashion from me and loves the color, whimsy, and fun that is the Kate Spade brand.

I loaned her my new-to-me Kate Spade nylon bag for the event. She used her money to buy a Kate Spade journal at the store, one she still writes and doodles in.

Kate Spade inside her SoHo flagship store on May 28, 1996. Photo by Kyle Ericksen/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock

Katy Brosnahan was an accessories editor at Mademoiselle magazine when she and her boyfriend Andy Spade started thinking about creating a bag line. In 1993 they launched Kate Spade. The collection was of just six styles, the six shapes that Kate Spade felt every working woman needed in her closet. One was the Sam.

This bag is such a classic that it was relaunched this spring in honor of its 25th anniversary. I am so saddened by Kate Spade’s death. She was a visionary and she created a brand that proves that fashion can be fun while still being practical and oh so chic. She will be missed by so many.

My father battled depression for many many years. Depression does not discriminate, it hits all ages, all social and economic groups. If you or a loved one are struggling, please know you are not alone. For confidential help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. Thank you for this post, it’s just lovely. Kate Spade’s suicide has been haunting me all week – and it’s weird in a way, for a person I did not know, and before this week really knew nothing about personally beyond her name and brand. But I realize she broke large in the 1990s, and her bag kind of became synonymous with becoming an adult when many of our generation were becoming adults. For many of us, saving up for one of her iconic bags represented achieving a certain milestone or level of professional legitimacy.

    But beyond that, I think her style and aesthetic spoke to many of us because it hit that balance between contradictions: playful and professional, masculine and feminine, monochromatic and brightly colorful, practical and whimsical. And helped us to realize you didn’t have to choose between or find a middle ground — there’s room in the closet for a serious black tote bag to go with a suit as well as a crayon-bright, delightful bag that speaks to your soul. And that you can be a smart, ambitious, professional woman, while still being your fully fun, feminine self.

  2. I still cannot believe the news. It’s like she made it into our lives and hearts through out closets maybe not even realising it, made such an impact.

  3. Kate Spade made my first designer bag, too. It was a gorgeous black polished calfskin bag with 2 narrow shoulder straps. I took it everywhere, even after severing one of the straps in my car’s latch. I tied the strap back together with a piece of metal from a necklace sort of like a staple. Many bags later, I still pull Kate’s bag out because it just seems right.

  4. A few years ago I was coming to the end of a 3+ year rough time in my life – the unexpected end of a long term relationship, having to sell a recently purchased shared dream home as a result of the end of that relationship and I took a very hard financial hit. I had been left with all the expenses of the new home as well as large attorney bills and through that time, there had been barely enough money for necessities let alone extras. As I was leaving those days behind, I continued my spartan ways, and one day, I had to admit my old wallet was falling apart. I went to my favorite Nordstrom (just looking!) and a bright blue Kate Spade wallet caught my eye. After much sweating, I bought it. It sat on my dresser in the tissue, in the bag, for weeks while I debated with myself over whether it was ok to keep it or if I should return it. One day I finally said, omg, it’s OK, you can keep and use the wallet, and that is just what I did. It’s in my purse right now. It’s bright, it’s happy, and it’s a daily reminder that everything is ok. I was so sad to hear the news of Kate’s struggle and suicide.

  5. It is tragic and you are so right about stigma. Her sister was interviewed and said she tried to get her help many times but KS was concerned about her brand. Not in a superficial way but because it was in conflict with her reputation of being so cheerful and colorful.

    1. My previous post was only partially posted. Emerson is adorable with that special bag. I know it represents a deeply painful time in your life. Mental illness is a life destroyer. I saved a loved one from a similar fate. Terrifying. The stigma of mental illness is so great that no one talks about t. Thanks for having the courage to speak out. patval

      1. Thank you. My dad passed from heart issues and the combination of the end and mentioning his death could have had it seem otherwise. But I do feel his depression affected his health and contributed to his decline and passing. It’s such a complex issue, and so many people think it can be solved with exercise or a social life or an attitude change. Your loved one is lucky to have you.

  6. I wore pink Kate Spade shoes when I married a little over eight years ago. We just bought a new (to us) house with an amazing closet and an even more amazing floor to ceiling shoe rack. I’ve been thinking which shoes should grace this glorious shoe rack first and my wedding shoes came to mind immediately. Probably inspiration from the Sex and the City movie. Our first trip to the new house after closing, I will bring the shoes I wore to our wedding and my husband will bring the shoes he wore that day and we will take a picture of the shoes that carried us into our new life as husband and wife as we continue our journey together. I have always loved Kate Spade bags, shoes, accessories…everything! I am so heartbroken for the struggle she must have endured and the pain her family must be feeling.

  7. What a lovely tribute both to Kate Spade and the impact something relatively minor, like a purse, can have on our lives. Thank you.

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