Kate Spade has died, and I can’t stop thinking about her backpack. The backpack, which was as ubiquitous in the halls of my junior high school as Juicy Couture jumpsuits, Steve Madden sling-backs, and kids with acne. It was a status symbol, one that seemed relatively easy to attain in the well-off Chicago suburb where I grew up, where girls were gifted Tiffany bracelets on the occasion of their bat mitzvahs, where kids were dropped off to school in the parents’ BMWs, where being Jewish and wealthy usually meant you proudly referred to yourself as a JAP.
I didn’t like to call myself a JAP, but I sure did love my Kate Spade backpack. I got it in black, basic enough to go with anything, classy enough to dress up those days when I wore the aforementioned Juicy sweatsuit to school (but I swear, I wasn’t a JAP). I can’t even think of what I would carry in the backpack — this was before the days of cell phones, and I didn’t have many necessities beyond some milky gel pens and a duct-tape wallet I made at summer camp. I assume I got the backpack as a birthday present, and I assume I asked specifically for it, and I’m guessing my mother reminded me that this backpack wasn’t big enough to fit my school things in, so it would mean carrying two backpacks to school every day, and I’m sure my response was something along the lines of “duh.” Practicality didn’t matter.
This wasn’t just about a bag.
As I’m guessing is true for most humans, junior high, for me, was a time of major identity crisis. I was coming off an active childhood of competitive figure skating, most of my time spent in the rink before and after school, the smallness of my body seen as a keen advantage by both my coaches and myself. Now in junior high, I wanted to expand my opportunities, test out different groups of friends, and play grown-up for a while. I joined the poms squad (a sport that is like cheerleading without the cheers, and very different from ice skating, let me assure you), started hanging out with girls who hadn’t necessarily known me since I was 4, and made an attempt to be popular, to be the kind of girl who might snag a boyfriend one day (though that wouldn’t happen for five more years).
But I wasn’t a popular girl, not at heart. I liked weird things too much, like pretending to be a chemist in my bathroom, mixing potions made of cold cream and old cologne. And I had to wear a chin cup at night — a contraption not unlike a dog’s muzzle that aimed to correct my underbite (the less popular orthodontic malady). And I was tiny, but not in the good way anymore. I was flat-chested and still looked like a kid among my more developed friends who would bandy about buying C-cup bras like it was no big thing. I wanted to be an adult but I still had to buy my clothes at Limited Too.
But handbags were a different story. Anyone could fit into a bag. And once you got that bag, it seemed, you could fit into anyone. And so I convinced my parents to spend what was way too much money on this singular object that I hoped could launch me into the category I so wanted to be a part of: the cool girl. (After trying to research the price of Kate Spade bags in 1999 to no avail, I polled a group of friends to see if they remembered. So far the only response has been “more than my mom was willing to spend.” She’s still bitter.)
In Racked‘s piece about the sparkly success of Kate Spade from 2016, a Wall Street Journal fashion critic is quoted as saying, “The purses became something of a handshake… When two women met and saw they were both holding Kate Spade bags, they’d nod at each other and understand they were on the same page. It was very chic.” Indeed, this handshake could be seen left and right in the halls of Twin Groves Junior High, except instead of celebrities and high profile fashionistas, it was 13-year-old girls with braces and name necklaces. And the message we were sending wasn’t that we were chic so much as we wanted to be chic, but not uniquely so. We wanted to have style but the right kind of style. The same kind of style as everyone else.
At the time, I felt like an imposter — carrying a Kate Spade backpack by day only to return to my true self at night, a girl who still cuddled a stuffed Elmo doll and was afraid of thunderstorms. But now I know the secret to childhood: Everyone was feeling the same exact way. Those cool girls who made Kate Spade popular in the first place were also just trying on an identity for size, one that happened to have a perfectly-sized zipper pouch for your glittery lip gloss that tasted like cake. Slinging on the socially accepted handbag of choice kept us all afloat during a time when everything else felt painful and dramatic and out of our control.
We owe a lot to Kate Spade — us privileged, suburban girls with our adorable, overpriced backpacks — for letting us go incognito for a while, during a time when revealing our true selves was simply too terrifying to stomach. To us, Kate Spade wasn’t a person so much as a symbol, two sharp syllables that worked like a secret password into a world we so desperately wanted to be a part of.
When we read of Kate’s death — so shocking this could happen to a person like her — we ought to remember how much of life is just an appearance. Sometimes that saves us, and sometimes it cannot.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.