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Judith Leiber’s Witty Handbag Legacy Will Live On

We have sadly lost the persistently eccentric designer, but her crystal clutches depicting everything from turtles to fast food are evergreen


IN HER CLUTCHES Judith Leiber in 1993 surrounded by the bags she referred to as her children. PHOTO: GORDON MUNRO

A BUNDLE OF ASPARAGUS stalks. A Ganesh elephant. A Russian nesting doll. A sleeve of french fries. A penguin wearing a top hat.

Long before we used emojis, handbag designer Judith Leiber transformed animals, vegetables and definitely the occasional mineral into conversation pieces in clutch form. They were regularly embraced by celebrities, museums like the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the highest society, including many a first lady, both Democrat and Republican. The admiration for Ms. Leiber’s evening bags was nothing if not bipartisan.

Ms. Leiber, the master of the crystal evening handbag, died late last month at the still-productive age of 97, just hours after her husband of 70 years, Gerson, an abstract expressionist painter. The couple died in the East Hampton, N.Y., property they bought in 1956.

Despite a tumultuous childhood in war-torn Hungary, Ms. Leiber, a Holocaust survivor who founded her company in 1963, created a career where she brought a pronounced eccentricity to the fantasy of dressing up.

From left: French Fries Clutch; Charlie Clutch; Cocktail Clutch;

Even today, in an age of individualized niche fashion, it takes a particular sense of sly humor and imagination to carry a bejeweled turtle to the opera, or a crystal pineapple on a run to the bodega en route to a black-tie charity function.

Not to mention an elastic bank account: Ms. Leiber’s brand of idiosyncrasy did not come cheap, regularly setting her customers back thousands of dollars for a small contraption that could perhaps fit a puny lip gloss and an American Express Centurion Card. Although Ms. Leiber sold her company in 1993, its current co-owner and creative director, Dee Hilfiger, carries on her maximalist approach.

“She was a pioneer,” said Brett Heyman, founder and creative director of Edie Parker, a clutch line inspired by the Leiber legacy. A pioneer who knew that a penguin in a top hat could make anyone smile.

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