Fashion


Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design

Judith Leiber’s thousands of intricate handbag designs prove there’s nothing she couldn’t create out of Swarovski crystals, rhinestones, and semi-precious stones over her decades-long career. Cats and dogs and swans and penguins? A ruby red slice of watermelon? A pink-frosted cupcake? Yes, yes, and yes. Her menagerie of minaudières remain a favorite, from Upper East Side salons to the red carpet at every single award show, and can retail for $6,000 or more.

More than fashion, her pieces are objets d’art, frequently auctioned as such, and the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art holds 80 pieces in their collection.

Lieber passed away on April 28 at the age of 97, just 72 hours after her husband died. Below, we take a look back at the legendary handbag designer’s incredible life.

Her signature designs stemmed from a mistake.

Leiber’s favorite bag is her elegant 1967 Chatelaine design, because it was the first metal bag she made. It was also the turning point for her. “When the samples came in, it looked awful, because the bottom was greenish and looked very bad,” recalls Leiber. “I had to salvage it and decided to fix it by applying crystal rhinestones to the metal bag.” The bag turned out to be, to put it mildly, a huge success, and was the beginning of her rhinestone beaded bags.

Leiber says she made quick sketches, but never designed her bags on paper. “I never really made complicated or intricate drawings. I went straight to the cutting table with my ideas and created a pattern for a bag I was designing,” she says.

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She survived the Holocaust and World War II.

At the start of the war, Leiber went to work at Pessl, the handbag company, where she worked her way from journeyman to master craftswoman. As the war intensified, she and her family lived with 25 other people in a one-bedroom apartment when they were able to add their names to a pass from the Swiss consulate, allowing them to live under that government’s protection. But in the final terrible months of the war, the Nazis rounded her and her family up and forced them into a ghetto where she lived with 60 people in a cellar. Leiber says she designed handbags in her mind to create an escape. The war ended for Leiber when Soviet forces defeated the Nazis and left in April 1945, and she and her family were able to return to their home.

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Her husband is an artist in his own right.

A year later, she met a handsome American GI on the street in Budapest named Gerson Leiber. They fell in love, married, and sailed to New York on a “bride ship,” one of the special transports for the foreign wives of American soldiers, to begin their new lives in the United States. Gerson Leiber is an abstract impressionist painter and sculptor whose work is in more than 50 museums, including the MoMA and the Whitney. The Leibers have been married for over 70 years, and live in East Hampton, where he has a studio. And the couple keeps future artisans in mind: they fund a scholarship for accessories design majors at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

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Her clutch stars in a pivotal moment in the first Sex and the City movie.

Yes, basically it’s a Judith Leiber cupcake Swarovski crystal-covered clutch that gets Carrie stood up at the altar. When Big tries to call Carrie and tell her about his cold feet, Charlotte’s adorable daughter answers Carrie’s phone and then drops it in her equally adorable cupcake minaudières. No one hears the phone ringing on the way to the wedding, and it was all because of the flower girl.

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She has her own museum.

The Leiber Collection opened in 2005 on the couple’s East Hampton property in a Palladian-style building surrounded by six flower gardens and a sculpture space designed by Gerson. The Leibers bought back many of Judith’s creations to house in the museum, and the opera singer Beverly Sills left her entire personal collection of 200 bags to the institution when she died.

Besides the Metropolitan and Smithsonian Museums, Leiber’s creations can also be found in the Corcoran Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

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