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Coworkers as Sole Mates: The Quartet Behind Frances Valentine

Frances Valentine

Image by Susanna Howe.

There is a lot of laughter on the other end of the phone line when the call goes through. All the principal members of the Frances Valentine team are gathered in their New York headquarters to talk about their reunion and the launch of their new footwear line. Well, except one. Andy Spade is running late—”Am I in trouble?,” he asks when he finally enters the room. To which the three women—his wife Kate Valentine (formerly Kate Spade), Design Director Paola Venturi and Head of Operations Elyce Arons—respond resoundingly “yes!”

The four were intimately involved in founding Kate Spade, now an international fashion label bought by Liz Claiborne, Inc. in 2007. Nearly 10 years later, the band is back together, and Kate has taken a new surname to associate herself with her new line, not, she assures, to distance herself from the handbag empire they once led.

Kate Valentine, Paola Venturi, Elyce Arons and Andy Spade

Clockwise from left to right: Kate Valentine (formerly Kate Spade), Paola Venturi, Elyce Arons and Andy Spade.

Frances is a family name, passed down for generations on Kate’s father’s side. And Valentine was her father’s middle name. Andy and Kate’s daughter’s name is Frances Beatrix Valentine Spade, which would be a mouthful for merchandising. During their intermission, both Kate and Elyce spent time raising their children. Paola went to work for Prada. And Andy founded several creative ventures. Until it came time to reunite.

We spoke with all four about Frances Valentine, reinvention, advice for working moms and their friendship. Plus the quartet shared images from their new pre-fall campaign shot in Kate and Andy’s townhouse.

Frances Valentine Blanche ankle cuff sandal

Image by Susanna Howe.

Why reunite at this time?

Elyce: Really it all just came together at the right time for each of us. Katie and I both took off the last eight years to raise our children. And they get to a certain age where they just don’t want you around anymore. So it was the right time for us. Paola had been at Prada for several years. We had kept in touch and met with her every time she came into town. And finally she was ready to join us. Andy has been working on all of his creative endeavors since we left our last company. Really it was just perfect timing for us all to come back together.

Paola: And we had such a great time when we were working at Kate Spade. And working with Katie and Andy is always inspiring. So I decided to come back and work with them. Every time we are together we go one step above my imagination. So that is why I’m here right now. It’s really true.

Kate: That’s so nice. When we left the company it really was perfect timing and I think it was great to do. It allowed us to spend time with our family. Sometimes you hear about how these stories don’t work out so well when there’s new ownership. And I think this way everybody is on good terms. It turned out perfectly. It wasn’t orchestrated in any way. I think that has always worked on our behalf. That’s even in terms of design. It’s not as orchestrated as some might imagine. It’s a little freer. Especially this time around it’s very free because it’s sort of an intimate, uncensored environment. Knowing that you’re working with people you’ve worked with before, it’s kind of magical.

Elyce: And it’s a lot of fun. We have a really great time together.

What is your work relationship like? How do you collaborate?

Elyce: Our work and personal kind of blends together because we’re all friends. There are certainly deadlines when we have to get things done. But it’s really all very natural.

Kate: Paola and I focus on the details of the design. I look at Andy as more kind of concept and branding. He throws things out, and Paola and I look at things and say, “oh, I like that” or “no, no, I would never do that! That’s not happening.” [Laughing.] And Elyce kind of pivots around the entire company. She has knowledge of everything that’s going on.

Elyce: She doesn’t want to say it, but I do all of the boring stuff. [Laughing.]

Kate: That’s not true. Kind of. [More laughing.] People often wonder what it’s like to work with best friends. What it’s like to work with spouses. People are so stunned, that in another situation where you tend to find people embroiled in legal battles because of friendship and this and that, here it would never, never, never happen. Not to say that we never disagree. You don’t want to be in some of our meetings. But at the same time we feel free enough to disagree. I’m not sure that I’d be as open with my opinion if we weren’t so close.

Elyce: I really trust all of you. Implicitly.

Kate: There’s an enormous amount of trust. You really ask their opinion. It’s a lot of fun but definitely there are ups and downs.

Frances Valentine Belle pointy toe boot and Poppy block heel sandal

Image by Susanna Howe.

What are you doing differently with Frances Valentine than with Kate Spade?

