Andy Spade’s arc of success is well-documented and yet it remains a cause for satisfaction. The simple, utilitarian design exemplified by Jack Spade seems straightforward, but like a good bistro or garage band, the key is the execution. It turns out that’s not so easy after all. Jack Spade also worked because it was at home in any neighborhood, dressed up or down. And yet it never took itself so seriously it couldn’t release a frog dissection kit. The case of Andy Spade is a reminder that just because something feels inevitable doesn’t mean it isn’t visionary.
We met at Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel.
David Coggins: You live up here by Bemelman’s?
Andy Spade: Right, just around the corner.
DC: And you’re drinking a Vodka Southside.
AS: Right. It’s a southern summer drink with vodka, simple syrup, a little lime juice and soda water. Usually it’s made with gin. That’s my favorite light drink. This is what I order in a bar, at home we drink wine. We spend our summers in California, so we drink a lot of wine, mostly red. I love this Alexis cabernet is by the Swanson family, who are friends of ours.
DC: This is a great bar to have down the street.
AS: When my wife and I first moved to New York it was our treat to come up here and listen to music. I’d lived downtown my whole time in New York. When I moved up here 10 years ago people said, ‘You’re selling out.’ I said ‘New York’s a mile long, if you go up 50 blocks you haven’t changed your entire life.’ I want to have a tree on my block. Andy Warhol lived on the Upper East Side, Woody Allen lives up here.
DC: You’re associated with Greene Street and Warren Street.
AS: Now Great Jones. I love good New York City streets. We started out on Renwick Street and then to Prince and then to Crosby—this is all in the 80’s and early 90’s. Then we moved to Warren Street. Our building, like a lot of buildings in Tribeca, was sold.
DC: Were those raw spaces?
AS: Totally raw. We had a top floor and the roof. And a lot of degenerates sleeping in the hall. Then finally my wife said ‘You’ve dragged me around downtown for 15 years, it’s my turn.’ So we found this cool old place up here.
DC: Partners & Spade does a lot of different projects—it’s everything under one roof.
AS: There are two parts to it: there’s the storefront part which we wanted because we loved the idea of being on street level and being in touch with the city. We wanted to have a space that allowed us to put together all the things we love: advertising, art, design, films, writing, objects. And the back of the space is the studio—all we need is two turntables and a microphone. We can work the Bowery Hotel if we need more room. We’re open by appointment or if you knock really loudly. And I like putting together shows and giving people a chance to show their work.
DC: It seems like you’re attracted to objects that have a some function that isn’t necessarily related to art—something designed with a primary purpose that still looks great.
AS: Exactly. So much depends on the context and if something is presented in the right way. The first person we hired at Jack Spade was Mike Abelson who now owns Postal Co. He came out of Art Center in LA and he studied fine art and industrial design. I was introduced by to him by my friend James Spindler who I knew from advertising. He was offered a job designing cars, I said why don’t we create this thing together—he’s like a scientist. He looks at bridges and how they’re supported when he’s designing a bag. I wanted him to provide the technical expertise. And the challenge was just to make a great bag.
DC: Because you thought there was a void in the market—you couldn’t get a bag that you liked?
AS: At the time 1995 or 1996, I liked Patagonia and some outerwear companies. But when I went to the office I didn’t want to carry an alpine bag, and I wasn’t attracted to designer bags. So I wanted to create something in between, with menswear fabrics. I grew up in Arizona, as a kid I hiked up mountains, and was a boy scout, and went to the Grand Canyon and camped out at night. So I knew all the sleeping bag companies.
DC: Really—mountain climbing?
AS: Well not Kilimanjaro, but that’s what you did as a kid. Those companies made things that were built for a reason. Couldn’t we make something that was really simple—but with a worsted wool—and structure it in a way that would make it last?
Our first bag was sold in a hardware store because I wanted to see how it would be received by carpenters and tradesmen. I know all the tent makers and sleeping bag companies. The Klein tool bags were the best bags but they didn’t have any internal pockets. So that was like the holy grail.
DC: So much classic design came from the military because it had to have a functional element to it.
AS: That’s true. We’re trying to think about how you live and what you need. One bag I’m proud of is the dipped bag in rubber which is just what they put on their gloves. We thought why not apply the same science—or same stupidity—to a bag?
DC: Were you surprised how Jack Spade was received—not just a utilitarian sense, but as a brand?
