Judith Leiber’s thousands of intricate handbag designs prove there’s nothing she couldn’t create out of Swarovski crystals, rhinestones, and semi-precious stones over her decades-long career. Cats and dogs and swans and penguins? A ruby red slice of watermelon? A pink-frosted cupcake? Yes, yes, and yes. Her menagerie of minaudières remain a favorite, from Upper East Side salons to the red carpet at every single award show, and can retail for $6,000 or more. More than fashion, her pieces are objets d’art, frequently auctioned as such, and the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art holds 80 pieces in their collection.
Leiber passed away on April 28 at the age of 97, just 72 hours after her husband died. Below, we take a look back at the legendary handbag designer's incredible life.
1. Her signature designs stemmed from a mistake.
Leiber’s favorite bag was her elegant 1967 Chatelaine design. The first metal bag she made, it was also the turning point for her. "When the samples came in, it looked awful because the bottom was greenish and looked very bad," Leiber recalled. "I had to salvage it and decided to fix it by applying crystal rhinestones to the metal bag." The bag turned out to be, to put it mildly, a huge success, and an iconic style was born.
2. She worked freehand.
Leiber said she made quick sketches, but never designed her bags on paper. “I never really made complicated or intricate drawings. I went straight to the cutting table with my ideas and created a pattern for a bag I was designing,” she said.
3. She survived the Holocaust and World War II.
At the start of the war, Leiber went to work at Pessl, a handbag company, where she worked her way from journeyman to master craftswoman. As the war intensified, she and her family lived with 25 other people in a one-bedroom apartment when they were able to add their names to a pass from the Swiss consulate, allowing them to live under that government’s protection. But in the final terrible months of the war, the Nazis rounded her and her family up and forced them into a ghetto where she lived with 60 people in a cellar. Leiber says she designed handbags in her mind to create an escape. The war ended
4. Her husband was an artist.
A year later, she met a handsome American GI on the street in Budapest named Gerson Leiber. They fell in love, married, and sailed to New York on a “bride ship,” one of the special transports for the foreign wives of American soldiers. Gerson Leiber was an abstract impressionist painter and sculptor whose work is in more than 50 museums, including the MoMA and the Whitney.
5. The Leibers were married for over 70 years.
They lived in East Hampton, where he had a studio. In their later years, the couple kept future artisans in mind: they funded a scholarship for accessories design majors at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
6. She was a favorite of multiple First Ladies.
Leiber was working for designer Nettie Rosenstein in 1953 when Mamie Eisenhower (above) commissioned Rosenstein to design her gown for the inaugural ball. Leiber designed the matching purse in pale pink silk, decorated with a lace overlay, pearls, and rhinestones. It was a sensation that launched her career, and the purse is now in the First Ladies Hall in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
7. Her bags were front and center at multiple inaugurations.
After Eisenhower’s re-election, Leiber made a bag for the second inaugural ball, and five other First Ladies followed suit at their husbands’ presidential
8. Her clutch stars in a pivotal moment in the first Sex and the City movie.
Yes, basically it’s a Judith Leiber cupcake Swarovski crystal-covered clutch that gets Carrie stood up at the altar. When Big tries to call Carrie and tell her about his cold feet, Charlotte’s adorable daughter answers Carrie’s phone and then drops it in her equally adorable cupcake minaudières. No one hears the phone ringing on the way to the wedding, and it was all because of the flower girl.
9. She has her own museum.
The Leiber Collection opened in 2005 on the couple’s East Hampton property in a Palladian-style building surrounded by six flower gardens and a sculpture space designed by Gerson. The Leibers bought back many of Judith’s creations to house in the museum, and the opera singer Beverly Sills left her entire personal collection of 200 bags to the institution when she died.
10. And her work can be found in many others.
Besides the Metropolitan and Smithsonian Museums, Leiber’s creations can also be found in the Corcoran Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
11. She made her last handbag in 2004, but her brand carries on.
Leiber’s last design was an intricate blue-green peacock minaudière she had made before she sold her brand. Since changing ownership, the company has continued to make her designs and in January 2017, Dee Ocleppo Hilfiger, wife of Tommy, became the co-owner, creative director, and brand ambassador. She
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.