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Judith Leiber: Legendary American Designer

May 3, 2017

Judith Leiber was born Judith Peto in Budapest, Hungary, where in 1939 she became an apprentice at the Hungarian Handbag Guild, and the first woman Meister (master) to be recognized by the Guild for her skill and workmanship. She once commented that she learned how to make the handbags from start to finish: “I used to make handbags for the Americans in exchange for dollars. After the Germans and the Russians, there was very little left in Hungary.” After World War II, she immigrated to the United States with her husband, Gerson Leiber. She met him in Budapest, when he was a sergeant in the US Army. By then, she was already an experienced handbag designer.

 

In New York, she started her career by working for several well-known labels, such as Richard Koret, Morris Moskowitz and Nettie Rosenstein, a leading American fashion designer. “I learned there how to make a diversified collection,” Ms. Leiber  mentioned. “In Europe at the time there were only about six handbag styles.”  In 1963, together with her husband, Judith Leiber launched her own business that became one of the most successful in the history of American fashion. She has been awarded numerous accolades, including the Handbag Designer of the Year Award of 1992, and the Council of Fashion Designers of American Lifetime Achievement Award of 1994.

 

Her artful creations can be found on display at numerous department stores and boutiques worldwide, as well as in private collections and museums, including the Museum of the City of New York; the Fashion Institute of Technology; The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and many others.

 

For over forty years, her highly distinctive and recognizable style—a smart mixture of humor, artistry and function—has attracted an enormous following. One of her signature pieces is a tiny, jeweled minaudiere (evening bag). Its figural shape is lavishly encrusted with thousands of Swarovski crystals and outfitted by a set of gold-plated accessories: a comb with a tassel, a swivel mirror, and a coin purse. Often costing in the thousands, each sparkling masterpiece takes over ten hours to complete by hand. The process is painstaking and very costly. Between seven to thirteen thousand “jewels” are glued on one bag, using the Old World technique that Mrs. Leiber learned in Budapest. 

 

She designed every model and made decisions on every detail. The result was always stunning—a glittering, alluring wonder that is recognizable from far away and does not need additional advertisement or logo. Besides whimsical minaudieres, Judith Leiber has also made her mark by developing a new trend for capacious carryalls—magnificent day bags in bright designer colors made of luxurious skins, including crocodile, alligator, lizard, karung, whip snake, and ostrich. They are generously accented by colorful, semi-precious gemstones, and feature smartly organized interiors—complete with accessory kits and optional shoulder straps.

  

Mrs. Leiber always sneaks a shoulder strap in every handbag, explaining: “When a woman has her hands full of packages, she wants to carry her bag on her shoulders. And who has a servant running after them nowadays?” Flamboyant, yet sophisticated, her wonderful creations combine the luxury of classic leathers with fantastic craftsmanship and incredible one-of-a-kind details: whimsical accents, gold plating, quilting, gems and jewels, embroidery, braiding, pleating, and trims.  The number of her styles is mind bending. According to Mrs. Leiber herself, she has created more than 3,000 different designs—and most of them became instant collectibles.  

 

Judith Leiber retired several years ago after selling her company, which still operates from New York. Her fans include everyone from celebrities—Bette Midler, Mary Tyler Moore, Elizabeth Hurley, Naomi Campbell, and Cindy Crawford—to former First Ladies Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who often carry her bags to diplomatic and social events around the world. 

 

For the last several years, the Leibers have been working on building their Hamptons Museum, where they display their distinct collections of Judith's handbags, Gerson's art, and important Chinese and Japanese pottery. Situated in the lush, park-like surroundings artfully landscaped by Gerson Leiber, the museum welcomes visitors in spring and summer. For details, please visit the Leiber Collection website (leibermuseum.org

 

Photo: Judith Leiber, Hamptons, New York, 2010.

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