AS: I didn’t know if it would work or not. I was putting out something that I wanted to have. We were fortunate that Kate was doing well. Not everything worked, but we had enough time and patience to tinker and get it right. Usually you’re designing for yourself or people you know. We didn’t want to make a $1500 bag, leave that to Italians who have that mastered and have 100 years of craftsmanship behind them. It took longer than I thought to get accepted—but ultimately it started to speed up.
DC: Kate Spade became successful so quickly—the two brands seemed to be conceived differently.
AS: I like buying product from companies that specialize in making a few things well. Kate was known for making women’s bags. A lot of people said ‘Why don’t you make Kate Spade for men?’ There’s already an awareness there. Short term it may have taken off faster but long term it would have been a mistake. It needed its own identity. Jack was conceived as a functional bag for men. Kate was conceived as a bag specifically for women.
DC: It’s like Men’s Vogue—a bit of misbranding.
AS: Right—don’t leverage a name because it’s there. Over the long term it has to stand for the right principles.
DC: It’s like the opposite of the Godfather. Francis Coppola had to argue to call the sequel Godfather II. Nobody had made a sequel and just called it ‘Part II’ and the studio resisted it. But it was such a success, that the third one, which he wanted to call The Death of Michael Corleone the studio made him call it Godfather III. Since he was down on his luck at the time he had to agree.
AS: Is that true? That’s a great story—they always wait for things to be done first to sign off on it.
DC: Did you feel that you did everything you wanted to at Jack Spade—is that why you moved away?
AS: It wasn’t about leaving Jack, it was about going to a new place creatively. I felt conceptually we had done what we wanted to do. It wasn’t about making it bigger, it was about making it better. I think what happens when you get big and you have a public company involved the obvious question is ‘How can you expand this? How many categories can we add? Can we have 100 stores?’ I could do it but I would be repeating myself and end up miserable. Sometimes you have to know when to stop. I didn’t think I could invent as much inside as I could outside.
DC: What’s your relationship with the J Crew Liquor Store?
AS: We worked with Mickey Drexler and Jenna Lyons and the men’s team designing the stand alone men’s store.
DC: Do you get the same satisfaction working with retail as you do with hands on design?
AS: I love coming up with new concepts that are successful. Like the frog dissection kit, or the belt that said ‘loser’ on it. Doing new things that are fresh and pushing tradition to a new place without undermining it, that’s fun for me. That can be also done spatially—that’s a challenge that I like.
DC: It seems like it’s not enough to design something—it has to have a place in the world, and be used in the world and responded to. It’s not enough to be self-referential or clever for its own sake.
DC: It seems that there’s a lot of that these days.
AS: There is a lot that. It’s one thing if it’s a conceptual art piece, but another if it’s an object to be used. My friend Rich Silverstein, who’s in advertising, said this great thing: ‘Everyone borrows from the past. Just don’t steal from other advertising agencies. Look to the history of art or bridge design there are so many great places and put them together in a new way.’ Putting a piano in a bar at the Carlyle is a lot different than putting one in our store on Great Jones Street. It’s how you do it.
DC: Can we talk about advertising? Did you get depressed watching the Super Bowl—if that represents the most visible state of high-end advertising?
AS: Super Bowl commercials always create awareness for a company but I certainly don’t think the Super Bowl is the high water mark of advertising.
DC: It’s funny to go into Barneys and see old print ads on the wall, which they put up sometimes. They’re incredible.
AS: The ads Glenn did with Jean-Philippe—they’re so high-minded. They catch something that’s happening in the world. It’s a headline and a graphic coming together and when they collide it works.
DC: You still write ads?
AS: Yes we still do ads, but it’s different now. A lot of it is online. We’re re-launching the tennis company Boast. We’ll do some traditional advertising, and work on product. We designed a custom Bloody Mary Kit for an exclusive hotel. I think how you interact with people has changed dramatically. The Super Bowl creates awareness for a certain group of people, but if you’re talking to a kid who’s looking for the next thing you’ve got to go someplace else. There’s a different way to find things out today.
DC: Are you much of an online person?
AS: I read the Times and the Journal online, though I subscribe too. I try to find the best sites out there and look at them. We work with Andy from Reference Library. JJJJound is a beautiful site. I always thought National Geographic was the best style magazine and now you can find references to everything on some of these sites.
DC: Something that’s nice about the Liquor Store is that it acknowledges a larger world of design.
