Judith Leiber, 97, Dies; Turned Handbags Into Objets d’Art
Posted April 30, 2018 6:11 p.m. EDT
Judith Leiber, the handbag designer whose whimsical creations were prized as collectors’ pieces and frequently displayed as objets d’art, died on Sunday at her home in Springs, New York, on Long Island. She was 97.
Leiber died just hours after the death of her husband of 72 years, the painter, lithographer and sculptor Gerson Leiber, who was known as Gus. He also died at their home.
Both died of heart attacks, according to Jeffrey Sussman, their biographer and spokesman, and they were buried together Monday.
In recent years the couple had mounted joint exhibitions of their work on Long Island and in Manhattan.
Stella Blum, the curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 1983, once said that describing Judith Leiber as an accessory designer was “a little like calling Louis Comfort Tiffany a designer of lighting fixtures.”
Her handbags were often on view in museums and are in the permanent collections of a number of them, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the Chicago Historical Society. Leiber nevertheless demurred when Andy Warhol described her bags as works of art. “Truthfully, I don’t consider them art,” she said. “I’m an artisan.”
Although she designed luxurious handbags with discreet clasps and frames for daytime, she was best known for her imaginative and eye-catching evening creations, among them colorfully beaded bags in animal, flower, fruit and egg shapes, and bags shaped like boxes and shells with variations on antique Asian motifs. Her classically shaped metal evening bags were built of cardboard and sent to Italy, where they were stamped in brass. The animal forms and more complex shapes began as sculptured wax models and were also sent to Italy to be copied in metal. Feet and ears were cast separately and soldered on; other parts and touches, like the head of a horse or the bow on a cat, were stamped in two halves and joined seamlessly.
The gold plating was done after the bags were returned to the United States. So was the encrusting of the bag in rhinestones and other beads.
A number of Leiber’s clients amassed scores, and in several cases hundreds, of her designs, despite price tags that reached well into four figures for each bag.
At major charity events, it was common for a woman who had left her Leiber evening bag on the table while she danced to find on her return that other guests had gathered around her table to admire it. Occasionally a bag would disappear, returned only when admirers had finished passing it around.
“Sensuous and tactile, they ask to be picked up,” said Dorothy Twining Globus, a former director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and curator of exhibitions at the Museum of Arts and Design.
Most of Leiber’s evening bags, particularly the glittering metal creations, were designed to hold a bare minimum of necessities. She allowed that lipstick, a handkerchief and a $100 bill might possibly fit. A $100 bill? Not small change, she admitted, but not unreasonable for a Leiber bag owner. As for carrying such necessities as eyeglasses, keys and a few other odds and ends, she would ask, “What’s an escort for?”
Leiber created five collections a year, in all about 100 designs. She said she was inspired by paintings, museum pieces, artifacts and nature. One of her most popular bags was shaped like a snail; another, an example of the commonplace made uncommon, was fashioned from an antique quilt and enhanced with bits of colored glitter.
The women who carried Leiber bags included first ladies, queens and princesses, and celebrities like Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert, Diana Ross and Joan Sutherland. Queen Elizabeth II was presented with a bag during a visit to California, and Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of the Soviet leader, received one from Barbara Bush.
Bush carried a Leiber design at her husband’s inaugural ceremony. She also had one of the Leiber metal bags shaped, with slight variation, to resemble Millie, her springer spaniel. It was later duplicated and sold for $2,500. Other first ladies were customers as well: Nancy Reagan ordered white satin Leiber bags for both her husband’s inaugural balls, and Hillary Clinton had a bag modeled after Socks, the family cat. But even the first ladies could not compete in patriotism with a Texan who was invited to one of the Clinton inaugurations and ordered a bag beaded with the stars and stripes on one side and the Statue of Liberty on the other.
Many of Leiber’s customers used the bags for aesthetic purposes as well as practical ones. Some displayed them in a vitrine or étagère, and one Los Angeles matron invited her friends, their Leiber bags and their husbands to a dinner party. When they arrived, she took all their bags and lined them up on a mirror, flanked with votive candles, running down the center of the dining table. It was a table decoration not soon forgotten.
Leiber maintained that a story of a husband who had given his wife 14 Leiber bags in seven years and wanted them back as part of a divorce settlement was not apocryphal. “I could retire on your Leiber bag collection,” he reportedly said. The wife kept the bags.
Leiber was born Judith Marianne Peto in Budapest on Jan. 11, 1921. Her parents, Emil and Helen Peto, hoped that she would become a chemist and repeat the success of a relative who had developed a complexion cream. In 1939, she was sent to England to pursue scientific studies, but World War II intervened and her theoretical cosmetics empire vanished.
“Hitler put me in the handbag business,” Leiber said.
Back in Budapest, Leiber, who was Jewish, enrolled in an artisan guild, which still accepted Jews, although fascism was on the ascent in Hungary. Her training began with sweeping the floors and cooking the glue. By the time she had completed her guild training, first as an apprentice and finally as a master, the war was raging.
She knew all the stages of handbag manufacture, but there was no place to use this knowledge because Jews were being sent to concentration camps. She and other family members escaped that fate when they were pressed into service sewing army uniforms. She also began a small handbag business at home, using whatever materials she could find, and after the war sold some to U.S. soldiers stationed in Hungary.
Gerson Leiber was an Army Signal Corps sergeant in postwar Budapest when he and Judith met. He was working as a radio operator maintaining contact between Vienna and Budapest. They married in 1946 and the next year left for New York, Gerson Leiber’s hometown.
With her training, Judith Leiber had no difficulty finding work in her adopted country. She became part of what she called “strudel assembly lines” at a number of handbag manufacturers until 1963, when her husband decided that they should open their own business.
They began in a small loft. “I knew from the beginning what I was going to do,” Judith Leiber said. “I was going to make the best.” She designed and supervised the manufacture of her bags, and Gerson Leiber looked after the business end.
Judith Leiber’s sister, Eva Ecker, died in 2015. No immediate family members survive.
In time, Leiber’s designs were rarely sold from handbag departments. They were generally featured in specially created Leiber sections and boutiques in major department and specialty stores, both in this country and abroad.
Leiber received most of the fashion industry’s major prizes. She was given a Coty Fashion Award in 1973 and the Neiman Marcus Winged Statue for Excellence in Design in 1980. She was voted accessories designer of the year in 1994 by the Council of Fashion Designers.
The Leibers sold their business in 1993, for a reported $16 million, to Time Products, a British firm in the watch distribution business. Judith Leiber remained the firm’s designer until 1997. In recent years, retrospective exhibitions in New York have showcased the talents of both Leibers. (Some of Gerson Leiber’s work is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) In 2016 the Flomenhaft Gallery in Manhattan presented a joint exhibition, “The Artist & Artisan”; another, “Brilliant Partners,” was seen last year at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook. Also last year, the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan gave Judith Leiber a one-woman show, “Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story.”
Throughout her career, Leiber was often asked if she ever carried handbags other than her own. She had a standard reply.
“I either carry my own or a paper bag,” she would say, “and I won’t carry a paper bag, so you figure it out.”