Judith Leiber: A Bagful of Life

Holocaust survivor and handbag designer Judith Leiber is also a fashion icon and astute businesswoman, while The Leiber Collection, a Palladian-style museum in East Hampton, New York, houses her artistic history for the world to see.

By Linda Marx

As a creative young girl growing up in Budapest, Judith Leiber, née Peto, enjoyed spending her days visiting museums and galleries, and her evenings at the opera and other musical performances. These cultural events set the stage for her interest in color, design and detail.profile-2

With her family, Judith Leiber, traveled throughout Europe, visiting Trieste, spending summers in Baveno, which was on the Lago Maggiore in Italy, or seaside near Forte dei Marmi in northern Tuscany. The rest of the year was spent visiting exciting cities.

“My father had business in Milano, so my sister and I traveled to Paris and London,” says Leiber, who learned a great deal about business from him and from other successful and creative family members. “We socialized with fashionable people, and my family’s travels exposed us to international fashion and art. It was 1938 when I got very interested in fashion as a student at King’s College in London.”

However, when she went home for the summer after her first year in college, World War II broke out. Although Leiber’s parents encouraged their daughter to continue her studies in London, she wanted to stay with her family during the war, so she remained in Budapest.

“Instead, I entered the Hungarian Handbag Guild and learned the trade as the first female apprentice journeyman then master,” says Leiber. “My early inspirations were the handbags that my father brought my mother from his business trips west.”

Then, as the lives of Jews became more and more limited, she was not able to go to work. Her father tried to get the needed paperwork for immigration but was unsuccessful. By sheer luck, they were eventually able to get a Swiss Pass (certificate of protection) allowing them to escape deportation to the concentration camps.

“While we were all together, we were not spared the horror and terror of the war, and experienced great hardships,” remembers Leiber, who now lives full time in East Hampton, NY, after many years of dividing her time between the resort town and Manhattan. “But we were very lucky and survived. Whether in the protected Swiss House or the Jewish Ghetto in which we were imprisoned, as bombs exploded around us and we feared for our lives and for the lives of others, I was able to keep my sanity by designing handbags in my head.”

She met her artist husband Gus Leiber, an American GI, on the streets of Budapest after the war ended. Instantly, her life changed forever when he invited her to the opera. They had a great time and began dating. “He was wonderful, it really was love at first sight,” she says of their year courtship.

They were married on February 5, 1946 in her parents’ apartment although her father thought little of Gus’ future prospects. “I finally persuaded him that Gus was the man for me,” she says. “We have been married more than 70 years.”

The couple moved to America so Leiber could make handbags and Gus could study art. “When the Leibers arrived in New York, they were a pair of ambitious dreamers,” wrote Jeffrey Sussman in his 2009 biography of the couple called “No Mere Bagatelles.” “He wanted to succeed as an artist, and she wanted to design handbags.”

Leiber took jobs with fashion houses like Nettie Rosenstein, Koret, and Morris Moskowitz until she opened her business in 1963: Judith Leiber Handbags.

“I was scared to death but Gus encouraged me to go into business,” she says, revealing her favorite colors remain beige, red and black. “We had a tiny loft on Madison Avenue and 33rd Street with four employees. We worked hard—seven days a week, 14-18 hour days—and achieved great success.”

With 3,500 styles of bags, Leiber was a busy woman, creating everything from bejeweled pillboxes to bags in functional yet whimsical shapes such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, animals and seashells. There were also clutches, classic envelopes, tailored or shirred frames, zipper bags, bags with special sections, and more. Jewels, Swarovski crystals inserted one by one, metal, embroidered leather, each was a masterpiece of detail and elegance.

The bags were the talk of fashion editors and ladies who lunch. Queen Elizabeth, First Ladies—everyone from Pat Nixon to Laura Bush—and others with taste who could afford them, bought Judith Leiber handbags.

“To me, handbags symbolized love and celebration,” says Leiber, who, at the height of her business success, had three floors in the loft where she ran up and down the stairs to oversee each and every bag. “I made patterns almost every day of my life. Sometimes I used 19th and 20th century frames, but the bulk of the frame bags were designed with ideas inspired by jewelry, some old and some contemporary.”

To me, handbags symbolized love and celebration.

It didn’t take long for the great retailers to fall in love with her handbags. Bullocks Wilshire in Los Angeles was the first to carry them, followed by Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller, Bergdorf Goodman, Bendel’s, Macy’s and Gimbel’s. The bags were even used on HBO’s smash series “Sex and The City.” In addition, the Leiber showrooms were beautiful and bustling with activity. She decorated them with her husband’s paintings and kept the furnishings luxurious to go along with her product. She also became friends with her customers, so work and play were practically interchangeable.

In 1993, when Leiber sold the $24 million business, she had more than 200 employees making 25,000 handbags each year. She stayed on as a designer and consultant for five years before retiring. But even then, the dedicated designer came back to create bags and make appearances at Judith Leiber boutiques and in museums.

“The last handbag I designed was the Peacock Minaudière in 2004,” she says, “and it is a favorite! But Gus suggested that we leave a record of what I did. He said, ‘Let’s build a museum!’”

She spent time buying back many of her bags and was lucky that her late customer Beverly Sills, the opera diva, left her personal 200 bag collection to the museum. Together with her husband, the Leibers built the museum in spring, in an area of East Hampton. There, the Leiber Collection is permanently housed.

In addition to presenting about 500 of her handbags, the museum showcases the paintings, etchings, lithographs and drawings of her husband, and a private collection of rare antique Chinese porcelains.

Leiber and Gus now lead a quiet life of listening/watching the Metropolitan Opera in HD at Guild Hall of East Hampton, reading books, especially mysteries and factual books about famous people, having dinner with friends, and participating in museum shows.

With so much attention, Leiber knows she is blessed. Yet she has enjoyed a lifetime of hard work, toiling at a career she loves. “I have been very lucky and have an incredible life,” she says. “Gus and I are so happy in East Hampton. And we spend a lot of time in the museum.”

The Leiber Collection is open to the public from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day each season.
On February 27, the Long Island Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, will mount a dual exhibition: “Brilliant Partners: Judith Leiber’s Handbags & the Works of Gerson Leiber.”
From April 4 to August 27, The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in
New York City, will host a major exhibition of Leiber’s handbags.