Opinion: Spade life and suicide resonate with women

Twelve hours after news broke that Kate Spade had taken her own life, the store that bears her name in the city where she was raised displayed a message intended to be as effervescent as the designer herself.

A single blush pink rose lay on the sidewalk space outside the glass doors of the closed store on the Country Club Plaza, a fabled outdoor shopping district in Kansas City.

The rose was silk, but only upon close inspection.

Next to the flower lay a note, one of the whimsical postcards that are available free to any customer at the counter of the stores bearing her name.

“We will miss you! She is quick, curious, playful and strong. RIP Kate Spade,” it read.

It was the perfect message, perfectly staged, even at this sad, sad time.

Meanwhile, the trolls and ghouls took to social media as the details of Spade’s suicide emerged, to tear her down.

A tainted brand, some sneered, pointing to Spade’s struggles with mental illness in recent years. Some took careless swipes at her 55 years of life, as if how she chose to end it undercut everything that came before.

Beauty and baubles are merely a distraction, some suggested, vanities unable to stave off the illnesses of the mind, as if even trying to achieve a higher standard of appearance should be suspect, a cover for the weak of will.

In much of the vile commentary you could hear the myths that Americans tell themselves about depression, manic behavior and suicide: that it only happens in some families; that it can be fought off by sheer will. And then there’s the lie that seems to explain Kate Spade: that mental illness is some sort of fuel for creativity, or perhaps a by-product of genius.

The Kansas City Star published a painful-to-read interview with Spade’s older sister Reta Saffo. Between the lines of her emailed responses, Saffo was virtually screaming in pain, anger and frustration.

It is the voice of someone who struggled with a mentally ill family member for years, only to see her commit the act of taking her own life.

She discussed the pressure of keeping up the Kate Spade image, admitting that it was part of the reason that Spade was reluctant to accept treatment.

Is there anyone who doesn’t recognize the fears behind that reluctance?

Saffo also revealed that her famous little sister used alcohol to self-medicate in recent years. That, too, should resonate with women.

In the 12 hours preceding Spade’s death, and during the 12 that followed, I had an array of frank, mostly unsolicited conversations about suicide. And they were unsettling. It always is to hear this pain, to learn of the struggles that families undertake to find competent care or even empathy.

I’ve heard variations of the story for years, being a reporter who has spent quite a bit of her career writing on mental health. I listened to women talk about their children who are struggling with suicidal feelings — some in treatment, some refusing it — and of spouses and schools that step up and support those kids, and those that don’t.

In life, Spade understood there is a dignity that can come with how we present ourselves, no matter the price point. She helped countless women do that.

The final, most eloquent statement of Kate Spade is yet to come. It will be in the way the women who adored her style choose to make sense of her death. My hope is that we take it forward a step; that we judge less, listen more and appreciate the inherent beauty in all women, even as they struggle and no matter what they are wearing.

Writes for Tribune Content Agency

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