Judith Leiber (1921 – 2018) was a prolific designer whose fanciful minaudières had accessorised royalties, first ladies, and film stars, and entered the collections of art the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While her couture handbags—carried by celebrities such as Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, Claudette Colbert, Björk, and Barbara Walters—are widely regarded as works of art, Leiber preferred the word “artisan” to “artist.” Her crystalline clutches were often decorated with colourful rhinestones or beads, drawing inspiration from various forms, including ladybugs, eggs, flowers, swans, and cupcakes.
Dorothy Twining Globus, former director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, on Leiber bags: “Sensuous and tactile, they ask to be picked up”. Most of Ms. Leiber’s evening bags, particularly the glittering metal creations, were designed to hold a bare minimum of necessities.
Miniaudières is taken from the French word “to charm,” these tiny bags were inspired by the small metal purses introduced by Vam Cleef & Arpels in the 1930s. They are costly to produce as each bag is individually cast in metal and then covered with thousands of tiny Swarovski crystals, all applied by hand over a period of days. Shapes include monkeys, cats, birds, and teddy bears. (Miller, 2006)
Born in 1921 in Hungary, Judith Peto, Leiber became the first woman to enter the Hungarian Handbag Guild, rising from an apprentice to a master.
She learned to make handbags from scratch and first began selling her handbags during the Second World War. As she and her family were forced to sew army uniforms, Leiber developed a handbag business at home, selling them to American soldiers in Hungary. In 1946, she met Gerson Leiber, an American soldier stationed in Budapest after the war, and moved to New York a year later, where she worked for various fashion companies.
When Leiber went to work as a pattern maker in a purse factory, she was taken aback by the task’s speed and ineloquence. There were a lot of pieces flung around. Workers merely had a rudimentary understanding of their trade. Leiber and her husband launched her own company in 1963, after working for a second purse company. She did things her way. Her New York factory employed 100 people and created thousands of pieces per year.
“I have a good sense of humour. I think everything we do should have whimsy in it”
Her handbags are in the Smithsonian Institution and the Chicago Historical Society’s permanent collections, often meticulously handcrafted with thousands of crystals and sold almost exclusively in boutiques worldwide.
Ms. Leiber received most of the fashion industry’s major prizes. 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.
Today, the brand has found fresh relevance and expanded its reach, with Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West, and Gigi Hadid wearing it on their arms and in their Instagram feeds.
Miller, J. (2006). Handbags. Dorling Kindersley.
REISCHEL, D. (1986, Nov 14). Leiber bags have their own personalities: [home edition]. Los Angeles Times (Pre-1997 Fulltext) Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1986-11-14-vw-29323-story.html
Waller, T. (2019). Judith leiber adds contemporary jewelry collection: Women’s wear daily. Wwd, , 3. Retrieved from https://wwd.com/accessories-news/jewelry/judith-leiber-launches-first-contemporary-jewelry-collection-1203116422/
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Jewellery in the Age of Modernism 1918-1940: Adornment and Beyond
Adorning Fashion: The History of Costume Jewellery
Fit for a Queen: Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s Creations by Balmain
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