Andy Spade is possessing of talents so myriad and accomplishments so disparate and exotic it is almost impossible to label him. But some labels he still wears: creative director, artist, branding guru. The man who created J. Crew’s Liquor Store and helped bring back a comfy, lived-in feel to American menswear also launched the brand that sold countless bags: Kate Spade, named after his wife and partner. Since the couple sold the brand along with its little brother label, Jack Spade, to Neiman Marcus in 2006, he has only been doing, well, everything. From his base of operations at Partners & Spade—a studio Monday through Friday and an art gallery on the weekends—Spade has designed ads for J. Crew, launched a line of wines, and produced movies, books, and more art than we can get our heads around. We caught up with the singular creative force, who also happens to be one of the most stylish men in America, to get a little inspiration.
What are you up to?
I’ve been working on a project for J. Crew doing some short films with Plum TV network. We’re working on visual postcards. They’re like three minute short films based on the idea of having lazy summers, doing nothing in the summer. The camera is locked off and barely anything happens in the commercial. They’re kinda like still lifes. One of them, for example, is an overhead of a checkerboard—there are fingers tapping off camera, and then a hand, wearing a gingham shirt, comes in to frame and moves a piece. Then it goes back and you hear the tapping of fingers. Then a title comes up and says, “Have a Lazy Summer.” Just little beautiful moments happen.
It seems to be the perfect storm gathering together so many of the things you do—the film work, style work and creative branding all in one place.
Exactly, exactly. They’re not really commercials and they’re not really films, but they’re interstitials and they’ll come on and you won’t know where they fit. They’ll come on during surfing competitions in Montauk or something.
Deciding what you like (and what you don’t) is really fundamental to identity, but maybe more so for you who make a business of your taste. Can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of your sense of style, when you felt it coming together in you?
I don’t know exactly how it came together. I grew up in Michigan. My father was in advertising. My mother was and is a writer. I grew up around interesting things as a kid. My father loved taking me to traditional men’s clothing stores. I worked in a traditional men’s clothing store in college, kinda worked my way through college doing that, so I had an appreciation for men’s clothes which actually started before that, when I was skateboarding.
I’m kinda fascinated by the way skating has been such a gateway or feeding ground for artists.
It’s true. I was a skateboarder and I always wanted to get the best, latest Vans combination you could get. I was always ordering two-tone or 6-tone Vans through Skateboarder magazine. I found my own voice through skateboarding because my school was full of golfers and football players. I kinda existed between the freaks and jocks, got along with both but didn’t fit in to either. I looked up to the older guys who were surfers and skaters and would go to California and spend summers on the beach in San Diego. This was the Dogtown years, from ’75 to ’80, and they just started the polyurethane wheels, and I really found a connection to it. Skateboarding is a really creative outlet. People make up names for moves that they made. We were always thinking of different things we could do to our boards—how we could paint them or use different stickers. We were customizing a lot of things at the time. I started making my own monogram shirts in college, with other people’s monograms on them, kinda subverting the things I grew up with, with a sense of humor. I didn’t want to be one of the guys in the blue blazer and customized shirt, but I appreciated it, so I started playing with it. All my brothers and I got the silver belt buckles with our initials on it like our dad had, and I put 666 on it. Then I started putting other things on sterling. I liked playing with these traditional things and turning it upside down, kind of having fun with it. Also really appreciating it. Then I took a class in college, an advertising class and one of the challenges was to come up with a way of communicating that one vacuum cleaner does more work than another vacuum cleaner. It was problem solving, using my love of language, and visually, which I learned looking at Interview Magazine late in high school.
(He starts talking to someone in the background)
I’m just picking up a pair of shorts I’m having altered.
What kind of shorts?
Vintage Army/Navy khakis. I got ‘em at a thrift store. I’m always looking for ‘em. They don’t really make ‘em like that anymore, even though a lot try. I shortened them.
We’ve been talking a lot about shorts in the office since Tom Ford just said that men shouldn’t be allowed to wear shorts in the city.
Oh, funny. I’m actually walking to go pick up my daughter in a pair of shorts by Tom Ford. I agree with Tom Ford, it doesn’t really look good to wear shorts in the city. But I’m more practical than that. Like I’m gonna walk all the way to pick up my daughter on a humid day in pants?
It’s interesting that the creative stalwarts of the ‘90s, who also grew up skating (and in fact, started off making skate videos), all kind of pooled in the commercial houses where you were at the time. You’ve worked with a lot of those guys, including your friend Mike Mills.
It all came together when video came out. I was earlier than them but I was following all of that. My era, I remember following Jay Adams and when Alva starting doing ads it was completely different than any other advertising in Skateboarding Magazine. It was just him standing there with his Alva board in an empty pool basically telling the world to go fuck itself. He obviously didn’t care about anything. And I was so impressed with them I would tear them out and put them on my wall like some girl with a fashion magazine. After college I got a job in advertising and there was a lot of overlap happening then. I loved Mike’s work. Jay was really interested in art and architecture. It was just a lot of people who loved what they did. There were a lot of really talented people around and I was learning a lot about these different worlds and incorporating them into the work I was doing—which was what I loved, finding creative solutions to business problems.
Was your move to New York right around that time difficult for you?
