By now you may have heard about Frances Valentine, the second act from the designer formerly known as Kate Spade, who, in 1993, founded a namesake line with her husband, Andy. In 2007, they, along with fellow co-founder Elyce Arons and Design Director Paola Venturi, all walked away from the company a year after it was acquired by what was then Liz Claiborne Inc.
Nearly 10 years later, the four are back together after having each embarked on various individual projects. Andy Spade launched Sleepy Jones and grew his branding studio Partners & Spade; Venturi did a stint at Prada; and Kate Spade spent time with her daughter. Shortly after announcing the launch of the new accessories brand Frances Valentine, a combination of two family names, Kate legally changed her last name to Valentine. And after much anticipation, their e-commerce website finally launched on Thursday evening. (It was supposed to launch weeks ago, but the co-founders wanted to get it perfect, we're told.)
The launch signals how much has changed in fashion retail and marketing since Valentine and her team, several members of which we spoke with over the phone earlier this month, launched their first brand. Spade — that would be Andy — says the top priority, aside from "ease of use," was for the website to be able to tell the brand's origin story and inspiration. "It will be kind of a combination of things that people have been asking questions about for a while, and we're trying to answer those questions, but we also want it to be fun for people to interact with," he explains. "We've been out for seven years now so I think we want to show more of us as a team." As in, not just Kate. "Kate doesn't want to be the only person on the front; Paola is here with us and Elyce is with us. It's a collective."
While Spade has plenty of e-comm experience through his direct-to-consumer pajama line Sleepy Jones, Valentine is pretty new to the idea. "I don't do a lot of shopping online," she says, "I'm not sure if I should say that, but I familiarized myself with the process and I think it's actually fun; I love it. Andy's shown me a lot."
Another thing the brand is investing heavily in and that didn't exist during their Kate Spade years: Instagram. They've been using that platform primarily for the storytelling Spade mentioned, and to have a direct dialog with customers that they weren’t able to have with their first business.
"It will be a mix of personal things behind the curtain, what we're doing, showing our design process," he explains, citing the importance of transparency in today's fashion brands. "Everything has changed since we left. It's a little more open than it was in the past." Spade says he does most of the social media himself, and will incorporate video, something he does a lot of at Partners & Spade, into the content marketing as well. See an example, by filmmaker Van Neistat, below.
Marketing and design efforts, like the look and feel of the website, are even more crucial this time around, because the brand has more competition. "When we left, ready-to-wear designers weren't focused on accessories as much. Now, instead of 20 people doing accessories, there are a 100 or 1,000, so the things we make now people really have to love," says Spade. "We have to give them a reason to buy it. We have to differentiate ourselves and make it very special and emotional and something very unique."
Italy-based Venturi, who comes to Frances Valentine with a technical shoe design background (and, recently, several years' worth of experience at Prada), described the design process as very intuitive and collaborative. There's not always a story or theme or romantic inspiration to describe. "I used to get nervous, and now I'm not nervous about saying we don't have a theme. It's based on a mood," explains Valentine.
Instead, she and Venturi think about what they would truly want. "I really do love the things that make me go, 'Oh my god I have to have that,' even if it's a basic. It has to have a distinguishable component." For Frances Valentine, that's a geometric dome heel on otherwise classic ankle-strap sandals (and, for fall, some equally chic ankle boots) that will become a signature. Styles won't change drastically from season to season because, again, they want to give customers what they want, rather than taking it away with the next collection. Spade explained this concept thusly: "I have every color of Levi's corduroy that they've ever made. When they're not [available at a store], I get very disappointed."
E-commerce is not the only point of sale for Frances Valentine. The brand has already launched with a number of wholesale accounts including Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's and Shopbop, among others. But the founders do hope direct-to-consumer becomes a significant part of their business. Soon, that could include brick-and-mortar as well. When I first spoke with Valentine back in November (when we still knew her as Spade), she was debating whether the brand's first New York store should be uptown or downtown. Three months later, she's yet to make a decision, but is looking for the "right space."
As for what else is on the horizon: there will be more handbags, of which the brand has already introduced a few, but the future could bring a full-on lifestyle move, too. "Shoes was what I left [Kate Spade] loving the most," says Valentine. "We're trying to establish ourselves as firmly planted in shoes for now and the bags are item-driven at the moment, but I do see it panning out as a [full] collection."
The site's cool, appealingly quirky visuals have Andy Spade (whose agency, Partners & Spade, has worked with J.Crew and Warby Parker) written all over them, but they maintain a classic, irreverent femininity that feels unequivocally Kate Spade — er — Valentine. And speaking of the new name, I had to ask if and how they plan to incorporate it into the brand's marketing. "I was just in a design meeting with Paola and Kate and just realizing, well, maybe we should think about a Valentine's Day shoe for next year," said Spade sardonically. "It might be too obvious... we might consider it. Maybe something red."
See the full Frances Valentine spring 2016 collection in the gallery below, available to shop now on Francesvalentine.com.