The Woman Behind the Beautiful Bags

Judith channels the era of the space race with a futuristic smoky Lucite egg with gold frame and chain, 1968

You’ve seen them on the red carpet, in the hands of First Ladies, and gleaming cases at Bergdorfs. Tiny glittery sculptures sized to fit in the palm of a hand.

The show at MAD, Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story, which closes August 6, gives a well-deserved look at the innovator behind these creations, showcases the many ways Leiber elevated the evening bag, and tells a dramatic story of how an immigrant came to the United States with technical knowledge and flair for an up-to-then unexploited corner of the accessories market.

Take a walk through the show with our Flickr album.

The exhibition in MAD’s Tiffany galleries is an ethereal, low-light showcase of some of Leiber’s most dazzling creations. Putting the primary focus on her lifetime output of handbags-as-art, her life story is conveyed discretely in an understated corner through a few photos and an illuminating timeline.

Leiber’s 21st century Mondrian-inspired bag, 2000

Growing up in Budapest, Judith went to London to take liberal arts courses and intended to study chemistry there to enter the booming European cosmetics business. But the 1939 outbreak of World War II forced her to go to Plan B – sticking close to home and working with the Hungarian luxury brand, the House of Pessl, learning the craftsmanship of fine ladies’ handbags.

As the show notes, with the advent of train travel and emphasis on ladies’ luggage, handbags became a fashionable accessory in the mid-to-late 19th century. With its spas, lavish restaurants, and pastry palaces, Budapest catered to the aristocratic trade in just about everything, including carrying cases and bags. Leiber was in a good spot to learn from the best and became the only female member of the local handbag guild.

Presented to Hillary Clinton in 1997 for her husband’s second inaugural.

When Germany took over Hungary in 1944, she and her family were relocated to a ghetto where they endured economic deprivation and witnessed persecutions that came to an end when Russia liberated the city in 1945.

Channeling her skills into creating bags for military buyers, Judith met and married a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps – Gus – who would take her back to New York, encourage her to start her own business, and eventually run her company.

Her big break in the New York Garment District was supplying a handbag to First Lady Mamie Eisenhower at her husband’s 1956 inauguration. Although Judith was working for designer Nettie Rosenstein, everyone heard about the Judith Leiber-designed handbag and she made a splash.

Leiber’s first rhinestone bag 1967 – an ingenious solution to hide a discolored brass frame

Ten years later, Judith began her own handbag company. Good thing that she was able to do it all, from making a pattern, to designing the frames, and executing it all right down to the finish. When a brass frame arrived in her workshop with surface defects, she had the idea to cover the defects with rhinestones, and launched the look that would distinguish her at inaugural balls, New York society galas, and Hollywood premieres – the jewel-encrusted minaudière.

The side gallery is packed with her signature pieces, crystal-covered minaudières crafted to resemble animals, food, and Chinese-inspired dressing table items. On the other side of the exhibition is a small case with wax sculptures by Lawrence Kallenberg, who worked a lifetime with Judith to create the 3-D templates that the Italian foundry uses to fabricate the brass cases.

The exhibition is a beautiful display of her lifetime of work, featuring both the first bejeweled bag and her last design in 2004, emphasizing the inspiration she took from 20th century artists and textiles of world cultures. Among the most stunning creations are bags made from embroidered antique obis, Asian ribbons, and even American patchwork quilts.

Penguin minaudière, 1991

Suspended in air and shown off in mirrored cases, the curators create a mood that allows visitors to contemplate how Leiber’s eye, wit, and skill transformed the lowly carryall into a lifetime of unique, ingenious, dazzling art.

See the beautiful bags here.

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