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Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber

January 27 through April 30, 2006


(above: Judith Leiber, Tutankhamen-inspired monkey with crystal rhinestones, 1989, H. 5 x 5.75 x D. 3.5 inches, Collection of the Artist)


The James A. Michener Art Museum in New Hope is presenting Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber, an exhibition featuring 160 of Leiber's most distinguished works from January 27 through April 30, 2006, in the Della Penna Gallery.  The Michener Museum is the final venue to host Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber. (right: Judith Leiber, Silver chatelaine, 1967, H. 5.25 x W. 5 x D. 2.75 inches, Collection of the Artist)

For more than 30 years, a Judith Leiber handbag has stood for the ultimate in craftsmanship and design. It has become an American icon of fashion and style and has evolved into a coveted status object for celebrities, socialites, and collectors. Yet beyond the glamour and celebrity, Judith Leiber handbags also stand as remarkable works of art.

Organized and circulated by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Fashioning Art celebrates Leiber's extraordinary artistic achievement by showcasing her creative genius and influence on nearly four decades of fashion. The exhibition presents a comprehensive survey of Leiber's career and art, including her first beaded bag, created in 1967, to many more recent designs.

Renowned as the world's foremost designer of fine handbags, Leiber has been melding the realms of art and fashion for more than 30 years.  A meticulous craft person and visionary creative mind, Leiber takes her inspiration from all manner of sources -- Fabergé egg designs, animal forms, city skylines, vintage textiles, and cubist art to name a few. 

"Judith Leiber's handbags are created with such exquisite workmanship and design that they transcend mere accessory.  They become objets d'art," says Stacey Schmidt, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.  "Judith has always understood that a fashion accessory can express many things simultaneously - sophistication, cultural wit, reverence, style and humor.  Almost single-handedly, she has advanced the artistic possibilities of the handbag."

Judith Pieto was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1921. When the outbreak of World War II foiled her plans to study science in England, and with limited professional opportunities open to Jews at home, she entered the Hungarian handbag artisan guild -- the first woman to enter and the first female to achieve Master status.  In 1945, she met Gerson Leiber, an American solider whom she married the following year.  After moving to the U.S. as a GI bride, Leiber worked as a pattern maker and then foreman for several handbag companies.  In 1963 she launched her own company.

Her first factory had four employees whom she worked alongside, teaching them her expertise.  A fortuitous accident determined what would become key aspects of her signature style.  When a shipment of gold-plated brass shells arrived from the supplier with flaws on the bottom, she resourcefully decided to cover them up with crystals. 

Almost overnight she created a niche all of her own, as these glittering hard-shell cases became an essential accessory for every well-dressed woman who could afford one. Leiber designed her first minaudière, or gilded metal handbag, in 1967; this design is still in production today. 

Representations of the natural world became her trademark, ranging from animal-shaped bags to minaudières in the shape of fruits, vegetables and flowers. Other favorite motifs refer to noted places, such as her adopted hometown of New York.  Leiber's study of Asian imagery and vintage textiles and her passion for the fine arts have also made themselves apparent in her designs over the years. (right: Judith Leiber, Minaudière inspired by Gerson Leiber painting with crystal rhinestones, 1992, H. 4.75 x W.6x D. 1.75 inches, Collection of the Artist)

One of the few remaining luxury products still made by hand, each Judith Leiber handbag takes up two weeks to create by a trained worker and is subjected to rigorous workmanship review. 

Over the course of her career, Leiber has designed custom-made handbags for numerous high-profile women. Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton and most recently, Laura Bush have each carried a Leiber handbag to Presidential inaugurations. 

Leiber's contribution to the world of fashion has been recognized by numerous awards and accolades.  After only six years in business, she was awarded the Swarovski Great Designer Award for artistic use of the company's crystals.  In 1994, Stanley Marcus, of Neiman Marcus, presented Leiber with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers.  Her bags are included in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Dallas Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others.

Judith Leiber retired from designing handbags in 1998; she lives in New York City.  Judith Leiber Inc. continues to carry on her vision.   


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