Judith Leiber’s Exotic Little Works of Art
By Christine Sampson
If there was anyone in the world who could think up crystal-studded handbag designs fashioned to look like tomatoes, frogs, fish, watermelons or asparagus — and make them chic and wildly popular in the process — it was Judith Leiber.
Her bags have been coveted by celebrities, socialites and even First Ladies from Mamie Eisenhower, who appeared at the inaugural ball in 1953 with a bag designed by the relatively unknown designer under the then-famous label of Nettie Rosenstein, all the way to Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton. The only First Lady to not carry a Leiber bag was Rosalynn Carter, who rarely accepted expensive gifts.
Even now, at age 96, Judith’s hands have a smooth, confident and even youthful feel to them, offering a recent visitor a firm and steady handshake that belies her years — the earliest of which were spent threading needles at her grandmother’s hat factory, and which later on were spent creating the handbag patterns she brought to life as one of the most prolific designers in the history of American fashion.
Between the start of her own business in 1963 to 1993 — the year she sold the company for $18 million as reported by Harper’s Bazaar — and even past her official retirement in 1998, Judith created more than 3,500 distinct handbag designs.
They range from classic leather and silk shapes across a uniquely curated color palette to the whimsical minaudieres, or small, strapless bags — her Swarovski-laden designs that took on many forms, like cupcakes, seashells, cats, dogs and many, many more. They’re in such demand still that a quick search on eBay yields vintage Judith Leiber bags selling for upwards of $2,000 each. A glittering Judith Leiber peacock minaudiere, her very last design, created in 2004, is fetching nearly $4,000 on the online auction site. Minaudieres created through the Judith Leiber brand can fetch as much as $6,000.
“We kept making things differently,” Judith told a recent visitor. “Everything I made was different from anybody else’s, with very few exceptions,” and that was part of her success, she said.
Judith, who settled in Springs full-time by way of New York City about six years ago with her husband, the artist Gerson “Gus” Leiber, came a long way from Budapest, Hungary, the country where she was born in 1921. That was an era, Gus explained, when fashion was dominated by the clothing worn by peasants and by petit point, a type of fine needlework characterized by at least 900 stitches per square inch. So instead it was Judith’s grandmother’s business making hats for women and her family’s travels to France and Italy in her youth that inspired her eye for design.
“That’s where the fashion came from,” she said in an interview. “Whether it was ladies’ hats or clothing, they had a tremendous influence on the rest of Europe.”
Before she came to the United States, Judith had begun building her career making handbags in Budapest, securing an apprenticeship and working her way up at a fine handbag manufacturer called Pessl. But soon after the Nazis advanced to occupy Hungary in March of 1944, she found herself unable to safely go to work anymore. Author Jeffrey Sussman, in “No Mere Bagatelles,” his biography of the Leibers, writes that later that year, her once-thriving family was forced to move into a single apartment in a Swiss-protected area with more than 20 other people until the arrival of the Russian military in 1945. According to Sussman, the family was later forced to move into a Jewish ghetto, but the Russians eventually liberated Budapest, preventing the Jews there from being transferred to concentration camps. Still, Judith and her family found themselves living in the cellar of an apartment building with 60 other people. During that awful time, Sussman writes, Judith used to dream up imaginary handbag designs in order to pass the time and survive the misery brought on by the Nazi occupation. She lost family members to concentration camps in the Holocaust, but managed to emerge from the conflict along with her parents and her older sister.
In 1946 she married Gus, an American military officer who had been stationed in Budapest, and when the couple moved to the United States later that year, she brought with her the green toolbox she had used at Pessl to make handbags. They found a furnished room in the Bronx, and Judith set out to build not just a body of work, but her reputation. Her big break came in 1948 when she landed a gig as an assistant pattern maker with Nettie Rosenstein. She later ascended to designer and foreman, and after she gave Mamie Eisenhower that famous pearl-and-rhinestone handbag, she emerged a respected designer in her own right.
In 1993, Judith became the first handbag designer to receive a Lifetime Achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
“We were very lucky because to make good handbags … you need a little talent but a lot of luck to be a success,” she said. “Which we did, right, Gus?”
Her husband of 71 years, who often helped out with management and logistical functions in the business when he was not painting his own celebrated modernist artwork, credited what he described as “her sense of shape and her sense of color, which I thought were innate and so good that they were actually better than mine, so I never tried to interfere, and she never interfered with my work.”
“It was a perfect match. We did a great job together,” Judith replied.
Reflecting on her decision to sell the company in 1993, she said she feels it was the right time to do so.
“We felt that most of our beaded bags were being copied very extensively at that point,” she said. “We felt that it was too difficult to keep going, so we decided it was time for us to get out.”
When it comes to current designs in American handbags, Judith isn’t a particular fan of any one label. She is, however, a fan of several American clothing designers, including Pauline Trigere, George Peter Stavropoulous and Bill Blass, and has “a closet full of the most beautiful designer clothes,” Gus said.
They first visited the East End in 1955 at the invitation of one of Judith’s childhood friends, who owned a house here. “We loved the area and came back and bought our first house in 1956,” recalled Gus, who said they were drawn to the artists’ scene back then, in which Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock were rising stars and art was flourishing around the hamlet.
The Leibers say the outcome of their efforts has been gratifying.
“We were very fortunate,” Judith said, “because half of the success of anything is talent and the other half is luck … and hard work is important.”
An East Hampton Museum Dedicated to Handbags
In the years since she retired, Judith and Gus Leiber have traveled extensively and make trips every other week to the East Hampton Library to pick up piles of mysteries, histories and other titles to keep busy.
Oh, and they opened up their own museum.
Situated on a six-acre estate lush with gardens and stately Greco-Roman architecture, the Leibers will open the doors to their museum, The Leiber Collection, on May 27 at 446 Old Stone Highway in Springs with a tea party from 2 to 5 p.m. It is free and open to the public on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays from 1 to 4 p.m. between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day, and at other times for group tours by appointment.
The museum, which opened in 2005, is home to about 2,000 of Mrs. Leiber’s designs. Their goal is to collect one example of each of the more than 3,500 she created over the course of her career. Ann Fristoe Stewart, the collection manager, says they scour various auctions and accept donations from adoring fans to be able to achieve their goal. The museum is also home to many of Gus Leiber’s paintings, especially those that were inspired by his wife’s handbags, which he has called “little works of art.”
With rotating exhibits each year, this year’s exhibition will feature handbags on loan from the private collections of three women from across the nation.
“We are very, very happy with our museum,” Judith said. “We have some wonderful stuff there.”
The Leibers’ work can also be seen at a joint exhibition at Stony Brook’s Long Island Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, through June 4, 2017. There is also a Judith Leiber handbag exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City through September 17, 2017.
The Leibers recently established a non-profit organization, the Leiber Foundation, dedicated to keeping their museum operating in perpetuity as a resource and as a tribute to their achievements.
“The museum has always been a gift of the Leibers to the community, to the world. One of the challenges is keeping that going,” Ms. Stewart said. “It’s been an amazing creation.”