If you can't connect the dots between the words "handbag" and "art," you're probably not versed in the distinctive work of Judith Leiber, the late Hungarian designer who took a signature concept — whimsical metal clutches adorned with Swarovski crystals and semi-precious stones — and ran with it in vivid fashion for decades while carving her own niche in the fashion world.
Born Judit Pető into a Jewish family in Budapest in 1921, she escaped the worst atrocities of the Holocaust — thanks in part to a Swiss letter of protection her father managed to obtain — and weathered World War II in a Budapest apartment reportedly shared by 26 people in the Jewish ghetto. Although aimed for a job in the cosmetics industry, she instead broke the mold and became the first woman to work at the Hungarian Handbag Guild, where she perfected design and fabrication skills from the ground up. In 1945, while selling her own handmade purses on the side, she met Gerson "Gus" Leiber, a Brooklyn-born Army sergeant and modernist painter stationed in Budapest. By 1947, they were married and living in New York City.
In New York, she worked for handbag manufacturers and hit an early career high in 1953 when First Lady Mamie Eisenhower arrived at the Inaugural Ball carrying a small, bedazzled clutch crafted by Leiber. Although the credit went to her employer (designer Nettie Rosenstein), this turn of events foreshadowed a trend of powerful women — from queens and movie stars to first ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush — clutching Leiber's shimmering creations at high-profile events.
In 1963, Leiber and Gerson officially dove into the luxury handbag business together via Judith Leiber Inc., with Gerson on the business end and Judith handling design, fabrication, and marketing.
In the decades that followed Leiber took her playful, over-the-top aesthetic to the limit while challenging the confines of minaudières — decorated metal clutches only big enough to carry what she summed up as "a handkerchief, lipstick, and a $100 bill." Involving the collaborative efforts of sculptors, painters, jewelers, and artisans in the U.S. and Italy, Leiber's imaginative bags can take a year to complete and typically cost somewhere between $4,000 and $8,000, with made-to-order couture pieces ringing in closer to $20,000.
Beyond meticulous attention to detail and unapproachable price tags, one of the most remarkable aspects of Leiber's work is the juxtaposition of refined materials and techniques with nostalgic, child-like, and even lowbrow themes and concepts. Nevertheless, her unapologetically extravagant minaudières — which have taken shape in dazzling cupcakes, ladybugs, cameras, cell phones, bundles of asparagus, Tutankhamen-inspired monkeys, burgers, fries, and cocktails — have long been slyly witty staples for A-list celebrities on often-humorless red carpets.
Although Leiber sold the business in 1993 for a reported $16 million (Judith stayed on board as designer until 1997), the Judith Leiber brand is still intact and active, offering a reverent continuum of the 5,000-plus designs its co-founder created throughout her colorful career. In 2005, Judith and Gerson opened the Leiber Collection in Springs, New York, to "house their works of art and to chronicle their careers." While both are represented in major museum collections (he's in the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum, she's in the Smithsonian and the Met), the couple was thoughtfully showcased side-by-side in a trio of recent exhibitions while they were both in their 90s. After 72 years of marriage, Judith and Gerson died at home within hours of one another, both from heart attacks, on April 30, 2018.
As for the shimmering body of work she began building long before "bling" was even a blip on Merriam-Webster's radar, Judith Leiber presented her intricate evening bags as defiant status symbols, conceptual confections, and wacky conversation pieces. All you need to enjoy one is a big bank account, a sense of humor sized to match, and, as Leiber once suggested, an escort to carry the items that don't fit in your minaudière.
From "The people who died, 2018."
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