Iconic 96-year-old handbag designer Judith Leiber’s signature creations are red carpet staples. Priced at thousands of dollars, her pieces are worn as arm candy by Hollywood starlets and found in museums the world over. Their glamorous allure is a dramatic contrast to her unlikely start during the Nazi occupation of Budapest.
Born in 1921 as Judith Peto, in the late-1930s she studied in England as preparation to join the cosmetics company of a close relative. But when war broke out in 1939, she was home visiting and suddenly trapped in Hungary. To occupy herself, she began an apprenticeship that ultimately allowed her to become the only woman admitted to the Handbag Makers Artisan Guild in Budapest.
“I learned how to make handbags in Budapest but I never got very far,” says Leiber, who was dubbed the Bag Lady of Park Avenue when she became a sought-after designer. “I was an apprentice and journeyman and I became a master there.”
However, lack of opportunities led her to emigrate and Leiber arrived in New York in 1946 as a G.I. bride. After some struggle among many male colleagues, she eventually founded her own company when she was 42.
Now 96, Leiber is enjoying renewed interest in her work, with three exhibits in New York this spring, including the namesake gallery she created with her husband of 70 years, abstract expressionist artist, Gerson Leiber.
Leiber’s fantastical Swarovski crystal-encrusted treasures push the boundaries of handbags. Simultaneously chic and whimsical, they are inspired by nearly everything, from brilliant Tiffany stained glass to the natural world — frogs, penguins, peacocks, dragonflies, apples, asparagus and pineapples. Some pieces employ actual seashells, lucite and other materials to reconstruct a glossy pearlized seashell. Others rely on fine leather or textiles to allude to the primary-colored mod art paintings of Piet Mondrian.
During her 65 years in the industry, Leiber’s client roster grew to include almost every first lady from Mamie Eisenhower to Laura Bush, as well as opera singer Beverly Sills, pop star Katie Perry and other celebs. Her couture pieces are preserved at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian Institution, The Victoria and Albert Museum and other notable institutions.
Last week, New York’s Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle opened Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story. The exhibit depicts the life of Leiber as craftswoman, designer, and businesswoman. While biographical, it also explores what the museum describes as “the gendered significance of the handbag in twentieth-century Western culture, and the centrality of immigrant entrepreneurship in the fabric of New York.”
As part of the Pay-What-You-Wish admission program, curator Samantha De Tillio led a tour of the exhibit followed by a panel discussion with Jeffrey Sussman, author of “No Mere Bagatelles: Telling the Story of Handbag Genius Judith Leiber & Modernist Artist Gerson Leiber.”
In Stony Brook, New York, a second exhibit entitled, “Brilliant Partners: Judith Leiber’s Handbags & The Art of Gerson Leiber” runs concurrently at The Long Island Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate. Through June 4, the show features nearly 200 examples of “his and her” art: 130 of her handbags and 50 of his pieces.
A third exhibit, Magnificent Obsession: Fashion, Passion and Collection, displays highlights from five Leiber collectors at the namesake gallery she shares with her husband’s paintings and prints. Located in the East Hampton hamlet of Springs, New York, the Leiber Collection welcomes the public with an Opening Celebration Garden Tea Party on May 27.
“We have a beautiful museum at this point that we did about eight years ago and it has many many of my handbags in it that we are exhibiting,” Leiber says. “We change the models every year and my husband has an area that he uses for paintings and those are very, very beautiful and I love them dearly. And I am hoping that after we are gone, that we will have a remembrance of us in the museum which I think will be very helpful.”
Clutching on to souvenirs
As a young woman, Leiber was inspired by the souvenirs her upper-middle class father, who traveled often for work, would frequently present his wife upon his return.
“My father used to bring my mother bags from Western Europe before the war — very fine handbags,” Leiber says.
During World War II, the lack of opportunities for Jews led Leiber to seek an apprenticeship in the handbag guild.
“The situation in Hungary got very bad,” says Leiber, who got her start at a small company called Petzel. “I worked for them for three or four years and the war got so bad you couldn’t go out in the street anymore if you were Jewish.”
‘The war got so bad you couldn’t go out in the street anymore if you were Jewish’
Biographer Sussman says that as a result, Leiber “learned how to do everything.”
“She swept the floors and learned how to mix glue that was used in the manufacturing of handbags. And she learned how to make a handbag from start to finish. She was the only woman accepted into the handbag guild because of her knowledge,” says Sussman.
