Continuing my series on designers, I wanted to focus on someone who brought whimsey to accessorizing in an unexpected way: Judith Leiber. During her lifetime, Leiber became synonymous with the idea of class while having fun. I adore her creations, they capture a youthful wonder with her designs and use of Swarovski crystals. Handbags are usually chosen last to complement an outfit but with her bag- you build the outfit around it! Judith’s bags however are a statement in their own right. Her hard work, ingenuity and expert use of Swarovski crystals are the reason that her creations are still the talk of the fashion industry to this day.
Judith was born in Budapest in 1921. Initially her family had sent her to study chemistry in 1938. Her career aspiration was to work in the cosmetic industry, but World War II derailed those plans. She stayed in Budapest for her Fall 1939 semester and began her path to becoming a renowned designer. She worked her way up from apprentice and eventually became the first woman to join the Hungarian Handbag Guild.
Photo of Judith and Gus Leiber
Judith married an American GI, known as Gus, and moved to NYC in 1947. Once in the city she was able to work for different manufacturers until finding success with designer Nettie Rosenstien. She became well known while being head designer for Rosenstein, in fact Mamie Eisenhower carried one of her designs to her husband’s inauguration ball. It was because of her notoriety as a designer that Gus encouraged her to strike out on her own. This led to the establishment of Judith Leiber in 1963. She created her first metal bag in 1967. The original bag was produced in Italy but arrived stained green. Rather than giving up on the ruined shipment, the bags were covered in rhinestones to hide the blemish. Thus the iconic Chatelaine was born.
Fabergé-Inspired Egg Minaudiere with Pearls, 1988
Judith Leiber bags and jewelry are still sold today and you can find her vintage purses at estate sales all over the country. The daytime bags come in leather, velvet, snakeskin, and satin. They are the perfect bag to add the right amount of sparkle to an outfit. I adore them and always like to keep the shop stocked with her bags, jewelry, and even belts. Her minaudières are her most easily recognizable creations. They come in a multitude of forms from stacks of hundred dollar bills to peppermints.
Looking at her pieces it is easy to see how they are so prevalent on Hollywood red carpets, political events, and even the silver screen. Anytime you watch a red carpet event you are sure to see at least a couple dozen of her bags flash across your screen. Her bags catch the light of flashbulbs in a mesmerizing way that makes you instantly fall in love with them. There are stories of people fawning over the bags, even to the point that Peter Drinklage proudly displayed Maisie William’s penguin purse rather than his Emmy at a photocall for the Game of Thrones cast. Every First Lady since Mamie Eisenhauer has owned at least one of Judith’s creations. Hillary Clinton even had one with the First Cat Sox decorating it. I keep seeing her bags pop up in movies and instantly make me lust after them. I am willing to bet you even knew a Judith Lieber bag if you didn’t know about her before this post. The most infamous use of one of her bags comes from Sex and the City. The pink frosted cupcake minaudière carried by Charlotte’s daughter Lily has been accused by some as the reason that Carrie and Big’s first wedding didn’t happen. I love the look of that bag, but I still get frustrated when I think about how no one could hear the phone ring since it had been hidden in that crystal cupcake.
Judith Leiber bags are a must-have when it comes to any handbag collection. The only problem is that you can never just have one. When they come in so many fabulous designs that match so many looks, how could you only have one? Between you and me, I have several and no plans of stopping there either. They are a great accessory and an amazing investment too. Tell that to your boyfriend if he says anything about how many vintage handbags you have. I will leave you with this one last story. Leiber often talked about a messy divorce she heard about. It seems during a divorce settlement, a husband demanded the 14 Leiber bags he had gifted the wife over seven years. The wife reportedly kept her collection but the husband had claimed that he could retire with her Leiber bag collection. If that doesn’t show you the collectability and investment of these works of art, then nothing will.
Until next time,
Links to learn more about Judith Leiber: