Leiber, Judith Maria

views updated


LEIBER, JUDITH MARIA (1921– ), U.S. designer and manufacturer. Leiber became a master handbag maker in Hungary in 1942. She has owned and managed Judith Leiber, Inc. since 1963. Her exquisite intricate jeweled handbags sold in upscale stores such as Neiman Marcus and in her own boutiques in Geneva, Bangkok, London, Costa Mesa, California, and New York. These bags have been carried by several first ladies, actresses, and others wealthy enough to afford the price tags which range from $600 to $7,500. Born in Budapest, Leiber intended to specialize in skin creams, but her plans to study chemistry at Kings College in London in 1939 were thwarted with the onset of World War ii. Instead Leiber was admitted into Hungary's artisan guild and became an apprentice to the finest handbag maker in Budapest. After doing a number of menial tasks from sweeping the floor to cooking glue, she began to learn the art of making handbags. She became a female pioneer master handbag maker. She and her parents, Emil and Helen (Spitzer) Peto, survived the concentration camps and the Nazi occupation of Budapest through a neighbor's forgery of a document which designated the family as Swiss. She met the American GI Gerson Leiber (whom she calls Gus) in 1945 and married him in 1946. They came to New York in 1947, where she was naturalized in 1949. Before opening her own business in 1963, Leiber worked for a number of firms, including being a pattern maker for designer Nettie Rosenstein.

Leiber received a number of honorary degrees. In 1993 she received honorary Ph.D. degrees from Bar-Ilan University in Israel and the International Fine Arts College in Miami, Florida. She is also the recipient of numerous awards. In 2001 she received the Swarovski Award, the American Handbag Designer Award, and the Leather Industries Award. That year she also won the George Washington Award and an award from the American Hungarian Foundation. She won several awards in the fashion industry including The Fashion Group's 1986 designation as one of The Women Who Made a Difference. She won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992, a faab Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992, and a Fashion Hall of Fame award from Kent State University in 1995. A retrospective of her work has been exhibited at the Corcoran Museum (2002), the George Bush Museum (2004), and the Newark Museum (2004).

In 1993 Leiber sold her company to Time Products Inc., a conglomerate in London. She continued designing collections until she retired in 1998. Her bags find homes among collectors. Some even reside in museums. Leiber has said that she has designed some 4,000 styles during her 34-year career of designing handbags.

[Sara Alpern (2nd ed.)]