JUDITH LEIBER: Crafting a New York Story

Photo by Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design.


April 4-August 6, 2017

by Harrice Miller

The first time I met Judith Leiber was in the early 90s when we were both doing Personal Appearances at Saks. She looked so real, so like a kindly grandma, I was struck with the dissimilarity between her appearance and the wildly glamorous and bedazzling jeweled purses she designed. Decades later, at the opening of her exhibition, “Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story”, at the Museum of Arts and Design, Judith, now 96, sat regally with Gerson Leiber, her artist husband of many years at her side, like a queen whose adoring subjects were stopping by to pay their respects.

Judith with friends in Greece. Courtesy of Judith Leiber.

Photo by Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design.


Photo by Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design.

The exhibition illustrated, through a series of extraordinary, iconic purses, the story of her rise as a handbag apprentice in her hometown of Budapest during World War II, to the last bag she designed before her retirement, in the shape of a jeweled peacock in 2004. In 65 years in the handbag industry, Judith revolutionized the concept of craftsmanship, with her bags ranging from beautifully fashioned leather and textiles to the Swarovski crystal-encrusted figural bags we know today to be her signature look. From the founding of her company Judith Leiber Handbags in 1963 until 2004, she designed more than 3,500 bags. She began first with leather examples and designed her first metal bag in 1967. 

Exhibit image by Sarara Couture. This was the first metal bag Leiber created and it was based on a Chatelaine made in 1967.

Rare 1968 metal bag, by Judith Leiber. Image courtesy of Sarara Couture.

Judith’s handbags have been carried by First Ladies, Hollywood actresses and opera singers, including Mamie Eisenhower, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Greta Garbo, Mary Tyler Moore, Claudette Colbert and Beverly Sills. Current wearers of Leiber bags include; Chanel Iman, Kelly Osborne, Sarah Jessica Parker, Chrissy Teigen, Diane Kruger among many others. They are cherished the world over by collectors who are attracted to their often whimsical shapes including fruits, vegetables, animals, birds, foo dogs, books, musical instruments, sea creatures, Fabergé-inspired eggs and even a Buddha!

Photo by Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design.


Handbags, wax models, personal letters, and archival photographs create an atmosphere that personalizes the woman behind her creations. Judith’s inspiration stemmed from her love of travel, art, textiles, and materials, creating a body of work that MAD envisioned as exploring the gendered significance of the handbag in the 20th century and in the importance of immigrant entrepreneurship to the fabric of New York.

Photo by Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design.

The exhibition was curated by MAD’s Assistant Curator Samantha De Tillio, with the support of Curatorial Assistant and Project Manager Angelik Vizcarrondo-Laboy. Be sure to visit the Leiber Collection, the museum is located in the East Hampton hamlet of Springs, NY.

Relevant links:


Purse Perfection: Judith Leiber on Faberge, Rhinestones, and Her Favorite First Ladies

Walk Like An Egyptian Red Carpet Style-Harley Viera Newton for Judith Leiber

skull bag Leiber

Image via Judith Leiber.com/Rights Reserved. Couture skull bag.

So, I admit I have a love – hate thing with Judith Leiber bags. I either love them, especially her 1970s clutches or it just doesn’t do it for me. That said, I kind of feel that this is due to custom nature of the designs, it is meant to be that way- a bag sort of speaks to you or doesn’t. One of my favorites designs features a snake as seen below. Examples of the 70s styles include both crystal and exotic skin bags. Judith Leiber was a pioneer in terms of women designing bags, as the first woman accepted into the handbag guild. She has been creating these accessories for first ladies and the red carpet since 1953 (Her company was officially founded in 1963). Now in her 90s, and a survivor of the holocaust, she is an inspiration.  Judith moved to New York with her husband and focused on her dreams. I personally remember learning about her time working with one of my favorite accessories designers- Nettie Rosenstein. Her bags are now in various museum collections like the Met, as well as her own official one located in East Hampton. The Judith Leiber museum contains over 900 bags. Since many designs were limited or couture, the museum must be still searching some of the rarer ones to add to that archive.

As of more recent years something which bridges fashion accessories and the Judith Leiber vintage designs seems to be happening. Who could forget the cupcake bag via Sex and the City…..Well, that was just the beginning of a sort of renewed interest in the designs. Today, in part this is due to the appointment of Ana Matheson as creative director.

This rejuvenated interest in her bags, includes a whole new young client base, and you can see this in the choice of designs as of late. Per this bag, front and center on the website- called the  BELA LAUGOSI  Skull bag. The company seems to be producing some fashion forward couture bags which bridge the gap between past and present.

Judith Leiber.com/Rights Reserved

The newest endeavor for S/S 15 is pure fashion fun. Harley Viera Newton, a New York DJ, model by trade and a new fashion favorite worked with the iconic bag company to create a couture collection. She describes her discovery of Judith Leiber in the recent Elle magazine interview.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 4.47.11 PMJudith Leiber Couture Collection via ModaOperandi.com

Vintage accessories lovers can relate to her enthusiasm and most have at least one of Leiber’s bags in their collection.  ModaOperandi.com has the Harley collaboration for preorder now exclusively. One thing you will notice is what a bargain the 70s snake bag may seem to be! However, the Harley collection does feature thousands of quality crystals and 24K gilt on some of the bags.

Judith Leiber Egyptian bags/ Harley

Judith Leiber Couture bags-image via ModaOperandi.com- snapped by my computer as I shopped!

In terms of reviewing the designs, her creations for Judith Leiber are really a great merge of her interests in Egyptology and the brand’s own Egyptian revival/deco influenced styles of the past. I think a serious collector or red carpet maven could do no wrong having one.

Vintage Judith Leiber Crystal Bag

Vintage 70s Leiber crystal bag via our shop. See the bag link for vintage examples.

My anthropology background also relates to her interest in ancient Egypt.  I think she has a whimsical, yet chic approach to the couture bags she’s created.  My favorites bags are the river snake (which actually has a pretty head shape when seen from above), the silver pyramid and the hieroglyph clutch. It features Egyptian hieroglyphics which spell out Judith Leiber as well as Harley. The camel gets an honorable mention for its whimsy! Honestly the winged scarab box clutch isn’t too shabby either! Not to mention the scarab is a sign of rebirth- referring to the Egyptian god which pushed the sun across the sky to be reborn each day. So, it is fitting that this collection highlights a sort of resurgence of interest in Judith Leiber bags.