Judith Leiber, 1921 – 2018

Handbag designer Judith Leiber passed away last Saturday at the age of 97, a few hours after her artist husband of 72 years Gerson Leiber. Both died of heart attacks.

Born Judith Marianne Peto in Budapest on Jan. 11, 1921, she apprenticed at an artisan guild learning every aspect of how to make handbags. During World War II she and her family sewed army uniforms, escaping the fate of many Hungarian Jews.

After the war, Judith began making handbags from whatever materials she could find, selling them to American soldiers stationed in Budapest. It was while selling her purses that she met Gerson Leiber, a sergeant in the Signal Corps. They married in 1946 and Judith emigrated to the U.S. as a war bride.

Judith Leiber worked at a number of handbag manufacturers until 1963 when they went out on their own, with Judith overseeing manufacturing and Gerson looking after the business. She received a Coty Fashion Award in 1973 and a Neiman Marcus award in 1980; in 1994 she was voted accessories designer of the year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).

Although Leiber bags came in many forms and materials, the company was best known for their small novelty-shaped metal bags covered with crystals.

The Leibers sold their business in 1993 to a British firm with Judith remaining as lead designer until 1997. In 2008 Gerson and Judith opened their own museum on their property in Springs, New York that features both Gerson’s art and Judith’s purses.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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