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Gold metal bag with rhinestones
Original chatelaine with crystal rhinestones, 1967
Museum of Arts and Design

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Judith Leiber's Immigrant Experience Made Her One of the Great Handbag Designers

A new exhibit, "Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story," at the Museum of Arts and Design showcases the designers minaudières and more.

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Judith and Gus Leiber, both 96 years old, both wearing big, round glasses and dark suits, sit on folding chairs against a wall and wait for fans to approach them. After waiting on a long line of admirers, I approach the couple, shake their hands, and tell them how honored I am to to meet them in person. Suddenly, a friend of the Leibers approaches me and asks if I can help move Gus a few inches to the left. “Judith wants to be closer to him,” the assistant says. Seventy years of marriage, and the pair can’t bear to be more than an inch apart.

Rhinestone clutch.
Gerson Leiber–inspired rhinestone-encrusted minaudière, 1992.
Photo: Museum of Arts and Design

Judith is here for the April 4th opening of the new exhibition, Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story, at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. This exhibition represents a culmination of Judith’s artistic vision as a legendary designer of handbags and whimsical, crystal-bedecked evening bags called minaudières. Judith’s bags are modeled on fruit, animals, musical instruments, and more, and coveted for decades by wealthy women and celebrities around the world. The exhibition runs until August 6th and showcases the evolution of Judith’s handbag designs and tells the story of her immigrant experience. Judith’s story moves from her desperate existence during WWII in the Jewish ghetto of Budapest to her arrival in New York City in 1947 to her rapid rise in the fashion world, propelled by Mamie Eisenhower, who carried one of Judith’s creations to the 1953 presidential inauguration.

Woman wearing earrings and rings.
Judith Leiber.
Photo: Museum of Arts and Design

Samantha De Tillio, assistant curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, tells Judith’s story through her handbag designs, old photographs, letters, and a timeline of her life. “I think what’s interesting is how Judith... used a trade as a tool to forge a new life for herself post-war,” De Tillio says. “She was able to take her specialized training and propeller her career in such a way that she attained international recognition.”

For Judith, designing handbags has been a lifelong passion, a passion that persisted in the face of life in the ghetto with her family as the Nazis steadily exterminated the Jews of Budapest. "There were 26 people in a one-bedroom apartment. It was pretty terrible," Judith recounted to Harper’s Bazaar. At night, while Judith slept among 25 other people and their mattresses on the floor, she dreamed of handbags. "I designed handbags in my head to get through the misery," she said.

Judith was born in 1921 to Helene Spitzer Peto and Emil Peto in Budapest, Hungary. After taking some liberal arts courses in London, she planned to go to King’s College to study chemistry and eventually work in the cosmetics industry. However, her plans changed when WWII broke out in 1939. She went back to Hungary to live with her family during the war and began working as the first female apprentice at Pessl, a prestigious handbag company in Budapest.

Two little girls sitting next to each other.
Judith and her sister, Eva.
Photo: Museum of Arts and Design

In her time at Pessl, Leiber became a master craftswoman, learning how to create handbags from conception to completion. The war escalated, and her work at Pessl was cut short in 1943, when the her parents forbade her from leaving the apartment. Hitler invaded Hungary in 1944, and her family was forced into a Jewish ghetto. After the Russian Liberation in 1945, while still living in a basement with 60 other survivors, Judith began designing and selling her own handbags to members of the American Legation and US Armed Forces. It was during this time that she met her husband, Gerson “Gus” Leiber, a sergeant in the US Army Signal Corps. They married in 1946, and a year later the couple arrived in New York, courtesy of a brideship provided by the US military. Judith was 26 years old and had no luggage, except for a green toolbox and her ability to build a bag from beginning to end. "I guess chemistry never worked out. So I became a bag lady," Judith said to Bazaar.

After arriving in New York, Judith still faced years of hard work, and often had to make do with little. For instance, Judith was inspired to create her one-of-a-kind bedazzled bags when an order of brass minaudières arrived in an ugly shade of green, rather than gold. Post-war electricity was scarce, and Judith did not have enough of it to plate the gold effectively. Judith covered the green bag with crystals instead, and it sold well. This bag, known as the Chatelaine, “was a big turning point for me,” Judith relays to Racked via email. “It opened up a whole new way of thinking about handbags and allowed me to create new and unusual ideas that were really unique within the handbag realm.”

A man and woman on a train.
Judith and Gus Leiber leaving Budapest, December 1946.
Photo: Museum of Arts and Design

Soon, these rhinestone-metal bags became a staple of the Judith Leiber brand. And who might wear a sparkling food item in real life? None other than first ladies Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, and Barbara Bush, as well as countless actors, singers, models, and artists.

Judith’s big break first came when Mamie Eisenhower wore one of her minaudières — then under the name of designer Nettie Rosenstein — to the 1953 inauguration. Following the excitement surrounding Judith’s breakout moment, Gus encouraged his wife to start her own business. “Gus said I should have my own company, and finally I thought so, too,” Judith told the New York Times. They founded Judith Leiber Inc. in 1963, with Gus handling the business operations while Judith took care of the creative side of the company.

Judith credits moving to New York as one of the main factors that helped catapult her handbag design career. “New York was so alive and energetic. There was a real feeling that the sky was the limit in New York,” Judith tells Racked. “Immigrating to New York made it possible to dream big dreams and create things that had never been done before. America’s fashion industry was booming and the market was hungry for new ideas.”

Since founding her own company, Judith has made more than 3,500 handbags for patrons and first ladies, and, among many other awards, received the Lifetime Achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Judith retired from her company in 1998 and made her very last handbag in 2004.

Watermelon rhinestone clutch.
Watermelon minaudière with rhinestones, 1991.
Photo: Museum of Arts and Design

Judith’s success came from setting her work apart from that of countless fashion designers trying to make it in New York. “European designs were very old-fashioned, very traditional. Most of the American companies that were designing handbags when I was in business looked to those European designs for their ideas,” Judith says. “There was a spirit of expansion in America that made the American market embrace the newness of my minaudière designs.”

While Judith credits her minaudières for setting her work apart, De Tillio hopes that “people who know Judith for her minaudières leave the exhibition with a perspective on the vastness of the diversity of her work in form, material, and technique.” Indeed, the show also exhibits many of Judith’s finely crafted leather- and textile-based bags.

Multi-colored leather clutch.
Georges Braques–inspired multi-skin envelope, 1990.
Photo: Museum of Arts and Design

Also featured in the exhibit are photographs of first ladies wearing her handbags and letters they wrote to Judith thanking her for adorning them with her designs. A December 23rd, 1996 letter on White House stationery from Hillary Clinton reads:

“Dear Judith: The penguin handbag is delightful. Thank you again for your continued generosity. I look forward to seeing you in the future. With warm regards and best wishes for a happy holiday season and successful new year. I remain sincerely yours, Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

On what viewers should take away from the exhibit, De Tillio said, “I hope that her story can create a framework for the discussion of the importance of contributions made by immigrants to this city, and this country.”

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