Fashion Flashback: Judith Leiber

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If anyone conjures up images of handbags as objets d’art, Judith Leiber does. Judith Leiber’s Hungarian parents never imagined that their daughter, Judith Marianne Peto, would become an iconic handbag designer. Wanting their daughter to become a chemist, like a successful relative who had invented a complexion cream, Judith was sent to England to pursue a scientific career. However, WWII happened and Judith moved back to Budapest and enrolled in an artisan guild. Leiber often said,“Hitler put me in the handbag business.” After her guild training, Leiber started making handbags for family and friends from whatever materials she could find, later selling handbags to American soldiers stationed in Hungary. After marrying Gerson Leiber, an American Army Signals Corp sergeant stationed in Hungary, the couple moved to the New York City in 1947.

After working in New York City for a number of handbag brands, Leiber launched her own handbag line in 1963. Leiber’s handbags were so unique that initially department stores were reluctant to sell her bags. Over time, Leiber would have pop-up stores and her own boutiques in department stores after celebrities and first ladies starting flaunting her bags. First ladies Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Hilary Clinton have work Judith Leiber bags, as well as, Queen Elizabeth II, Diana Ross, Greta Garbo, Raisa Gorbachev, opera diva Joan Sutherland, Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Lopez, Viola Davis, and many others. Ms. Leiber would create five collections a year, creating over 100 bags in the process. Leiber’s glittering evening bags were created to hold a small amount of things, mostly lipstick, a handkerchief, and some large bills. And her bag come in the shape of almost anything, due to the fact that Leiber was inspired by nature, paintings, museum pieces, and a variety of objects.

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After selling her business in the late 90s, Leiber and her husband dedicated their time to hosting exhibitions of her handbags at museums and their own museum in the Hamptons. Leiber’s handbag exhibitions have been held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the Chicago Historical Society. Stella Blum, former curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called Leiber as “a little like calling Louis Comfort Tiffany a designer of lighting fixtures.”Judith Leiber and her husband Gerson Leiber, a painter, lithographer, and sculptor, died within hours of each other of heart attacks at their home in East Hampton on Saturday. Judith Leiber was 97 years old.




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