At 95, Judith Leiber carefully walks down an aisle of her palladian-style Hamptons museum surrounded by 1,500 handbags, most of them bedazzled with thousands of crystals. Her eyes graze two small metal clutches—one shaped like an eggplant and the other, an asparagus. "I just thought it was a good idea to try to make something strange we'd never made before," Leiber shrugs. "They're still selling."
The designer, who stepped down from her company in 1998, is now in the process of buying back all of her bags—designs that span more than 40 years and some of which sell for upward of $4,000 on eBay. "She designed over 3,500 bags so we're not even halfway there yet," says the museum's collection manager, Ann Fristoe Stewart, who also scours vintage auction houses and vintage handbag stores for rarer Leiber bags.
It has been 70 years since the designer—who married an American soldier during World War II after living in a Jewish ghetto basement with 60 other Holocaust survivors—arrived in New York on a brideship provided by the U.S. military. Then just 26 years old, she carried nothing with her but a green toolbox and her ability to build a bag from start to finish. "I guess chemistry never worked out. So I became a bag lady," Leiber deadpans.
Judith Leiber pictured with her American soldier husband, Gerson Leiber, in 1946
Born Judith Peto in 1921, Leiber left her hometown in Budapest, Hungary, for King's College London in 1938, where she studied chemistry for the cosmetics industry. Betting that London would be a stronghold if WWII erupted, her banker father chose the school to effectively send his daughter to safety. However, a trip home for the summer quickly changed Leiber's trajectory. "When the war broke out, I couldn't go back [to London], so I stayed in Hungary with my family," she says. Hitler bombed Poland in 1939, and though Leiber was still registered at King's, she refused to leave her family.
To distract herself from the encroaching war, Leiber went to work. Family connections landed her at the prestigious handbag company Pessl, where she learned to cut and mold leather, make patterns, and frame and stitch bags into completion. Leiber graduated to journeyman and finally to master craftswoman. A green toolbox was part of her diploma, holding essential tools that allowed her to create bags from concept to completion.
During this time, many of Leiber's relatives in other parts of Europe were forced into concentration camps. Nazi soldiers killed three of her uncles who refused to wear the Jewish yellow star, also grabbing her father and deploying him to a work camp. Leiber's family feared he would starve, be worked to death, or shot, so they begged a friend's uncle for a Swiss Pass from the Swiss Consulate where he worked, and her mother paid a postman to deliver him safely. A 16-year-old family friend added "and family" to the pass, allowing them to flee their home to cram into the small but safer apartment in Budapest that was under Swiss jurisdiction.
"There were 26 people in a one bedroom apartment. It was pretty terrible," remembers Leiber. Barred from leaving the house by her parents, Leiber gave up her beloved Pessl job and slept with the 25 others on mattresses on the floor. "I designed handbags in my head to get through the misery," she says.