Judith Leiber: Handbag Design Genius

In 1943, she was living in a flat with 25 other people escaping the Holocaust. Today, she is living in East Hampton, New York, with her husband, owning seven acres of land.

The 96-year-old bag designer, Judith Leiber, has been quite a hit in the fashion industry since she first launched her business in 1963. Known for her unique-shaped metal shell purses plated with hand-sewn Swarovski crystals, Leiber’s handbags are exclusively sold at only a number of boutiques around the world.

Leiber currently suffers from a hearing deficit and was unable to be personally interviewed. However, her longtime friend and the man who wrote her biography, Jeffrey Sussman, provided some insight on the woman herself.

“Judith Leiber emanates kindness and graciousness and affection. She has an understanding of other people,” Sussman said. “She is an intellectual in her way…who’s open to new ideas and new concepts.”

Her biography by Sussman was published in 2010 and took a year of interviewing her and six months to write.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1921, Leiber is a Holocaust survivor as her and her Jewish family received a Swiss schutzpass, which is a document that gave them diplomatic immunity at the time. This pass saved her father from going into concentration camps in Auschwitz.

While trapped in Hungary during World War II, Leiber accepted a job as an apprentice at a handbag factory called Pessl. There, she learned how to make handbags from scratch. She started off sweeping floors, then making glue, and eventually started making bags herself.  By the time she finished her time at Pessl, she knew everything about making handbags, including the 140 different components to it. She was the only woman in Hungary that knew how to do this and was the only woman invited to join the Hungarian Handbag Guild.

Her husband, Gerson Leiber was a sergeant in the U.S. Army and is a prominent modernist artist. Judith and Gerson fell in love after the war and married to New York City in 1946.

In New York City, Judith worked among many companies in the fashion industry, designing and making high-end handbags. She credits her husband for influencing her to start her own business to sell her own handbags.

“She was very focused on what she wanted to do,” Sussman said. “She found the new niche of handbags and pursued her brand diligently. She knew how to grow it and make it successful.”

Leiber ended up selling her company to a British company in 1993, which eventually was sold to a licensing brand. “She felt like it was time for her to stop. She was getting a lot older and her company was reaching a variety of audiences,” Sussman said. “They also felt like cheaper brands were trying to make knock-offs of her bags.”

Leiber attempted to start up another business making works of art from silver. However, since her name was her company that she sold, she could no longer use her own name as a brand. This led to the project never really getting off its feet.

After retiring, the Leibers moved to East Hampton, New York. Across the street from their house is the Leiber museum, which is a tribute to the both of them as artists; Judith as a handbag design genius and Gerson as a modernist artist. Judith’s bags are placed in museums all around the world, each one unique to its own. Each one had their own set of crystals. Each one had a story behind it and each one costs from $1,000 to as much as $92,000.

Leiber’s designs are not only popular in the fashion industry, but also well-defined within prominent women such as Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush, and also many high profile celebrities.

“I found out about Judith Leiber after seeing [actress] Blake Lively holding a crystal gem fish clutch on the red carpet for her new movie,” Charlotte McTernan, a Long Island native, said. “I fell in love with her designs, but I wish they were more affordable.”

Although Leiber is aging and suffering from a hearing deficit, she still enjoys to go to the opera and reads a lot. She does not have any kids.

“My purses are my kids,” Leiber said to Sussman.