Judith Leiber, First Lady of Handbags

Text by Mary Gregory,  Photos by Adel Gorgy

The first lady of handbags, award-winning designer Judith Leiber, passed away last week at age 97 in her home in East Hampton.  She died within hours of her husband of 72 years, Gerson Leiber, aged 96, who was by her side.  They were inseparable in life and death.  Judith designed handbags that made headlines, were featured in art museums, and were collected and worn by first ladies, movie stars and lovers of elegance.  Gerson (or Gus, as he was called) was a brilliant painter. (See our review of his 2014 exhibition at the Carter Burden Gallery.)

Whimsy and exquisite artistry characterize Judith Leiber’s creations.  Photo by Adel Gorgy

Together they fashioned and cared for not just works of art, but a life that was as sparkling and rich as any creation.  We visited them and their museum, The Leiber Collection, a few years ago, where they shared their story and their work with us.  It would be difficult to imagine more delightful people.  Judith, a Holocaust survivor, met Gus, an American GI in Budapest.  It was, they told us, love at first sight and one that never wavered or waned.  

A penguin shaped Leiber minaudière   Photo by Adel Gorgy

They came to New York in 1946, and Judy, who was trained as a handbag maker, set up shop.  While she was working with Nettie Rosenstein, one of Judith’s handbags was chosen by Mamie Eisenhower for the presidential inauguration.  It was pale pink silk with pearls and rhinestones.  Many considered it the most spectacular part of the first lady’s outfit.  It’s now in the collection of the Smithsonian.  Before long, Judith Leiber’s fame and success spread and she and Gus started their own brand.  Gus would lug cartons of handbags to retailers on the subway. 

Judith Leiber received the Lifetime Achievement award from the CFDA  Photo by Adel Gorgy

Her sparkling creations are as exquisite as Faberge eggs.  She pointed to a shining silver minaudière as her favorite. “You know why it’s my favorite?” Judy said.  “It was the first bag I made in metal.  It was full of spots, so I covered it in rhinestones.  That started the rhinestone business.”

Judith Leiber’s first and favorite minaudière   Photo by Adel Gorgy

Gus was an accomplished painter whose work was exhibited in museums.  “He has the most wonderful paintings,” Judith smiled. “It’s been a long life, and these are the stains and marks of that life,” Gus said.

Judith Leiber handbag in the shape of a horse    Photo by Adel Gorgy

Judith Leiber’s handbags dazzle    Photo by Adel Gorgy

He went on to speak beamingly about his wife’s work.  “I firmly believe that Judy’s culture and knowledge and intimate interest in music, art and literature was superior and different than that of most handbag designers,” he said.  “After the war, there was a spirit in the air of expansiveness, of daring, a feeling of recuperating from the war.  There was a fashion, a zeal, a spirit, and I think Judy epitomizes that – her entire career.  The feeling of drive that she had.  Just spectacular.” 

One of the last handbag’s designed by Judith Leiber   Photo by Adel Gorgy

Photo One: A Judith Leiber Handbag with her initials.  Photo by Adel Gorgy