Her Swarovski-encrusted functional jewels have been seen on countless red carpets, and now an exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design is showcasing the astonishing life of the entrepreneurial artisan Judith Leiber, along with dozens of her exquisitely crafted handbags.
Leiber, now 96 years old, is most famous for her dazzling “minaudieres,” crystal-encrusted handbags and purses, often created in the shapes of animals, vegetables and fruits, that have dangled from the arms of some of the world’s richest and most famous women. Almost every first lady since Mamie Eisenhower has sported a Leiber for presidential inaugural parties. (Leiber made a bag for Hillary Clinton resembling her cat, Socks). Beverly Sills, Mary Tyler Moore and Chrissy Teigen have all been snapped with the collectible bags, which now sell for thousands of dollars and often evoke Fabergé eggs.
But the arty, educated, Hungarian-born Leiber, who began as a pocketbook apprentice and became the first female member to join the Hungarian Handbag Guild, also worked in alligator, Lucite, suede, leather and fabric. After enduring the Nazis in Budapest, Leiber (nee Peto) met U.S. Army sergeant, Gerson Leiber and fell in love. The couple married in 1946 and moved to New York, where, after working at a succession of handbag companies, Leiber began her own eponymous firm in 1963, which triggered her rise to fashion stardom.
“She was out of a job and I said, ‘instead of getting another job, which she could have, without any great difficulty, I said it would be better if we had our own business to get the benefits of her talent,” recalled Gerson, at a press preview for the exhibition Thursday. Going solo made sense, given his wife’s extraordinary work ethic: “She worked every job as if she was the owner,” 95-year-old Gerson said, himself a successful painter.
The whimsical, witty, beautifully crafted bags “transcend fashion,” said museum curator Samantha De Tillio. She said that Leiber, who never sketched out her ideas, was inspired by “influences in popular culture and design trends,” referenced in the materials she chose, the arts (some purses reference Piet Mondrian, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Georges Braque), society and nature “She fills a very particular niche,” De Tillio said. “She made something no one else was making. Before Judith Leiber, no one was creating an eggplant bag.”
It wasn’t until Leiber left Hungary — where Jews endured terrible persecutions — that “she could tap into her creative freedom,” De Tillio added.
Leiber sold her company in 1993, continuing to work for the new owners for five years, and made her last bag — a glittering peacock minaudière — in 2004, De Tillio said.
She also supported other women artists. With the proceeds of bags she designed as an homage to the work of Faith Ringgold, an African American artist known for her storytelling quilts, Leiber purchased Ringgold’s quilt, “Tar Beach,” and donated it to the Guggenheim. Leiber and her husband now live in East Hampton, where they have a museum — The Leiber Collection — that displays his paintings and her handbags.
Current workmanship is not likely to wind up in many museum shows, Gerson continued, noting “we’ve stopped looking at what’s made today. … There are so few designers whose work becomes classic and iconic — they come and they go.” It is also increasingly difficult for artists to attain economic success, Gerson said. While Gerson was a source off inspiration for his wife, he has never been blessed with a Leiber-made man bag.
“She doesn’t think men should wear handbags and I never wanted to wear one,” he said.
IF YOU GO: “Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story” is on display now through Aug. 6. Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, Adults $16, Seniors $14, Students $12, Under 18 FREE, Thursday nights from 6 to 9 p.m. are “pay what you wish,” courtesy of KLM. madmuseum.org