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Judith Leiber (1921–2018)

Judith Leiber—the prolific designer whose fanciful minaudières have accessorized royalty, first ladies, and movie stars, and have entered art collections, including that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—has died at age ninety-seven. She passed away only hours after the death of her husband of seventy-two years, the artist Gerson Leiber. Both died of heart attacks. While her couture handbags—carried by celebrities such as Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, Claudette Colbert, Björk, and Barbara Walters—are widely considered works of art, Leiber preferred the word “artisan” over “artist.” Her crystalline clutches were frequently bedazzled with colorful rhinestones or beads and drew inspiration from various forms, including ladybugs, eggs, flowers, swans, cupcakes, asparagus, and wads of cash. Often meticulously handcrafted with thousands of crystals and sold almost exclusively in boutiques around the world, her handbags are in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the Chicago Historical Society.

Born Judith Peto in Hungary in 1921, Leiber became the first woman to enter the Hungarian Handbag Guild, rising from an apprentice to a master. She learned to make purses from scratch, and first started selling her own during World War II. As she and her family were forced to sew army uniforms, Leiber developed a handbag business at home, selling them to American soldiers in Hungary. She met Gerson Leiber, an American soldier stationed in postwar Budapest, in 1946, and a year later they moved to New York, where she worked in various fashion companies. In 1963, the couple opened their own business together. Leiber went on to receive the Coty Fashion Award in 1973 and the Neiman Marcus Winged Statue for Excellence in Design in 1980, and she was voted Accessories Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers in 1994. Recently, her work has appeared alongside her husband’s in exhibitions in New York City. The solo show “Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story” was held last year at the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan.