Did Kate Spade steal bags?

The designer's new line looks oddly familiar

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 25, 2010 12:01PM (EST)

The Kate Spade brand has long been the darling of safe, preppy handbag chic, the ladylike opposite of Louis Vuitton bling. Their bags are distinctive for their simplicity, expensiveness and --  year after year -- their predictability.

So when Vanity Fair got a sneak peek at the designer's new line of cheeky little clutches designed to look like classic books, including "The Great Gatsby," "Emma," "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "Great Expectations," it was almost too adorably original to be true. Et voilà!

It wasn't long before handbag designer Olympia Le-Tan called Spade out as "a big fat copycat" for the uncanny resemblance to her own recent line of clutches designed to resemble -- wait for it -- old books. Though they're different titles -- Le-Tan's got "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "The Catcher in the Rye"-- the battered paperback similarities are pretty steep. And considering that Le-Tan's line got a fair amount of press right here in the company's home turf of New York City when it debuted last fall, it seems a little peculiar that the concept went entirely unnoticed by the more famous bag maker.

The company, which is owned by Liz Claiborne, certainly wouldn't be the first to draw "inspiration" from the work of lesser-known designers, but there is something particularly galling about a staid house apparently glomming on to a younger designer's work -- especially when said work has brought the artist such high acclaim. And it's downright ironic for a brand so traditionally unoriginal that it's an easy target for counterfeiters to find itself now accused of stealing from someone else. Speaking to Vanity Fair last week, Spade's creative director Deborah Lloyd said, "We wanted to pretend we had our own publishing house." Guess they got tired after all those year of pretending to have a real design house.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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