“Right from the beginning, I looked back before I moved forward.” On a quiet Monday afternoon in late August, Nicola Glass was sitting in Kate Spade New York’s bright and cheerful New York showroom, surrounded by her first collection for the iconic American brand.
It was less than three weeks before the Tapestry Inc.-owned label’s first runway show today and the breakout moment for Glass, who had spent much of her career largely behind the scenes. The creative director, who had worked tirelessly over the last 10 months to put her stamp on Kate Spade, was feeling calm and confident about the big debut. “It’s not a mad rush to the end,” she said. “I’m a little excited and a little nervous, but I think that’s what keeps you on your toes.”
Brand CEO and president Anna Bakst chimed in with her own vote of confidence. “I can’t wait for the show,” she told Glass. “The product is so strong, and I’m so excited for the rest of the world to see it.”
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The much-buzzed-about Fashion Week event — which is being held at the grand New York Public Library — marks a new beginning for Kate Spade. But it also pays tribute to the brand’s late legendary founder and namesake, who died in June.
Bakst said that in the days and weeks following the tragedy, the label saw a “strong and immediate heartfelt response from loyal customers” — which boosted sales and reinforced Kate Spade’s enduring relationship with brand fans.
Glass clearly understood the power of that connection, and she took the feminine, optimistic spirit that Kate Spade has always been known for and infused her own modern vision. She touched every single category from tech to ready-to-wear to jewelry — and of course the beloved accessories business. “In some cases, we kept something familiar and turned it around,” said the designer, who worked at Michael Kors for more than 13 years and was also previously an accessories designer at Gucci. “In other cases, it was a redesign.”
The overhaul also extended to branding, store design and packaging, an ambitious endeavor — but a challenge she clearly relished. “We’re not trying to shock [people] or turn the brand on its head, but you want people to go, ‘What’s happened at Kate Spade?’”
A few months after Glass arrived at the label, Tapestry chief Victor Luis hired Bakst, another highly respected Michael Kors veteran, as Kate Spade’s new president and CEO. It was a dynamic move that brought two esteemed industry talents back together — and they hit the ground running once Bakst was in place last spring.
“We’ve been fortunate in that we worked for powerful brands in the past,” said Bakst, who spent 12 years at Donna Karan International before her stint at Kors as the president of accessories. “We’ve learned from successes and missteps — and know how to scale businesses.”
While Kate Spade is well-established in the U.S. and Japan, Bakst and the team plan to grow its presence in Greater China, Southeast Asia and Europe as Tapestry buys back control of businesses in key regions. Digital expansion is also at the top of the agenda for the brand, which reported annual revenues of $1.28 billion for its recent fiscal year and expects double-digit growth in the year ahead. (The revenue figure excludes a 10-day “stub” period when the label wasn’t under Tapestry ownership.) “We’ve got brand, talent, passionate teams, product, resources and lots of opportunity,” Bakst said. “Being part of Tapestry, we have the same kind of resources that a lot of the big luxury [houses] have. It will come down to the execution.”
Here, the CEO and creative director open up about their new strategy, the all-important millennial consumer and the power of the Kate Spade brand.
The 25-year milestone has been emotional. How are you honoring Kate as you move forward?
Nicola Glass: “I had never met Kate or [husband and co-founder] Andy [Spade], but I was always inspired by their story and what they did 25 years ago. It was my starting point, looking at their approach to design and their ad campaigns — and the spirit and confidence of women in them.”
As you prepare to unveil your
first collection, take us through your refresh.
NG: “My design approach is to look at all the details. Kate Spade is known for strong color, but I wanted to look at it in a [fresh] way with unexpected combinations. Another important thing was the use of prints and finding a new way of doing them. I started looking at iconic elements and building them. One was a spade — a lot of brands look for a symbol, and Kate Spade had it. I explored different ways to utilize it, from subtle to more bold, smaller to larger. It was important that the brand became more modern and less retro, with a youthful spirit. We wanted to elevate not just the design but the construction and materials, whether it was developing new leathers with a 3-D printing technique or redesigning the hardware. The brand was known for its fun novelty, but sometimes it was too literal or obvious. It was about finding a way to tap into that sense of discovery.”
