Who’s Really Inside My Kate Spade?

On the gloomy block of 25th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, a line of shivering people, some 500 of us, stretched down the sidewalk and doubled back again. We were waiting to enter a large, dark building. Men working on a nearby construction project squinted. Most of the women were well coiffed, in dark designer suits and expensive sunglasses, conversing, talking on cell phones and tapping their tastefully stacked heels.

What was I doing there, I thought, wasting my time on a Wednesday morning? Was I waiting for hot theater tickets? A handout of surplus diamonds? Viagra for females ? Nope. I was at the annual Kate Spade sample sale. I, and the hundreds of women with me, were in search of the perfect bag.

“I’ve been waiting for an hour and 45 minutes,” said Christina, a tall, blond jewelry designer from northwest Connecticut. “I got on the train at 6 in the morning to come down here. I tell myself that I’m not going to spend a lot of money, but you get swept up in the frenzy … For what they are, they don’t seem worth it, but when you have a fetish you have a fetish.”

What was she looking for?

“Basic black. I bought a rattlesnake print one a few years ago and it just didn’t last through the seasons.”

I am more of a fuzzy-sweater woman than a DKNY girl. My friends had dragged me to the sample sale in an attempt to dress me more appropriately. They are fed up with my current choice of bag, a red rip-stop nylon backpack left over from college, which I enjoy because of its large size, its uncanny ability to deflect dirt and spilled beer, and its general overall comfort.

But in a city that provides a series of challenges, perhaps one of the largest for women is the decision of what purse will suit all of her needs. How does one leave the apartment in the morning and carry makeup, wallet, checkbook, newspaper, book? How does one then add the items needed to be prepared not to go home before a spontaneous evening out (different makeup, more money)? And what about being ready for the off-chance that she might not go home at all? Downtown girls have recently adopted the shoulder-slung, back-breaking, utilitarian messenger bag. Sensible uptown girls who believe firmly in the value of a good Frédéric Fekkai haircut make it clear the Kate Spade bag is the way to go.

If you don’t know by now, Kate Spade founded her business in 1993 and her minimalist, boxy bag with a snap clasp has driven her company’s annual profits to $28 million. She designs bags in many textures and colors, but the most popular bag she sells is made of black nylon, lined inside in either black or patterned material, with a simple white label on the outer top reading “Kate Spade New York.” It retails at Bloomingdale’s for approximately $250. It is a bag that could be described at best as “plain,” but there is a stigma-or is it an

aura?-that goes with this purse. In the last few years, this bag has worked its way into the uniform of well-dressed-but not ridiculously wealthy-young professional women. A woman who wears a Kate Spade is image-conscious, clean-cut and able to shell out some, but not too much, cash. “The Kate Spade bag,” declared my co-worker Daphne, a fashion-conscious, Upper East Side advertising saleswoman, “is what you buy when you can’t afford Prada yet.”

So I gamely lined up.

Judging by the women in line hoping to buy this magical bag for half of its standard price, Daphne had pegged the Spade shopper. No one was over 35, the wildest color of suit was beige and, from the amount of anxious watch checking going on, everyone seemed to be missing work. In short, they all looked a lot like me. Well, not that much like me.

But don’t get me wrong. As an avid bargain-hunter, I came willingly. But after waiting half an hour and moving only a few feet ahead in line, I begin to think this whole quest was pretty surreal. Behind me, a woman at least six months pregnant stood swaying slightly and clutching her large black Kate Spade tote. “I’m here to buy the Kate Spade diaper bag,” she said. “It’ll be priced here at $275 as opposed to $450. It’s worth the wait.”

A young girl wearing a plaid uniform from Chapin, the private girls’ school on 84th Street and East End Avenue, waited bare-legged and shivering. “I have about four Kate Spades, but I want something bright for summer,” she said. “I might not make it back to class, though.”

Jason Hoffman, a financial adviser for Prudential Securities, was the only male in the line. “I’m here for my fiancée. I’m going to try to find her something in leather,” he said. Then he leaned in. “But I tell you, this is a great place to meet women.”

The doorman shouted at us to visit the A.T.M. before entering. Women were staggering out with plastic bags full of Kate Spade, admitting to spending $1,000 inside. Finally, I reached the front and was ushered into the elevator by a gruff but friendly superintendent named Joe. “Two thousand people yesterday. It’s been crazy!” he said. He let us out of the elevator into the showroom, which is spare, white and elegant. Tall, thin women wearing knee-skimming skirts, ballet flats and upswept hair glided from room to room purposefully, checking merchandise, pricing and preparing for further throngs of shoppers. I wrestled past a brunette in a slate Calvin Klein suit into the room where the sale was taking place, and was surprised to find myself anxious and sweaty.

Would I find a bag? There were so many! Striped ones, fuchsia ones, bags made of straw and plastic. Some sparkled, some had interesting textures, others had silk tassels. There were bags so big that I could take my golden retriever, Sam, along for the day, and bags so small that all I could fit into it would be a smallish tube of lipstick.

And then I saw it. My perfect bag was made of green nylon, sitting in a row of six others just like it. It was about the size of a large loaf of bread. This was the one. It was so square! It had zippers! And snaps! And green handles! Not to mention the little label. It cost $90, hardly a bargain objectively, but at other places this bag cost much, much more. And was green. Green!

I snapped it up and headed to the checkout line, where there was a further delay of 30 minutes because the saleswomen were having trouble counting all of the money. People talked excitedly about their new bags, how perfect they were, what they would match. I eyed them warily and clutched my new purse a little tighter. Finally, I slid over a $100 bill, the wisp of a salesgirl gave me $10 back, and the purse was mine.

Then, a quandary: I now had two bags. Which do I carry? Should I play the sophisticated young working woman-self-supporting, nobody’s fool-with the Kate Spade? Or should I stick with the shabby, faithful knapsack, the bag I know and love?

I stuffed the Spade inside my backpack and walked out into the chilly air.