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Judith Leiber talks handbags and history in rare L.A. appearance

May 19, 2011 | 11:16 am

Bag

Who would ever think that women would want to carry rhinestone-encrusted handbags shaped like anteaters or bunches of asparagus? Judith Leiber, that's who.

The designer, who is 90-years-young, made a rare Los Angeles appearance Wednesday at a Costume Council event at the L.A. County Museum of Art. Taking the stage with vintage clothing expert Cameron Silver of L.A.'s Decades boutique, she shared stories about surviving the Holocaust in her native Budapest; being the first woman there to learn the handbag trade and be accepted into the Handbag Guild; meeting her husband Gerson Leiber, an American G.I., at the end of the war; and moving to New York to find fame and fortune by launching her handbag business in 1963. 

JLeiber_051811_006 Leiber's sculptural minaudieres have been carried by first ladies to presidential inaugurations, and by celebrities on red carpets around the world. A cupcake-shaped minaudiere was featured in the film "Sex and the City," introducing the fanciful designs to a whole new generation. In her day, Leiber also produced envelope and top-handle bags in leather, snake and alligator, some in patchwork designs, incorporating semi-precious stones.

Her pieces are in the permanent collections at several top museums, including the Victoria & Albert in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles. And they are prized in the vintage market, with the most collectible pieces selling for $3,000 or more.

One of the biggest collectors is Leiber herself. She sold the company and retired in 1998, but has been at work since then buying up her own designs to fill the Judith Leiber Museum in East Hampton, New York. (She has about 900 bags there.)

For Wednesday's event, she brought several of her favorites, including patchwork leather bags inspired by Mondrian and Braque, and the asparagus bunch minaudiere, which will be on display at the Judith Leiber store on Rodeo Drive through the end of the month.

PHOTOS: Vintage Judith Leiber handbags

The one piece that has eluded Leiber on the secondhand market is the Hollywood bag. "It's a box with black beads and rhinestone stars and the Hollywood sign," Leiber said before the talk. "One of my girlfriend's friends has one and said when she dies, she will leave it to the museum."

Leiber said her most popular design was her first, the Chatelaine, which looks like a chain purse. "It was the first time I made a bag in metal, and the bottom was so badly stained, I had to cover it in rhinestones. And that started the rhinestone business."

Today, the company continues the Leiber tradition, producing handbags in satin and leather, with crystals and without, as well as jewelry, belts and eyewear. One of the fall handbag designs is in the shape of a genie's lamp. The bag frames, or boxes, are still made in Italy from wax molds. Then, each piece is hand-painted with its colorful design, with the corresponding color crystals put in place at a jewelry factory in Thailand, almost like paint-by-numbers. The only difference? Now, most of them are big enough to hold a phone or Blackberry.

Judith Leiber, 220 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 888-8852.

 -- Booth Moore 

Top photo: Sonia Delauney envelope purse in multicolored karung and calf. Credit: Andreas Branch / Patrickmcmullan.com

Bottom photo: Judith Leiber at the Costume Council event Wednesday. Credit: Andreas Branch / Patrickmcmullan.com

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