I told my dad I was moving and I said nobody is going to know these references. And my dad said, “That’s where you’re going to have the advantage. You’re from the West and you’ll have this whole different point of view to bring to your clients.” I went to high school in the desert in a place called Casa Grande with cactuses and shotguns and skateboards. He said, “You’ll probably come up with really interesting, creative solutions.” I thought, wow, that’s good. It was really a lot of fun. I was working at Chiat Day. We were working with Tim Walker very early on. Larry Sultan was one of our collaborators. Mike Mills, early on. We did a film with Mike, Paperboys, in 1998, which was one of the first brand films ever done. You had a whole feature film with your brand in it without making it a commercial. And in New York you’ve got Glenn O’Brien and all these interesting people doing all these incredible things. Glenn was writing poetry and creative directing ad campaigns for Calvin Klein and he was curating shows. I thought, wow, you can’t do that in Arizona but you can do that in New York. You’re all squished in here. It’s like orange juice concentrated. In LA they’ve already put the water in. Here you’re always bumping into these people—a banker whose side project is more interesting than anything I’ve ever thought of. It’s just amazing to be here.
With all that around how do you balance inspiration and output?
My mind definitely bounces around. I can’t focus for too long anyway, it’s just not a choice. They key is to just look around for some things that are interesting and new, even if it’s just sitting in a bookstore for hours, or observing things on the street. I have been working on this book project of pictures taken on my iPhone. I think I’ve produced 15 in the last year just shooting things I see. The last one is called The Benefits of Looking Up, which is all the cottage cheese and hula hoops and balloons and plastic bags I saw on the street. Once I come up with a concept it’s about selective perception: you’re just looking for it everywhere. Until I exhaust myself and then I’ll see if something else inspires me, then I see what I can make out of it. Can I make a book out of it, a film out of it? If it doesn’t work for a client maybe I’ll just make it for myself. I think just walking around… I would say the museums but they’re just exhaustive. You can’t see everything in this city. Even if you dedicate your whole life just to getting inspiration you would miss out on half the things going on. It drives me crazy. There’s no way to keep up with it.
What’s going on out there that intrigues you? I really like those New York storage ads.
Yeah those are really fun. I also like the French Connection ads, “You are man?” They’re kinda funny. They don’t feel like traditional fashion advertising. The more I look at the art world, page by page through Bomb and Artforum, Art & Auction, I can always discover something in there that may relate. Whether it is like an old Fluxus thing, you know, a happening, and I’d think, ah that would be great to do for the store. Because they were always used just for the context of the art world. They never existed outside of that.
What do you aim for with an ad?
Great ads have this great visceral instinct and that’s where I get excited. They’re just visual, and maybe a little haiku or something. It’s hard to get a client to do that though, because you’re not really saying anything.
But if you get the mood right. Like your J. Crew videos.
Yeah, get the mood right. To have it look really good and feel really good without being heavy handed at the same time. Mike Mills is really good at that. Those moments. Little moments. It’s really hard to achieve in the advertising world. That’s why you don’t see it a lot. There are some, though, like that old Volkswagen commercial with the Nick Drake song where they drive to the party and just turn around and drove home. That was a wonderful moment—just music and then they decided not to stay and turned around. Mostly it’s visual and not heavy on words, which is what I try to do. I was a writer but I like to keep it pretty simple, let the image say what it could.
When you have something there, do you leave it be, or is it always a work in progress? The store for example is always something new and I imagine you are always changing things in your homes. Do you ever get to a point where you’re just done and move on?
I think that once it’s done I move on to something else. Once the idea is done, the execution doesn’t even need to be done. I’ll try to bring it to life if I can. I’ve always wanted to have a little show filled with cactuses and the entire ceiling covered with helium balloons.
Over time, just film it, and as some of them pop—there is nothing more beautiful than a popped balloon; you know, that little rubber shrapnel with the circle where you blow it up—so little balloons popped on cactuses and we’d charge more for the balloons that land on cactuses. Cactuses without any balloons would be less. That’s a project I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I’d have to buy a thousand cactuses and then we would not make a dime for however long it was. So I told my partner that that’s what I wanted to do for my birthday is have an opening with all these different colored balloons, cactuses all over—maybe not all over so you can walk back to the bar. That’s what I want instead of presents. That kind of thing I just love. I can just see them starting to fall.
There is real theater. That’s drama.
Yeah there’s drama! And aesthetically I think it would look so great. In the middle it would also look really interesting. And at the beginning cactuses just look so great.
And you can feel that tension in the construct.
Those kinds of things sit with me in my mental Rolodex. I’ve had that one in my head for three years, waiting for an event—like my birthday where I can force my hand on my partner.
Do you collect at random or do you have a holy grail out there that you are looking for? What are you collecting right now?
Vintage musical instruments, mostly old horns—French horns, bugles, trombones. The old ones are really simple.
Like little Carl Auböck sculptures.
They really are. To me they look better than sculptures. I like them old or new but they can’t be at all changed from their original state. I think I like ‘60s more than ‘50s and earlier. Usually all brass and silver. They keys are really simple. So that’s the latest. I have a lot in my house—I want to do a full installation of these pieces. I put them on a table and I prefer them to an art sculpture or anything else. There is this store Wave I’ve been going to for a long time where I like to get antennas. I really love to collect antennas.
Where is all this stuff?
Some of it is in my basement in Long Island. A lot of it is out. My house in Long Island is full of it. Some of it is in the store. And we sell it. I’m not protective of it. If there’s one I really love I’ll hide it.