Anna Bakst: “Nicola wasted no time in delving into our house codes and doing something that we can build on going forward across all categories. She created covetable, iconic elements. I call them brand identifiers so people will know it’s Kate Spade even if they don’t see the name. And these can be used across all product categories, from handbags and shoes to clothes and home. The other thing [we wanted to do] is to add function — and lean into this feminine and fashionable proposition. We wanted the product to express that.”
Who is the core Kate Spade
NG: “The brand appeals to a wide age group, not a specific demographic. The customer is young at heart no matter what her age is. There are different points when she could be [introduced] to the brand — maybe someone gave her a present for graduation. We also have a large wedding registry business, so sometimes that’s the woman’s first introduction to the brand. Tech [and phone cases] are something that attracts the younger customer.”
AB: “Kate Spade naturally has a youthful spirit. The storytelling, the authenticity of the brand, resonates with millennials. We want to encourage our customer to express her own personal style and do it in an authentic way. That very much aligns with the millennial consumer.”
Which categories do you enjoy
designing the most?
NG “My background was more in accessories. I also designed jewelry. It’s been great to come in and reinvigorate those categories. I also love fashion and clothing. Being involved in ready-to-wear has been fun, and I’ve enjoyed pulling it all together.”
What are the most notable growth opportunities in the year ahead?
AB: “The strategy Kate Spade has had in place is a great one. We are primarily direct-to-consumer-focused. Our fastest-growing comp business is digital. We are naturally digitally oriented, and we love having a close and strong relationship with our customer — and our wholesale is also still important. Asia is our largest untapped market. It’s a market that Tapestry knows well. We’re fortunate to be able to tap into their resources and the expertise. It’s not just about doing business in greater China but also with the Chinese consumer. Our consumer awareness in China is low, and I see that as an opportunity.”
What are the big challenges?
AB: “Going global is a big step. This idea of thinking globally and acting locally is going to be a big shift. As we go forward, [we must] replicate the successes we’ve had in North America and Japan, and do that in other markets. We will be thinking globally and acting locally. You’ve got an expanded team, and there are different time zones and languages and cultures. There will be a lot of learning, but the teams are excited.”
It’s still difficult for women to rise to the top in the fashion industry. What does it mean to you to be two powerful female leaders?
AB: “We are inclusive and appreciate all genders. But this is a woman’s brand, started by a woman and led by women. There’s a lot of things we can talk to women about.”
NG: “Coming in on my first day, I didn’t know anyone at the company. There were so many amazing women in leadership roles at the company and a diverse range of people with different styles. It’s a supportive atmosphere to work in, but at the same time, people hold each other accountable.”
AB: “If I had known how wonderful this place is, I would have found my way here sooner. It’s an amazing culture.”
What do you admire most about each other as leaders?
NG: “For me, it was knowing that we worked well together in the past. We had a good chemistry, and it meant we were able to hit the ground running. [We] have a shorthand where we can work fast and well together. Even though Anna comes from a business background, she has a strong product eye and understands the design process. I also like that she’s very direct and decisive. With a business partner, it’s important that you’re transparent.”
AB: “It’s gone both ways completely. There’s a lot of respect and trust. I’m incredibly inspired by Nicola’s creative talent, and it makes your job as a merchant much easier when you’re working with great product. Nicola knows how to create that magic with her team.”
How has the industry changed since you
AB: “In the past, your product got distributed [only] with shelf space at department stores. Today, it’s not about that. It’s about how you behave, what your message is, how you communicate. It keeps us on our toes. Customers want a relationship with brands, and that suits us very well.”
Click through the gallery to see the full Kate Spade spring ’19 collection.