When you hear the name Judith Leiber, you immediately think of glamour, of red carpets, of those fantastic sparkling little handbags… But you don’t necessarily think about her life before she became renowned for her minaudières – and what a life it was, as revealed in the new exhibit at the Museum of Arts & Design, Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story.
Born in 1921 into a wealthy family in Budapest, Judith Peto was sent at age 17 to England for her college studies, since Jews were not allowed to study in Hungarian universities. But when WWII broke out, she returned to Hungary and went to work in a handbag manufacturer. Her father was sent to a labor camp; some months later Judith was able to get a Swiss pass that secured his release, and allowed Judith, her sister and her parents move into a Swiss controlled apartment – with over 20 other people. They were later forced to move to a Jewish ghetto, and then to the basement of their original apartment building, where they lived with 60 other people. Judith began making handbags, and selling them to Americans.
In 1945 Judith met Gerson “Gus” Leiber, an American GI; they married in 1946 and came to New York City. Judith had a succession of jobs at different handbag companies, but they had an assembly-line approach to manufacturing, whereas Judith had learned to create a bag from start to finish – as if it were fine jewelry.
Judith’s craftsmanship and creativity set her apart. Her first brush with fame came in 1953, when First Lady Mamie Eisenhower carried a handbag that Leiber had made (for the Nettie Rosenstein label) to the Presidential inauguration. It wasn’t until 1966, however, that Judith Leiber opened her eponymous firm, with Gus. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Against one wall is a timeline of seminal events, both in the designer’s life and in the world, providing a context for a career that pushed against some outstanding odds: not only the war, but also the difficulty for immigrants and women to be taken seriously, whether as designers or businesswomen. Judith Leiber’s story is exceptionally relevant for our times. You’ll find cases along the walls with photos and documents from her years in Hungary.
Judith Leiber drew inspiration from myriad sources: Japanese woodblock prints, Chinese iconography, the work of geometric abstractionists including Sonia Delaunay and Piet Mondrian… and her husband Gus’ paintings. Even fruits and vegetables were transformed into rhinestone marvels in her hands. As you go through the exhibit, you also realize what a pioneer Leiber was in her use of materials, working not only with leather but also exotic skins, seashells, Japanese obis and fabrics from Iran and Africa. While her bags are highly decorated, there is no excess in her designs, rather they are an incredible balance of form and color. Below are some of her creations on display (it was really, really hard to narrow down the selection):
Leiber’s love of art has found its way into many of her designs, such as this multi-skin envelope inspired by the work of Sonia Delaunay.
In addition to using leather, Leiber also employed exotic skins such as python, alligator, karung, ostrich and even mink!
Lieber’s fame grew with the creation of the minaudière – a small, crystal-decorated bag, usually carried in the hand – that became a staple of red-carpet events. Above is the first minaudière that she created, and it is a testament to her resourcefulness; the factory had shipped damaged gold-plated brass frames, and rather than discard them, she covered the discolored areas with crystal rhinestones.
Leiber also drew inspiration from nature: the show contains wonderful examples of the bags she fashioned in the shapes of birds, flowers, fruits and vegetables. This fish is one of my favorites (but there are so many!!) All of the bags rest on mirrored surfaces, which allows you to see their undersides, too.
Leiber collaborated with Faith Ringgold to create a collection of bags inspired by the artist’s quilts – the one above was inspired by Ringgold’s Street Story Quilt (the exhibition contains Ringgold’s The Purple Quilt and a bag it inspired).
Manufacturing minaudières is a complex process, involving several people. For many years the New York based artist Lawrence Kallenberg created the wax models that were used to make the molds and then the cast-metal shells for Leiber’s sparkling clutches.
In 2004, having designed 3,500 bags over 65 years, Judith Leiber retired – the peacock bag above is the last one she created. Not only has she left a legacy of unparalleled artistry, beauty and craftsmanship, but at age 96, she can look back on a life that is testament to grit, resourcefulness in the pursuit of passion. (The picture at the top was taken at the opening of the exhibit earlier this month).
You can find more of Judith Leiber’s handbags, as well as her husband Gus’ paintings in their museum in the Hamptons.
The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) is running panel discussions and workshops around this exhibit.
Be sure to get to MAD before the show closes on August 6th – you’ll want to go back more than once!