The designer tells BAZAAR.com how she rose from the holocaust ghettos to become one of the most successful brands in handbag history.
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.
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.
“Judith Leiber arrived in New York at 26, with nothing but a green toolbox and her ability to build a bag from start to finish.”
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.
Judith Leiber pictured leaving Budapest for New York in December, 1946
Courtesy of Judith Leiber, Photograph by Eva Peto
The move didn’t last long. In December of 1944 those in the apartment were soon corralled into ghettos by the Hungarian Nazis (Germans created at least 1,000 ghettos—enclosed districts that separated Jewish communities from the non-Jewish population—in German-occupied territory), where Nazi soldiers planned to sweep them into death camps. Constant bombs, grenades and machine gunfire shattered most of the city of Budapest as both the Soviets and Germans battled to take Budapest, Hungary’s capital. After the Russian Liberation, which saved the ghetto from being forced in concentration camps, Leiber’s family moved into a basement with 60 others. To keep her sanity, Leiber continued to design intricate handbags with her imagination.
A softer side of life returned when the Americans arrived, she says. With the city still in ruins, Leiber began the arduous task of piecing back her life, and through a mutual friend she was connected with the secretaries of the American Legation who commissioned Leiber to create bags for them. Earning American dollars, Leiber was finally able to buy food and essentials for her family. It was during this time that Judith locked eyes with Gerson “Gus” Leiber, an American G.I. from Titusville, Pennsylvania on the bombed streets of Budapest. Their first date was to the opera—the pair enjoyed a courtship of the finest things his American dollars could buy. Married within the year, the Leibers fled to New York, arriving to find most Manhattan apartments already snagged by the vast numbers returning from the war. The newlyweds settled into a furnished room in the Bronx, and it was here that Leiber began her corporate climb.
“I designed handbags in my head to get through the misery.” – Judith Leiber
It was a relative of Gus’ who recommended her for her first job as a seamstress using an electric sewing machine. But Leiber, who only knew how to use a foot treadle, took a job at Garay & Co. instead. Despite her ability to make an entire leather bag from concept to showroom model, Leiber’s creativity was stifled with retailers looking to copy European designs, rather than create their own. Frustrated, she turned to the handbag union, where, as detailed in her biography, No Mere Bagatelles by Jeffrey Sussman, Leiber forced her way to the head of the union, Philip Lubliner with her green toolbox in hand; passing his secretary’s screening by saying she had a “private matter” to discuss. Once in his office, she simply told him: “I want to make handbags from start to finish.” Lieber was soon introduced to designer Nettie Rosenstein, known for her little black dresses and chic costume jewelry. Leiber began as assistant pattern maker in 1948, eventually overseeing the brand’s New York factory as pattern maker, designer, and foreman for the last few years of her 12 years there.
Then in 1953, everything changed. Mamie Eisenhower stepped out at the inaugural ball with a bag—intricately embroidered with pearls and rhinestones—designed by Leiber under the Nettie Rosenstein name, instantly propelling her already growing reputation among celebrities and socialites to a household name. Soon, Rosenstein gave Leiber the leeway to make anything she wanted. “While at Nettie Rosenstein, Judith became known amongst fashion editors and reporters as a premier handbag designer. When it became known that Judith had designed Eisenhower’s handbag that was carried to her husband’s presidential inauguration, Judith’s name and prestige took off. She became known as an important asset to Nettie Rosenstein,” explains the biographer Sussman.
In 1960, Leiber was offered the job of subcontractor before the company moved its factory to Florence, Italy, but she turned it down and for two years worked at other companies. Noticing her discontent, Leiber’s husband nudged her into considering entrepreneurship. So in 1963 the couple sold their $5,000 mutual fund, borrowed $7,000 from her father and leaned on Leiber’s reputation, which bought 90 days of supply credit—enough for several months of operation and four employees. She spent the next six months creating sample handbags from leather and silk, buying the finest frames and skins to create a built-to-last handbag brand from her small 10th Floor office on East 33rd Street. Then she sifted through her contacts.
“I called them up. I asked them if they would be kind enough to come down and visit my place,” Leiber remembers. “They came and they looked at everything, and little by little I sold to a lot of people.” Though her first season’s green leather bag was a painful education in the wrong color—it didn’t sell well—the next season’s black alligator skin bag sold out quickly. Leiber followed demand, focusing as intently on keeping her business alive as she had been on her survival during the Nazi occupation, she says. The couple carted bags all over New York, where Leiber’s husband, who by this time had forged a successful career as a modern painter, became responsible for billing and shipping. Leiber had “marvelous” acumen inherited from her financier father, and her grandmother, who ran Spitzer’s Ladies hat factory in Vienna, her husband explains.
A mixture of old-world pragmatism and vibrant ingenuity kept the business alive when an order of brass minaudière handbags arrived from Italy tinted an ugly shade of green instead of gold. The post war electricity had been too fritzy to plate the gold effectively, so Leiber covered the green tinge with crystals, giving the bags an ethereal luminescence, giving birth to the Chatelaine bag. It sold well, and revenue quadrupled—the crystal and rhinestone encrusted metal bag becoming nestled into the Judith Leiber brand. “After the Chatelaine I made the resting crane in 1968, then a lot of classic shapes, oblongs, squares,” she says. “In 1970 I made my first small egg-shaped minaudière, then later I did the lion, then the fan and then the fish. In 1979, I did the horse and the frog.”
Leiber began to embroider leathers, creating bags using everything from seashells to Japanese silk, most of which glistened with Swarovski crystal dewdrops. One of her favorite bags is a penguin, inspired by a friend who returned from the Arctic; and at one point, Leiber even matched a bag to her husband’s artwork. Designers would often send their gown plans for inaugural balls to be matched with her bags. Actress Greta Garbo sauntered on scene with a soft, white leather Leiber bag lined with silver rhinestones, followed by Claudette Colbert, Mary Tyler Moore, Linda Carter and Joan Rivers, all of whom flashed Leiber bags. Leiber’s showroom grew to four floors and 20,000 square feet at 20 West 33rd Street.
Soon, department stores were flying Leiber around the country to make celebrity-style appearances. She developed a special friendship with Barbara Bush. Opera singer Beverly Sills sent tickets for every opening night, and Leiber would always greet her with a bag. Then in 1993, she won the Lifetime Achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)—the first time the award was given to a handbag designer.
But times were changing, and skilled workers for a handmade process were becoming hard to come by. “One of the reasons we decided to sell was because it was getting more and more difficult to find really good hands,” she says. London’s Time Products purchased Leiber’s company in March 1993 for $18 million, and Leiber retired in 1998. Two years later, the Pegasus Apparel Group bought the company, and the company is now owned by Authentic Brands Group, which is still supplying Leiber-inspired bags, priced up to $7,000, to the likes of Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.
In 2005, Leiber’s husband established the The Leiber Collection museum, nestled into the winding roads of East Hampton, New York, brimming with six acres of elaborate gardens, Greco Roman columns and Leiber’s handbags housed behind plate glass. “The goal of the museum is to have one example of every one of Mrs. Leiber’s more than 3,500 designs,” says Stewart, the museum’s collection manager. The exhibition changes each year, as the couple continues to re-gather their products from donations from fans, from vintage fashion auction houses and online auction sites.
Over the summer, the Leiber’s hosted their annual tea party, where long-time fans gathered to tour the museum and the lush gardens designed by Gerson. Ladies, draped with sparkling Leiber bags, excitedly pointed to the intricate handbags and accessories that sparkled behind the museum’s plate glass. “See the stitching?” said one. “No one makes a bag like Judith Leiber.”