Judith Leiber – Master of Craft, Glamour – and Grit

Judith Leiber at the Museum of Arts & Design, April 5, 2017

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.

Lyubov Sergeyevna Popova-inspired rhinestone-encrusted minaudière, Judith Leiber, 1990

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):

Sonia Delaunay-inspired multi-skin envelope, Judith Leiber, 2000

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.

Embroidered camel karung envelope, Judith Leiber, 1980

In addition to using leather, Leiber also employed exotic skins such as python, alligator, karung, ostrich and even mink!

Original chatelaine bag with crystal rhinestones, Judith Leiber, 1967

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.

Fish minaudière with rhinestones, Judith Leiber, 1978

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.

Rhinestone-encrusted minaudière after Faith Ringgold’s “Street Story Quilt,” Judith Leiber, 1987

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).

Wax model for lion minaudière by Lawrence Kallenberg 1974

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.

Peacock minaudière with rhinestones, Judith Leiber, 2004

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!

Global Fashion and Nightlife

Nkhensani Nkosi, Stoned Cherrie - Summer 2005  Johannesburg - FIT Exhibit

Nkhensani Nkosi, Stoned Cherrie – Summer 2005 Johannesburg – FIT Exhibit

Caught the two exhibits at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the only museum in New York City devoted entirely to fashion.  “Global Fashion Capitals”   is an acknowledgment that fashion capitals are not confined to Europe and the US, but are to be found on other continents.  The show features 40 designs from 16 burgeoning fashion cities, including Lagos, Seoul, Beijing, Mumbai, Moscow, Sao Paulo and Mexico City.

You’ll find garments by the top names from London, Milan, Rome and Paris: Mary Quant, Christopher Kane, Pucci, Valentino, Paul Poirot and Worth, among others.  New York is represented by its fair share of big names like Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Alexander Wang, but there is also a lovely evening dress from 1948 by Nettie Rosenstein.  Issey Mayake and Comme des Garcons are featured in the Tokyo section.

The show is organized geographically, so you can see designers from the established capitals right by works from newer fashion hubs like Madrid, Johannesburg, Stockholm and Berlin.  Its a great way to get a feel for what’s happening in fashion around the globe – and there’s nothing like seeing the clothes close up.  The exhibit closes November 14th.

Corset and skirt by Mr. Pearl at the Susanne Bartsch exhibit at FIT

Corset and skirt by Mr. Pearl at the Susanne Bartsch exhibit at FIT

Also at the FIT Museum is an exhibit on “The World of Susanne Bartsch,”  one of the more outrageous underground fashion figures who made her mark in NYC.  Hailing from Switzerland, Susanne became part of the vibrant music and fashion scene that defined London in the 70’s.  In 1980, she moved to the Big Apple, opened a boutique in Soho, and began organizing fashion shows and charity events, becoming heralded as the “Queen of the Night.”  The show, with close to 100 glittery, glitzy, highly imaginative nightlife costumes, makes it clear that Susanne knew how to make an entrance, and how to utilize clothing to transform herself.  The show runs until December 5th.

The Museum at FIT is free!