Budapest afforded some Jewish residents limited immunity from deportations under difficult conditions. In 1944, her family was moved into the Budapest ghetto.
“We lived in a Swiss protected house after we left our apartment and we lived with some friends, and they were very nice but there were 26 people, wall-to-wall people on the floor,” Leiber says. “They put mattresses on the floor, one next to another, and that’s where we lived… Even though we all had Swiss passes, we were in the ghetto until the Russians liberated us around January 12.”
Although the family returned to their apartment, it was uninhabitable because “everything was broken.” Until her father managed to restore their home in April, they lived in the cellar.
After the war, Leiber began working in a factory that belonged to a friend from Petzel.
‘They put mattresses on the floor one next to another and that’s where we lived’
“I made my own designs and he was a very good friend… a wonderful man and I loved him,” Leiber says. “I made everything I wanted to make. And I sold them to all of the Americans… to the military guys to send them home to their wives and many people at the delegation. They were very happy with them and so was I. They were very, very kind to me.”
In Budapest, she met her future husband, a fellow opera-lover and Jewish American G.I. from Pennsylvania who dreamed of becoming an artist.
“We met on the street in front of a pension that my husband was living in with his buddies,” Leiber says. “All the enlisted men lived there.”
After dating a year, the pair wed and lived with her parents. In 1946, the young couple departed for the US. Soon after resettling, Leiber began a series of jobs, including working for Nettie Rosenstein, the Brooklyn-based designer who launched the concept of the little black dress. Leiber later ventured into her own namesake company. Her husband meanwhile continued to evolve as an artist, exhibiting paintings, etchings and lithographs in American galleries.
Who’s the boss?
Her first job in the handbag industry was “very difficult,” Leiber recalls. Crafting a handbag, which contains about 140 pieces, is complicated.
Sussman says that “When she came to New York she went to these companies and said, ‘I can make a handbag from start to finish’ and they said, ‘Don’t lie to us. No one can do that in this country.’”
Eventually, Leiber found her way. “I wanted to work in a better place and the head of the handbag industry, the leader of the pocket book makers, recommended me to Nettie Rosenstein and I worked there for 10 years,” says Leiber.
“And then I got fired because I didn’t feel that I should be working as a contractor and that’s what the owner wanted me to do. So I went and got a job at Koret, which was a very fine handbag factory. They had three pattern makers and I was the fourth one,” she adds.
‘I got dismissed and my husband said, you are not working for anyone else anymore’
After six months, she moved to what she calls a “cheaper house,” where she worked for two years.
“I got dismissed and my husband said, ‘You are not working for anyone else anymore,’” Leiber says.
Under her own label, Leiber experimented with the designs that soon became her hallmark.
“My first beaded bag was a little pouch that I liked very much,” Leiber says. “We made many, many bags: butterflies, tomatoes, turtles. Many of them were classic shapes and we embroidered them with special patterns that were very individual. We made very simple bags, too, some with the Judith Leiber name on it.”
In all, Leiber says she produced more 3,500 styles over 35 years, employing leather, silk, Japanese obi and ribbons from Bombay.
“We embroidered them and put rhinestones on them. We also made very many metal beaded bags for many, many years and we did very well with those bags,” Leiber recalls. “I made bags of leather, fabric and I made bags of snakeskin and alligator and lizard that were very, very beautiful and we loved them.”
Her love of handbags, it seems, knew no boundaries. “I really adored them. I used all kinds of ideas, whatever I could. I used some boxes that resembled a resting crane, a fly, a lot of classic shapes,” she says.
Gifts to the White House
Her entry to the White House began as a clever goodwill measure.
“I gave all the First Ladies bags for their inaugural balls as gifts,” Leiber says. “We started with Mrs. Johnson and we ended with Laura Bush. I gave a bag, of course, to Barbara Bush. She was a great friend of ours.”
Leiber designed her last piece in 2004.
‘I gave a bag, of course, to Barbara Bush. She was a great friend of ours’
“There are bags with my name on it but I am no longer part of it,” says Leiber, whose namesake designs now number more than 5,000.
Leiber’s adaptability and resilience, during the war, as an immigrant and a woman navigating a largely male industry, remain her legacy.
“She is really a survivor… not just in relation to the Holocaust but various other issues,” Sussman says. “She is a woman of incredible stamina and endurance. She is incredibly bright and insightful and has a memory that goes back, without skipping a beat, to her childhood.”