Judith Leiber (1921 – 2018) American designer of handbags

Judith Leiber, designer of purses

Judith Leiber (1921 – 2018) was a prolific designer whose fanciful minaudières had accessorised royalties, first ladies, and film stars and entered the art collections at 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.

Embed from Getty Images

Dorothy Twining Globus, former director of the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum, 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. 


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. She learned to make handbags from scratch and first began selling her bags during the Second World War. 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.

Japan Jewellery Fair

New York

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 their 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 annually.

“I have a good sense of humour. I think everything we do should have whimsy in it”

Judith Leiber

Exhibition activities

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.


The Leibers sold their business in 1993, for a reported $16 million, to Time Products. 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.

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.



Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing.

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 a contemporary jewellery collection: Women’s wear daily. WWD, 3. Retrieved from https://wwd.com/accessories-news/jewelry/judith-leiber-launches-first-contemporary-jewelry-collection-1203116422/


Fashion Design Books – Amazon

* This website may contain affiliate links, and I may earn a small commission when you click on links at no additional cost. As an Amazon and Sovrn affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

More Fashion Designers

You may also be interested in

Masterpieces of French Jewelry – Encyclopedia of Design

By Judith Price French jewellery became a symbol of prestige in a changing social climate. America moved from a frontier nation to an industrial nation. Masterpieces of French Jewelry is a fascinating look at the most remarkable pieces that have made their way into famous American collections, with over 80 stunning images.

Suzanne Belperron French Jewellery Designer – Encyclopedia of Design

Suzanne Belporren was a French jewellery designer. Her career flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. Belperron produced numerous designs of sculptured jewellery for René Boivin’s Paris shop. She subsequently opened her own Paris shop called Herz-Belperron. Her designs often featured glass encrusted with gemstones.

More design articles

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.