AS: Yes. It’s important to acknowledge and share. It’s odd that people think they have to brand everything with their own name to be successful. Certain companies are experts at certain things. I love brands that show humility and don’t try to be all things to all people. How many brands that got bigger got better? I love brands that have a soul and follow their own intuition. If each store has its own personality and soul centered around core beliefs of the brand it will connect within more people emotionally and spiritually. Our first Kate store had Bass Weejuns and sold flowers from the local florist. It made the store part of the neighborhood and thus more appealing.
DC: There’s something depressing about seeing the same store with the same window design uptown and downtown. It’s only a step away from seeing it in the duty free store in the airport. I would go into Jack Spade just to see what’s on the wall.
AS: Right, that’s why I go in to a store, too. I was totally influenced by Agnes B and Paul Smith. I wanted to make everything personal to be sure it felt honest. Don’t make it look like it’s been styled. I would say to Mordechai and Matt Singer, do what you like. It doesn’t have to be duplicated. It’s like organic farming. This is our little community store, it reflects the neighborhood. How big can you get before you get bad? I need that detail to be exactly right or exactly wrong. It’s like a living breathing creature—don’t you like your friend more when he makes a mistake or falls down? That’s what brands need to be.
DC: How do you and Kate feel about the expansion of your brands? Looking back, did that feel like it was managed properly?
AS: Kate and I were having our first child. It was the right timing. It’s like your kid going to college. We’re built to set things up and get them formed and shape them and get them to the right place, but we’re also so hands on and fiercely independent. That’s the reality of growing something. Sometimes you want to do something more organic, like New Republic. Then it’s time for someone else to see what they can do with it.
DC: It’s interesting that you mention New Republic. That seems like a store ahead of its time. It’s too bad it’s not around any more—there’s a real absence there.
AS: There is an absence. That’s one of the reasons why I started Jack. Tom Oatman was a friend of mine and when he closed there was nothing like it downtown. I met Mordechai there—he worked on the floor, and later I hired him. Aesthetically it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I loved how it was very classic in a grungy neighborhood. When we opened Soho had changed a lot and we did the reverse, put something more idiosyncratic in a more formal location. It was the last bastion of a mixture of tradition and cool and all these different things. They weren’t trying to be big. I always looked to that as something to aspire to. Men don’t need 40 stores. They want their own store. They don’t want to be part of a chain. It’s like bars—you don’t need 40 watering holes. Everybody thinks that if it’s working you have to do 40 of them. But if you’re a publicly held company that’s how you have to see it. I tried to duplicate Jack in the basement of a Junior League store in Boston, but it’s hard to duplicate. Take the Ear Inn, are you going to make 4 or them? Take McSorley’s or PJ Clarke’s—I’m not going into any one but the original. It’s not true from a business standpoint but it’s true from my standpoint.
DC: In a weird way, when you analyze how to re-create something, you force it into an equation where it begins to lose its personality.
AS: Right. You can’t tell William Eggleston to shoot a bag, and God knows I tried. It just doesn’t work. He sees a light bulb after 16 martinis and it looks great, but you can’t tell him ‘do this’ and ‘do that.’ Paul Smith has done it well and Comme des Garcons has done it well. It can be done, but it’s difficult.
DC: What about hotels, does that translate the same way? You mentioned the Bowery Hotel earlier, and Sean and Eric seem to have a good idea of what they’re trying to do. When they go to a new place, like the Jane Hotel, they adapt with the space.
AS: They usually start with the neighborhood and they go to the architecture. I think the myth in marketing is that consistency is the answer. People will learn this over the next ten years. All the big corporations wanted you to have the same burger in every city, and the same uniforms. What I think is happening is that they don’t have to look the same—they have to feel the same. And there’s a voice in every hotel of Eric and Sean that I get. They have a certain appreciation of historic things—they don’t buy a new building unless they can make it feel old. My partner and I are working on a hotel now. It’s downtown and very small. It’s exciting because how do you do something new in New York?
DC: Where do you begin with the hotel? How it functions in the neighborhood with locals or with visitors from out of town? Are you thinking about the balance?
AS: It’s about how it functions in the lobby, what do you have in the room that makes it feel different. What do you have to make the client’s experience an individual one. I haven’t figured that out yet. Here’s a category that’s already saturated with good competitors.
DC: Do you have faith that your clients allow you all of your ‘perfect imperfections’ or whatever idiosyncrasies you want to include?
