Judith Leiber

B. 1921

Birthplace: Budapest, Hungary

Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics Award, 1973 Neiman Marcus Award, 1980 Handbag Designer of the Year Award, 1992 Council of Fashion Designers of America Award, 1993 Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement Award, 1994

Is it art or is it fashion? Those who admire the jeweled minaudieres, or handbags, of designer Judith Leiber would definitely say it is both, and they would also point out that the technical excellence evident in each witty and wonderful piece, with shapes ranging from Buddhas to butterflies, is incomparable.

The daughter of a jeweler and a homemaker, she was born Judith Peto. Her parents hoped she would become a chemist and a successful cosmetologist, as was her cousin in Romania. The month she was to begin classes in England, World War II broke out. As a Jew, she was not allowed to take advantage of any professional opportunities, so she joined an artisan's guild and began her training as a maker of handbags. Throughout the war, she worked her way up from apprentice to master, and learned every stage of making a handbag, from cutting to sewing, from framing to polishing.

Fate intervened when the Peto family faced deportation to the concentration camps. They were able to obtain a special pass through a distant friend, which guaranteed their safety. By the end of the war, young Judith had all the skills needed to become an accomplished handbag maker, and she began crafting clever designs using whatever materials were available, including drapery trim.

Judith Peto became Mrs. Gerson Leiber in 1945 and left Budapest for Brooklyn, her husband's hometown. In New York, the young bride worked in a succession of handbag companies and eventually secured a job with a firm which rewarded her talents with successive promotions. After fourteen years with the company, in 1963, she and her husband opened their own business, and the rest is handbag history.

All Leiber bags come in a flannel pouch and contain a small, round mirror and a little, tasseled comb. Among the skins used in many of the day bags are karung snakeskin, lizard, goatskin, calfskin, ostrich, and suede. The frames are all enhanced with semiprecious stones such as lapis, onyx, garnet, carnelian, and hematite. The metal evening bags are made of brass, gold plated and lined in kidskin. The beading of each bag with crystals and rhinestones requires the most painstaking handwork, and these are the bags for which Judith Leiber is best known. Hinges, locks, screws, and any other necessary hardware are all put on by hand as well.

It is no wonder, then, that these little works of art command as much as $10,000 and are collected by famous women around the world from Beverly Sills and Mary Tyler Moore to Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush. From pigs to bears, from eggs to fans, the whimsical minaudieres and art-inspired day bags of Judith Leiber are treats to be treasured for generations. Although she retired in 1998, the company continues in the Leiber tradition, making dazzling handbags in whimsical shapes, all featuring exquisite detailing. Many of the original wearable art pieces are in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for all to enjoy.

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