Kate: I feel a little more confident in some strange way. At first I thought I’d be more nervous because of the expectations. With Kate Spade, there were no expectations. We’re much more deliberate this time in how we’re approaching things. We want the same flexibility as when we first started. We started [Kate Spade] slowly, and that was by accident. Because no one knew who we were. This time, it’s more of a conscious decision to take it slowly. In terms of design, I feel more free and confident. I’m not shopping around the ideas as much.

Elyce: I think it’s a little different for Katie and me because we have more responsibilities this time versus last time in other aspects of our lives. We have our children. And we still do a lot of work at school. So there’s balancing all that. We wouldn’t want to give up any part of it because we love each piece. Last time we were completely and thoroughly engaged.

Kate: Yes. We would stay all night and all weekend, and it wouldn’t matter. And I think this time around you really do prioritize.

What would you advise moms returning to work?

Kate: I would say set up your boundaries. Make sure people around you are aware of how available you will be. Say, “I’m going to a basketball or lacrosse game.” It also means maybe you work later or come in on weekends. It’s no different than working remotely, like Paola does from Milan.

Elyce: The expectation of going back to work can be daunting if you haven’t been in it in eight years. When you left, it was your main focus. Now as a mother, your main focus is always going to be your children, hopefully. Your family also has to be able to maintain those boundaries.

Paola: What is different for me is that I’m the only one who actually comes into work now. [Laughing.] For me during that time, I worked for Via Spiga and for Prada, so what I can bring to the group right now is much more experience.

Kate: We’ve all come with a new set of skills.

Frances Valentine Marybeth pompom ankle strap pump

Image by Susanna Howe.

Why a shoe collection? What excites you about shoes?

Paola: What I love about shoes is to create the construction. The heel shape and the toe shape. Because for me they are like a small sculpture. For example, our geodesic dome heel is a really amazing shape. And the right proportion is so important, the design proportions are a really difficult task. What we are doing now is really simple and modern. It’s really interesting. There is always some detail that comes out. This is something Katie and I really love. There are a lot of small details in the line.

Kate: Even if they are the simplest shoes there has to be something that makes you want to have them. These styles are signature to us. I love that feeling of “oh my God, I have to have you.” That’s the feeling we’re going after.

How is Frances Valentine different than Kate Spade?

Kate: We’ve evolved. [Laughing.]

Elyce: We’re ten years older.

Kate: I think it’s a reflection of all of our experiences that we’ve had over the last eight years. Paola in design. Andy with all of his new companies. Elyce and I as mothers. And as consumers we got to see what’s out there. I have no interest in competing against our namesake. We’re proud of it. We are making a big point of distinguishing ourselves. That’s through the details. There’s no interest in doing something that we’ve done before.

Kate, you changed your surname to Valentine. Are you shaking off the Kate Spade persona?

Kate: It really was to make sure we weren’t stepping on any toes and that we were clear with the customer that this is a different brand. I’m not a completely different person. I didn’t come out of this punk rock or anything. But I will say that my style and the things that I am attracted to now are a bit different than they were eight years ago. So I changed my name to differentiate us but I also think it sounds very royal, to have all these names: Katherine Frances Spade Valentine. [Laughing.]

The Frances Valentine showroom

The Frances Valentine showroom.

Is there a persona behind this Frances? Can you talk about your pre-fall campaign?

Andy: Oh yeah, there is kind of a European element to it because we are working with Paola out of Italy, combined with a very American, New York story. We’re looking at it as a kind of suburban urban lifestyle. The campaign was shot inside our townhouse and our back courtyard. It was really about mothers. Mothers who live in New York City dress really well. They are kind of like cosmopolitan soccer moms.

Kate: It’s effortless chic.

Andy: Right. They are going out and playing with their kids. There’s basketball and tutors and games. But they are still very chic. I see that in New York all the time. I see that in my partners, in Kate and Elyce. I’m influenced by them a lot. You know Kate and Elyce love Marni and Commes des Garçons and take influence from Margaret Howell, who is a great designer out of London. And we love the tweeds and we love fall in New York. The color palette is really based on a New York fall.

[The campaign] really sums up what we’re doing with the design process as well, with Paola bringing in this great craftsmanship from Italy and full of details that you often don’t see in America. But then with our take, Kate, Elyce and mine, about the American lifestyle that we always come back to. I basically duplicated our lives with models. But I didn’t mean for those scarves to be babushkas, which everyone seems to thing they are. [Laughing.] But it is international and chic.

SHOP: Frances Valentine

—Britt Olson