From 1920s Hungary to Sex and the City-era New York, designer Judith Leiber's accomplishments have been celebrated in a new biography by author Jeffrey Sussman, who spoke along with Leiber and her husband, the artist Gerson Leiber, about their lives at the on Saturday afternoon.
Born in Budapest in 1921, Leiber’s work as a luxury handbag designer has made her a household name among fashionistas. She has seen her handbags – which fans consider miniature art pieces – carried by socialites, movie stars, and fashion mavens worldwide. Meticulously designed and crafted, her most popular bags are miniaudieres, clutches covered with crystals in a range of bright designs often representing animals or objects (a cupcake miniaudiere was featured on Sex and the City).
No Mere Bagatelles: Telling the Story of Handbag Genius Judith Leiber and Modernist Artist Gerson Leiber, tells the couple's story of their hard-won accomplishments, starting with Leiber's survivial of the Holocaust of World War II, in which she escaped to a Swiss house after her father’s sole schutz-pass (a piece of paperwork that protected the bearer in transit) was quickly altered.
“An Olympia typewriter that matched the typing on the schutz-pass was found, and the phrase ‘and family’ was typed in after Judy’s father’s name to give the family safe passage,” Sussman explained during the lecture attended by a small audience on Saturday.
After the war, Leiber began designing and making handbags, learning the processes step by step. She met the man who would become her husband when he was an American soldier overseas, and she emigrated to the United States in 1948.
Founding her own business in 1963, Leiber began selling her handbags, which are worth several thousand dollars each and have become status symbols. Several U.S. first ladies have carried them, and a number of them are even included in exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian - not to mention in Leiber's own Leiber Museum in Springs.
Sussman’s book, No Mere Bagatelles, also tells of Gerson Leiber’s groundbreaking work as a modernist artist. The Leibers, who purchased a farmhouse in East Hampton many years ago were both in bright form at Saturday’s lecture and it's obvious that after over 50 years of marriage Gerson is his wife's biggest champion.
“Judy was the first woman in the system, in the Hungarian Handbag Guild,” Gerson said, “she was first an apprentice, then a journeyman, then, with the proper amount of time, she became a master.”
“She knows all the steps of crafting a handbag,” he continued, “it’s not just about designing it. She knows about selecting the leather, ‘skiving’ it (thinning it only in selected places), and turning the edges. There are a lot more steps to crafting a handbag than you might expect. But she did them, and did them all successfully.”