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Beyond the Handbags, Who Was Judith Leiber?

The Judith Leiber brand we all know and love is synonymous with style, elegance, and sophistication. However, behind the designer bags and dazzling Swarovski crystals, there is a fascinating and awe-inspiring story of how this American luxury brand became a household name.

The early life of Judith Leiber 

Judith Leiber was born in Hungary in 1921 and, in her youth, was sent to King’s College in London to study chemistry for the cosmetics sector. However, before World War II, she returned to her home country, where she worked as a trainee at a handbag company. In this role, Judith worked with leather to make and stitch bags. After her traineeship, she graduated as a master craftswoman and was the first woman to join the Hungarian Handbag Guild. 

Fortunately, Judith Leiber is a Holocaust survivor, and her family escaped the war. Later she married her husband Gerber Leiber, who was a sergeant in the United States Army. They then moved to New York City. 

Here Judith founded her own business after working as a handbag designer for several other companies.

The Judith Leiber brand 

The Judith Leiber brand is renowned for its minaudières - evening purses adorned with sparkling Swarovski crystals. But these are no ordinary purses. Instead, the Leiber collection features unique and quirky forms such as slices of watermelon, cupcakes, snakes, and peacocks.

Surprisingly, the first bags were created out of a mistake. When speaking with Town & Country Magazine, Judith Leiber described the metal as having a greenish color which looked awful. So, crystal rhinestones were applied to salvage the work, and voila, the iconic Leiber bags were born. 

Many Leiber handbags were designed freehand. Rather than jotting sketches down on paper, Judith often took straight to cutting patterns and experimenting with ideas freehand to create the design she wanted.

Favorite designer for multiple First Ladies 

Judith Leiber rose in popularity among celebrities and numerous First Ladies. However, one of the many standout moments in her career came when Mamie Eisenhower commissioned Nettie Rosenstein to design a dress for the inaugural ball. At the time, Leiber worked as a designer for Rosenstein and created a matching purse to complement the dress. 

This purse featured pink silk and was decorated in rhinestones and pearls. This was a defining moment for Leiber, and it launched her career shortly afterward. This purse is now exhibited in the First Ladies Hall in the Smithsonian Museum. 

Leiber’s bags became a big hit. After making another for a second inaugural ball, five other First Ladies commissioned designs at their husband’s presidential swearing-ins. The designs were favorites of Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton, among others.  

Judith Leiber museum collections

The beauty of Judith Leiber handbags has to be seen to be believed, and you can get up close and personal with many of the designs at The Leiber Collection. This museum opened its doors in 2005 and sits on Leiber’s East Hampton estate. The building features a Palladian-style construction and is surrounded by beautiful gardens and a sculpture designed by Gerson. 

This is one of the largest permanent collections of the handbag company. Opera singer Beverly Sills also left her entire collection to the museum when she passed. Alongside viewing Leiber bags at this East Hampton property, they can be seen in other establishments such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Corcoran Gallery.

Award and accolades

The handbag designer has been recognized globally for her contribution to the fashion industry. Some standout moments in Leiber’s career include receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in 1994. She was also awarded the ICONOCLAST Award in Handbag Design at the Independent Handbag Designer Awards. Other accolades included getting a Coty award and Neiman Marcus award.

Movie and red carpet appearances 

The popularity of Leiber bags took to the big screen in the iconic Sex and the City movie. Its starring role is featured in the wedding scene where Big tries to ring Carrie when he gets cold feet, but Charlotte’s daughter picks up the phone. The beautiful Judith Leiber Swarovski crystal-covered cupcake clutch is just in front of her on the table. She then places the phone inside so no one hears the phone on the way to the wedding. 

Leiber bags are no stranger to the red carpet either. Helen Mirren adorned her dress with the dazzling Specchio clutch at the Golden Globes. Likewise, Glenn Close and Meryl Streep chose Leiber designs to complement their gowns at the same event.

More than just a fashion piece 

The handbags and purses in the Judith Leiber collection are more than a statement fashion piece. While these creations are loved for their uniqueness, they also stand as an art feature and are often auctioned as such. 

Leiber was inspired by a lifelong fascination and admiration of art, opera, and travel, which led to some of the most intricate handbag designs in her collection. This iconic designer pushed the boundaries of bag design. Her reputation saw designers and suppliers seek out her skills to experiment with new fabrics and textiles. Many handbag designs also had an art-deco influence, and Leiber paid homage to artworks of Piet Mondrian and Georges Braque, to name a few.

Judith Leiber stockists 

The Judith Leiber brand is an exclusive and unique feature in the fashion world. Currently, it is stocked in only a few Leiber boutiques around the globe. However, you can also purchase some of the collection at fashion stores, including Neiman Marcusand Harvey Nichols.

Handbags and clutch purses that stand the test of time 

The Judith Leiber brand is ever-evolving and continually stands at the forefront of unique handbag design. With this heritage and admiration behind it, the company continues to flourish and broaden its base in the luxury accessories market as it grows to even new heights in the future as it maintains its status as being at the cutting edge of fashion. 

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