Judith’s Leiber’s fashion legacy

Behind-the-scenes with one of the world’s most iconic handbag brands

Yes crystal clutch by Lieber

Judith Leiber was meant to be a cosmetic chemist, but history intervened. Shortly after she left her native Budapest to study science at King’s College in London, the Second World War broke out and forced her to abandon those career plans.   

Returning to her family in Hungary, Leiber learned to formulate things that made a different kind of statement than a swipe of lipstick or a touch of mascara: handbags. Eventually, her luxury clutches would glitter in the hands of first ladies at presidential inauguration parties, radiate glamour on red carpets and sparkle like champagne at black tie fundraisers across New York, the city where the designer launched her own handbag brand in 1963.  

Leiber’s signature clutches—covered in over 10,000 European crystals, and sculpted into surprising shapes from penguins and pineapples to basketballs and roller skates—are the antithesis of quiet luxury. While their visual impact is big, peek inside and everything from the seams to the hardware of the bags is appointed.“I knew from the beginning what I was going to do, I was going to make the best.” Leiber once said, acknowledging that each of her designs would consist of top tier materials and leathers. The bags went on to secure a place in pop culture thanks to cameos on Sex and the City, and collaborations with design houses and artists, all while capturing the affection of a lengthy list of celebrity fans including Rihanna, Blake Lively, Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé (who carried a custom black panther clutch to the Grammys).

The designer’s journey to becoming a beloved American luxury brand wasn’t an easy one, professionally or personally. Leiber’s father suggested she explore handbag design after noticing his daughter’s interest in the purses he gifted his wife when he returned from business trips. An outlier in a male-dominated industry, Leiber learned the trade at a Jewish-Hungarian handbag company, where she stayed until the war reached her doorstep. A Holocaust survivor, Leiber and her family were forced to live in a ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. After Budapest was liberated, Leiber (then Judith Peto) met her husband, an American soldier named Gerson Leiber. She had been making bags and selling them to Americans to support herself and the two struck up a conversation. After they married, they moved to the United States where Gerson became a well-known painter and sculptor, and Leiber worked for various handbag makers before going out on her own. After 30 years in business, she sold her company in 1993 and retired several years later. Leiber died in 2018, at the age of 97.

Lips clutch by Leiber
Hot Lips crystal-embellished silver-tone clutch (Courtesy of Judith Lieber)

As the creative director since 2017, Dee Hilfiger has continued to bring Leiber’s vision to life. Fashion royalty herself (as the wife of Tommy Hilfiger), she was taken with Judith Leiber bags long before she joined the company. “They catch your eye because they’re so beautiful,” she says over a Zoom call from her home. “And, I’m obsessed with the iconic heritage of her brand.” She didn’t have the opportunity to meet the designer before her death, but her friend and former Leiber collaborator Iris Apfel helped fill in some of the details about her career and life. “She was a very talented, strong and inspiring woman,” says Hilfiger.  

With her own eponymous line of handbags and shoes, Hilfiger knew what was involved in making luxury goods. Still, she was surprised when she first learned how a Judith Leiber bag was made. “They are like the Hermès of the night,” she says of the Birkin-level craftsmanship that goes into the evening clutches, some of which begin as sculptured wax models before being copied in metal, plated in gold and dressed in crystals or beads. “It’s also what makes them collectible items,” says Hilfiger, whose close friend Kris Jenner is a collector. “She has some bags from the 1980s, and even earlier than that.”  

"Judith Leiber was a very talented, strong and inspiring woman. I'm obsessed with the iconic heritage of her brand." Dee Hilfiger

When Hilfiger joined Judith Leiber, she was tasked with connecting the brand to a younger generation who had grown up on the internet and wanted bags that could fit their iPhones. Her first collection featured nods to space travel, pop art and diner food—including the popular French fry bag, one of Hilfiger’s favorites to this day—along with the throwback brick phone bag that went viral. Something else she’s proud of: the brand’s collaboration with social media’s first family, the Kardashian-Jenners. Along with Kris, everyone created their own design for the 2022 holiday collection that included a tray of sushi (Kourtney), an alien face (Kim), and a lightning bolt (Kylie).  

Passport Holder by Judith Leiber
Crystal-embellished Traveler’s Navy leather-lined passport holder (Courtesy of Judith Leiber)

Leiber considered herself an artisan rather than an artist (she could construct a bag from start to finish, a rare skill set), but many in the art and fashion worlds saw things differently. Her pieces are on display in institutions like the Smithsonian and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Harold Koda, the former curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Leiber’s bags are also showcased, has said her work reminds him of Salvador Dalí and his telephone-dial compacts. “What she did was groundbreaking,” Koda told The New York Times in a profile of Leiber shortly before her death. “She gave bags and purses a narrative. This conceptual focus makes them playful or surreal, sometimes both.”  

Like the stories she told in her work, some have described Leiber’s life as a fairy tale. It’s an idea personified in one of Leiber’s designs in particular: a silver bag shaped like a pumpkin coach that Zendaya carried to the Met Gala to complement her Cinderella-inspired gown. For Leiber, the clock never struck midnight, because her stunning handbags live on.  

Gold Phone Bag
Gold Brick Phone Call Me crystal handbag. (Courtesy of Judith Leiber)

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