Power Couple

By: Linda TischlerMarch 1, 2005
How many great husband-and-wife business teams can you think of? Us neither. But Kate and Andy Spade have figured out how to make their unusual partnership work. They've built a fashion empire -- but can they make it last?

Kate and Andy Spade are that rare thing: a great husband-and-wife business team. What makes their collaboration so unusually powerful? It's all about their differences.

It's one of those dazzling South Beach days that feel suspiciously art-directed -- warm sun, swaying palms, and a streetscape so teeming with the young, the hip, the buff, and the surgically enhanced that it feels like a casting call for Baywatch. In an office building overlooking Lincoln Road, Andy Spade -- CEO of the hip fashion company Kate Spade -- is in town doing manly work: auditioning models for a spring ad campaign. Midway through the parade of lissome lovelies, Spade's cell phone rings and he excuses himself for a hurried, slightly impatient, exchange.

"That was my mom," he confides, without the slightest attempt to pass off the caller as Gisele Buendchen begging for an audition. "She's having a grandchild and wants to know the sex. I told her we don't know yet."

That's an astonishing admission for a guy whose favorite word -- indeed, whose approach to life -- is "curious." Even his wife, the company's "Kate," is surprised that Andy has opted to remain in the dark about the gender of the couple's latest joint venture. But Andy has his own reasons for preserving the mystery: "It gives us something to talk about besides the business," he says.

For the past 11 years, the Spades have talked about little else. By any measure, it has been a remarkably successful conversation. Together, Kate and Andy Spade have built a $175 million business and a distinctive global brand. Launched nationally with an iconic $155 black nylon handbag in 1993, Kate Spade has since grown to include stationery, shoes, small leather goods, eyewear, and home furnishings, as well as a separate men's line, Jack Spade. They have 16 free-standing Kate Spade shops in the United States and nine in the Far East; more than 600 stores also carry the brand. Additionally, they have a thriving partnership with Neiman Marcus and a fledgling e-commerce business.

It has been an exhausting, all-consuming ride. And then, like many couples, when they turned 40, they had a moment straight out of the Pop Art cartoon: "Oh my God, we forgot to have a baby!" "It was something we always wanted to do, but you get caught up in the moment of the business," says Kate, 42, back in the company's sleek white showroom in New York. "This industry is very, very competitive," Andy chimes in, gesturing to a candy-colored array of handbags lining the walls. "And I didn't want to feel guilty about not spending time with a child. But now, we have a business, and it's strong. So I think there's an advantage to being our age and at this point in our lives. We can do this."

Few who know the couple would doubt their ability to balance yet another mutual effort. Indeed, although his wife has been the public face of the company, Andy is hardly just the man who accompanied Kate Spade to SoHo. The real key to understanding the success of Kate Spade, the company, is to recognize the frisson that comes from the collaboration of the two. Kate is the muse, the brilliant editor and product designer; Andy is the big-idea guy, the one who takes the risks, shapes the brand, pushes the boundaries. "Where they intersect is so meaningful in terms of values, taste, and the appreciation for the classics," says Julia Leach, executive vice president of brand strategy, who has known the two for 15 years. "But where they're different is where the magic happens and you get this thing called 'Kate Spade.' "

Finding a compatible business partner is never easy. Finding someone you can share both a bed and a company with is a near impossibility. How many great husband-and-wife business teams can you think of? While there are plenty of family businesses, the stresses of starting a company are particularly acute if both partners are living and breathing the operation 24-7. First, as in any partnership, there's the problem of role definition: Who's responsible for what? Then there's the issue of who has the final say on the big decisions -- prickly enough if it's your brother-in-law, potentially lethal if it's your spouse. Maintaining professional decorum can be a challenge: The voice you use for pillow talk shouldn't emerge in a sales meeting, after all. And figuring out how to keep business from taking over your life, if your life is your shared business, is tricky too. The complications simply seem greater and the stakes higher all around. Or as Nan Langowitz, director of the Center for Women's Leadership at Babson College, puts it, "A couple-owned business is an emotional risk as well as a financial risk."

From Issue 92 | March 2005