American handbag and accessories designer
Born: Judith Peto in Budapest, 11 January 1921; immigrated to the U.S. and moved to New York, 1947. Education: Studied in England, 1938-39; apprenticed with Hungarian Handbag Guild, 1939, became journeyman and first woman Meister. Family: Married Gerson Leiber, 1946. Career: Designer in New York for Nettie Rosenstein, 1948-60, Richard Kort, 1960-61, and Morris Moskowitz Co., 1961-62; launched own firm, 1963; added costume jewelry, mid-1990s; opened Madison Avenue boutique, 1996; retired, 1998; sold business to Time Products, Inc., 1998; resold to Pegasus Apparel Group, 2000; Pegasus Apparel Group became The Leiber Group, 2001. Exhibitions: The Artist and Artisan: Gerson and Judith Leiber, Fine Arts Museum of Long Island, 1991; Judith Leiber, The Artful Handbag, Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1994; Spring Retroactive, Atlanta, GA, 2001; Collections: Permanent displays in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.), and the Victoria and Albert Museum (London). Awards: Swarovski Great Designer award; Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1973; Neiman Marcus award, 1980; Foundation for the Fashion Industries award, New York, 1991; Silver Slipper award, Houston Museum of Fine Arts Costume Institute, 1991; 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; Dallas Fashion award for Excellence. Address: 20 West 33rd Street, New York, NY 10001, USA.
Martin, Richard, The Artist & Artisan: Gerson and Judith Leiber, [exhibition catalogue], Hempstead, NY, 1991.
Nemy, Enid, Judith Leiber, [exhibition catalogue], New York, 1994.
——, Judith Leiber: The Artful Handbag, New York, 1995.
Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York,1996.
Jakobson, Cathryn, "Clutch Play: In Judith Leiber's Line of Work, the Fun Is in the Bag," in Manhattan, Inc., February 1986.
Newman, Jill, "Judith Leiber: The Art of the Handbag," in WWD, August 1986.
Johnson, Bonnie, "Judith Leiber's Customers are left Holding the Bag," in People Weekly, 20 April 1987.
Harris, Leon, and Matthew Klein, "Judith's Jewels," in Town & Country, December 1988.
Van Gelder, Lindsey, "It's in the Bag," in Connoisseur (New York), April 1990.
Morris, Bernadine, "Flights of Fancy Take Shape in Lush Evening Bags," in the New York Times, 18 December 1990.
"Houston Costume Museum to Honor Leiber Saturday," in WWD, 25January 1991.
Peacock, Mary, "The Whimsy of Judith Leiber's Handbag Designs Comes Through in the Clutch," in Departures, December/January 1991-92.
"Splurge: Judith Leiber's Handbags," in the New Yorker, 25 May 1992.
Newman, Jill, "Judith Leiber; Leader in Luxury," in WWD, 6 November 1992.
——, "British Watch Giant Buys Judith Leiber," in WWD, 8 March 1993.
Menkes, Suzy, "Just a Handful of Art," in the International Herald Tribune, 22 November 1994.
Morris, Bernadine, "The Portable Art of Leiber Handbags," in the New York Times, 25 November 1994.
White, Constance C.R., "A Leiber Jewelry Line," in New York Times, 9 May 1995.
Witchel, Alex, "Handbags That Make Headlines," in the New York Times, 1 May 1996.
——, "Handbag Designer Leiber Proves Talent More Than Skin-Deep," in Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), 9 June 1996.
"Judith Leiber," in Current Biography, September 1996.
Klensch, Elsa, "Leiber's Delightfully Deluxe Bags," available online at CNN Style, www.cnn.com, 19 December 1997.
Bold, Kathryn, "Accessories: For Many Women, Dressing to Impress is Simply in the Bag," in the Los Angeles Times, 26 December 1997.
Schiro, Anne-Marie, "Judith Leiber is Retiring," in the New York Times, 13 January 1998.
Barron, Susannah, "Style: Off the Cuff," in The Guardian (London), 21 January 1998.
Brown, Hero, "Is it Worth it?" in the Independent Sunday (London), 24 May 1998.
"Prize Purses," in the Tampa Tribune, 23 March 1999.
"Bag Maker for Sale," in the Times (London), 19 June 1999.
"Time Products Pounds 9m Disposal," in the Times (London), 29September 2000.
"Diary of a Dainty Duffel: Laura Bush's Bag Lady Has Lots of Experience Accessorizing First Ladies," in the New York Post, 18 January 2001.
Walton, A. Scott, "Style: Leiber Bags Reign as Fine Art Holdings," in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 18 March 2001.