AS: Yes. Generally we try to work with smart people who work with us because they understand what we do. It doesn’t always work out that way, but generally it does. I worked for years on ads for Lexus and they know what we’ve done before and ask us based on that work. We’re working with Target right now on a special project. Four teams from all over the world collaboration.
DC: I just read that Steve Jobs said that the difference between the good designer and the best designer is not just a few degrees—he says the best designer is something like a 300% improvement. It’s not the next step of the ladder—it’s a new ladder.
AS: Steve Jobs knows what he’s doing in terms of technology and design—he just gets it. But so do other people in their fields—whether it’s the person who runs Patagonia or Jack Welch.
DC: On more sartorial matters, what clothes companies are you partial to?
AS: When I was going to Japan a lot I would go to Dressterior which is a great store that has smaller sizes for Japanese men like myself. I’ll buy shirts from J Crew, I still have old Brooks Brothers shirt, even from when I was a kid. My wife’s first gift to me was a pair of Alden Cordovan loafers—twenty seven years old.
DC: Do you indulge at all?
AS: I’ll go to Charvet. This coat is Huntsman. I’ve had a few Huntsman suits that I’ve had for years when they were carried at Barneys. I hope they’re still around.
DC: They’re around. If you go to their space on Savile Row they have a saddle so you can be fitted for your riding clothes and make sure the line your hacking jacket is right.
AS: That’s beautiful. I also love Thom Browne.
DC: Can we talk about him? He’s such an interesting figure—what are your feelings about him as a designer? Sometimes he’s so specific.
AS: That’s true. But he took this suit, a classic suit we all wore—my interview suit, the Brooks Brothers sack suit. But what Thom did that amazes me is that he did something classic in such an extreme way that it’s really subversive. The most amazing thing is that he hasn’t changed it. His shows are very surreal art shows. My dad wore black turtlenecks and dessert boots and worked in advertising in the 60’s. He says he was into existentialism, which is probably bullshit. At a conference he saw this speaker who was dressed in a really square way and they all booed him but it turns out he was the one who wrote all the great ads. What I like about Thom is that is broke through—it takes brilliance to do that. I’m actually small so they fit well, but I remember the first time I got one of his suits years ago and I said ‘I can’t go that short or that narrow.’ So I modify it even though Thom hates it. I like how he thinks. I love the Black Fleece stuff. I think of him as an artist in the clothing world. If he didn’t have any integrity he would have made a second suit that fits everyone and quadrupled his profits, but he hasn’t done it.
DC: He’s definitely following his own course.
AS: To me, he’s able to do what he wants. Thom’s off on another plane—we need more weirdoes in the world. And you would never know what he’s thinking by the way he looks.
DC: I just saw a photo of him and everything looks normal until you realize he’s wearing seersucker shorts. You think it’s the bottom of the photo but it’s actually the top of his knee.
AS: I love that. That’s what Jeff Koons is like. To me that’s really subversive—not Dali with the mustache, but the guy who looks like he just walked out of Brooks Brothers when he’s got this whole other world that’s going on in the back of his mind.
DC: You have a lot of collections. Do you collect specific artists?
AS: I like 1970’s and ‘80’s and kind of drug fueled guys who can paint. I find it through secondary sources who have work by people like Rene Ricard. He’s a poet and artist who I love. Robert Hawkins is also a favorite, Baldessari, Mike Kelly, and many more. I missed the whole Mud Club scene. If you missed a decade in New York you missed a lot. I missed Max’s Kansas City but got here when Area was around.
DC: Somebody said you like the music from your generation and the generation before you, but not the generation after. I wonder how that works for art.
AS: Television and the Velvet Underground always felt right to me. That’s interesting about art, I haven’t thought of it. There are artists and dealers I like today. I like Gavin Brown. He always does great things. I love Colin De Land. There was a great Richard Hell show downtown recently.
DC: Sometimes what you like looking at in the gallery isn’t what you want it in your home. It’s like the girl you want to date versus the girl you want to marry.
AS: That’s completely true. I like conceptual art in the museum more than in my house. I would love to have a Cy Twombly.
DC: He’s incapable of making anything bad.
AS: He’s incredible. There are photographers like Eggelston that I’ve collected over the years.
DC: One last item. We’re having a little internal debate at ACL about bags with wheels. I’m staunchly opposed and have always taken solace in the fact that Jack Spade never sold bags with wheels.
AS: I’m with you—no wheels. I wish I could because it would make traveling so much easier but I would feel like a stewardess or something. Can’t do it and never made one.