Crafting a New York Story

New York

18 April 2017

Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story, an exhibition hosted at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, charts the career of the American fashion designer Judith Leiber. To mark Crafting a New York Story's opening, Disegno is delighted to publish an edited extract from the exhibition's catalogue, as well as a series of observations from show curator Samantha De Tillio about the exhibited designs.

In 1963, at the age of 42, Judith Leiber founded Judith Leiber Handbags. In the 35 years between founding the company and her retirement in 2004, Leiber designed more than 3,500 bags.

Leiber (née Peto) began her career in the handbag industry in 1939, just as World War II began. The war interrupted her studies in London, where she was preparing to attend King’s College to study chemistry and enter the cosmetics industry. She then joined the prestigious Jewish-Hungarian handbag company Pessl, where she quickly climbed the ranks from apprentice to journeyman to master craftswoman, and learned to create handbags from design to completion.

Pessl went out of business during the Nazi occupation of Hungary, and Leiber and her family sequestered themselves in an effort to stay safe as conditions worsened. After the liberation of Budapest, Leiber began making handbags again; she went into business for herself and sold directly to the employees of the American Legation and the US Army. It was during this time that Leiber met and married Gerson Leiber, a sergeant in the US Army Signal Corps. In 1946, the couple moved to New York and Leiber learned the American handbag industry employed assembly-line skill division. In 1948 she began work as an assistant pattern maker for the fashion house Nettie Rosenstein, where she eventually rose to oversee the brand’s New York factory as pattern-maker, designer, and foreman. In 1953 Mamie Eisenhower wore a Leiber-designed Nettie Rosenstein handbag to the presidential inauguration, making Leiber a household name. After twelve years with Rosenstein the Leibers founded their own company, Judith Leiber Handbags, in 1963.

Leiber is best known for her Swarovski crystal–encrusted minaudières, small decorative bags primarily carried in hand, which have become icons of the red carpet. Leiber created her first minaudières after an order of gold-plated brass frames were delivered damaged, and she used rhinestones to cover the discolouration. Leiber began to create minaudières in seemingly endless, whimsical variations, including fruit- and vegetable-shaped bags inspired by her husband’s love of gardening. Her affinity for Asian culture and personal collection of Chinese porcelains and Japanese woodblock prints resulted in designs in the form of the Buddha, Japanese inro ̄, and Chinese imperial guard lions (known as “foo dogs” in the West). Leiber’s minaudières have become favourites of First Ladies and actresses alike. Nearly every First Lady since Mamie Eisenhower has carried a Leiber bag to the presidential inauguration.

IMAGE Gary Mamay, courtesy of the Leiber Collection.

Original chatelaine with crystal rhinestones, 1967

Samantha De Tillio: Judith Leiber pushed the boundaries of handbag design. Such innovation is epitomised by her famed sparkling minaudières, a technique that began as a solution to a damaged metal frame, and was then catalysed by the design of her imaginative animal and food clutches to become fashion staples for First Ladies and celebrities alike. Leiber’s first attempt at a minaudière was meant to be done purely with metal, however, when her first shipment of shells returned from the foundry damaged she applied rhinestones in a striated pattern to cover the discolouration on the gold-plated brass surface. True to her industrious nature, Leiber’s solution proved popular and she began making rhinestone minaudières in endless variety.

IMAGE Gary Mamay, courtesy of the Leiber Collection.

Sonia Delaunay–inspired multi-skin envelope, 1990

Samantha: A lover of the arts, Judith Leiber spent her childhood traveling, visiting Europe’s most prestigious art museums, and attending the Viennese opera. Her experiences have long influenced her work, as can be seen by the many handbags influenced by artists such as Sonia Delaunay, Piet Mondrian, Georges Braque, Louis C. Tiffany, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, among others. She also made a handbag inspired by the work of her husband Gerson Leiber, a painter and printmaker. Leiber’s Sonia Delaunay-inspired envelope takes inspiration from Delaunay’s paintings, textiles and costume designs. A co-founder of Orphism—an offshoot of Cubism and influenced by Fauvism that focused on pure abstraction and bright colours—Delaunay’s work is noted for its use of saturated colours and geometric shapes, including the concentric circle motif seen in this handbag.

IMAGE Gary Mamay, courtesy of the Leiber Collection.

Smoked Lucite egg with gold frame and chain, 1968

Samantha: Judith Leiber’s work often transcended fashion to reflect popular trends in the greater design world. At the time, moldable plastics were the materials of the future and used to create shatterproof windows, canopies, bomber noses, and gun turrets for the new high-altitude World War II aircrafts. Soon after, along with tubular steel, moldable plastics became icons of 50s and 60s design. The smoked Lucite bag, with its capsule-like shape and use of plastic, emulates futuristic decorative arts trends of the post-World War II period, and illustrates the redirection of society’s interest to the future and the space race between the United States and Soviet Union. In fact, the year after this bag was made, Apollo 11 made its successful moon landing.

IMAGE Gary Mamay, courtesy of the Leiber Collection.

Re-embroidered Indian Parsi ribbon bag with medieval figures, 1994

Samantha: After Leiber founded her own company, Judith Leiber Handbags, in 1963 her reputation quickly grew. As a result, suppliers would seek her out at her factory in New York’s handbag district (near the garment district at the time) to offer their wares. She procured a wide variety of global textiles in this manner—from Japanese obis, to Iranian fabrics, to Indian Parsi ribbons. For this bag, Parsi ribbons were stitched together to create the fabric for the bag’s body. Leiber then employed re-embroidery, a technique that she used to accentuate the textile’s original design with her own embroidery and rhinestones. The majority of the bags she made this way had floral or abstract designs. This bag is particularly special because of its figuration.

IMAGES Gary Mamay, courtesy of the Leiber Collection.

Grey alligator frame bag with greyhound lock, 1988
Cream-coloured karung frame bag with Art Deco lock, 1979

Samantha: Leiber has a great appreciation for Art Deco, and has spent many years admiring Art Deco architecture and design. Her affinity for the period lead to many handbags, including some multi-skin bags that take their influence from the lines of Art Deco, as well as a group of handbags that include intricate geometric hardware. This influence can be felt in the cream-coloured karung frame bag, in the geometry of the lock, and the grey alligator bag whose lock is in the form of a greyhound, a symbol of speed indicative of the Art Deco and Modern art period. Finally, the white karung bag is accented by cornelian and agate arranged in a motif that references ancient Egyptian designs, a particularly popular reference when Art Deco was at its height during the 1920s and 1930, due to a number of important archaeological discoveries made during the period.