"New Name and CEO for Troubled Pegasus," in Fashion Wire Daily, online at Tradeweave Retail Network, www.insight.tradeweave.com, 22 May 2001.*
I love to design beautiful objects that can be worn of course, whether it is made of alligator, ostrich, lizard or silk, or a great metal box/minaudiére that can be held in the lady's hand. Top quality is a great concern and it pleases me greatly to keep that paramount. Today's fashions really cry out for beautiful accessories, be they belts, handbags or great jewelry.
Judith Leiber talks of herself as a technician and prides herself on the Budapest-trained craft tradition she exemplifies and continues. But her skill and the consummate perfection of her workshop are only one aspect of the recognition of her work. She is steadfast in advancing the artistic possibility of the handbag, and she is unceasing in her own artistic pursuits of this goal. Yet, as Mary Peacock averred, "A sense of whimsy is integral to Leiber's vision," as the committed pursuit of craft is matched with a stylish wit and the cultural cleverness that is akin to craft's creativity. A Leiber handbag is an item of expert handiwork and engineering, but it is also a charm, a potent amulet, and a beguiling object of beauty. Each bag takes six to seven days to create and can range in price from $700 to $7,000. The names of Leiber admirers are far too long to list but include Queen Elizabeth and every First Lady from Pat Nixon through Laura Bush.
Technique is central to the Leiber concept. A Leiber minaudiére, for example, might seem at first glance like a Christmas tree ornament but in technique is more like an ecclesiastical censer, an object of perfection intended for long-lasting use. Her watermelon and citrus slices are farm fresh in their juicy handset rhinestone design, but these fruits will never perish. Cathryn Jakobson, writing in Manhattan Inc. in February 1986, described the sound and impeccable impact of closing a Leiber handbag, "The engineering is perfect: it is like closing the door on an excellent automobile."
Leiber's product may be jewellike and ladylike in scale, but her collectors are rightly as proud and avid about these small objects as any possessor of a Rolls Royce. There is perhaps one drawback to the Leiber evening bags: they hold very little. But Leiber's aesthetic more than mitigates the possible problem. If going out is a matter of saddlebags and gross excess, then Leiber's sweet purses and precious objects are not the answer. But if there is any truthful measure that the best things come in small packages, Leiber's beautiful clutches make the maxim true. Leiber's characteristic evening bags, in fact, compound their delicacy in scale with their solid form: these hardly seem, despite their elegance, to be places of cash and chattel. Leiber has achieved a carrier that is neither wallet nor winnings—it is something intimate and personal.
The ideas for her bags come from a variety of sources. Arguably, little is invented ex nihilo in Leiber's work, but is instead understood and applied from other arts. She acknowledges her love of finding objects in museums and even the objects in paintings that lend themselves to her imaginative formation as the handbag, realizing the capability of an object to serve as a container. Leiber's version of Fabergé eggs at substantial (but less than Romanov) prices are inherently about containment, but her inventions of the three-dimensional bunch of grapes or the frogs that open up or Chinese foo dogs with hollow insides are her own invention. Leiber has also looked to the arts of the East, especially netsuke purse toggles, for their wondrous world of invented objects and miniatures from nature. Leiber's first jeweled evening bag was a metal teardrop purse, an ironic play on the soft shape of the purse or money bag converted into a hard form.
Handbags by Leiber for the day employ beautiful reptile and ostrich skins, antique Japanese obis, and extraordinary embroideries. In the daytime bags she uses not only the softest materials and a colorist's palette, even in skins, but lightens the touch with supple pleats, braid, and whimsical trims and closings. Leiber makes elegantly simple envelope bags accented by a single point or line of decoration.
As attention-getting as her designs might be, the designer herself tends to be understated. As a young woman in Budapest, Leiber narrowly escaped the Nazi concentration camps. She was accepted to Kings College in London and intended to study chemistry, with a goal of developing skin creams. But World War II began, forcing her to remain in Hungary. She instead became an apprentice to a handbag maker, and from that point, her course was set. Alex Witchel of the New York Times wrote that after escaping the Nazis as a teen, "She has considered it a virtue to avoid the spotlight ever since. It seems only in her designs, whether the rich leather bags for daytime or the lush, detailed bags for evening, that the disparate elements of her own personality find release: whimsical yet functional (a yellow rose of Texas), stylish yet silly (a jeweled slice of watermelon), majestic yet devastatingly simple (a perfect seashell). She is a beguiling contradiction—a rather severe-looking matron with the artistic imagination, and freedom, of a girl."
Leiber never makes a subservient bag, but an autonomous object that whether egg, minaudiére, or piggy, is the finality and finesse of style. In this, Leiber observes fashion as critically and cognizantly as she scours art for her selection of objects, but she never creates a tartan to be coordinated to a textile or a frog or other animal to fit into an established environment of garments. Rather, she creates commodities that enhance dress and create style because they are self-sufficient. Leiber creates objects that are undeniably, despite the creator's modesty, unique sculptures on a small scale.
updated by Carrie Snyder