Handbag designer Judith Leiber and artist husband Gerson Leiber of Springs died hours apart on Saturday, April 28, after 72 years of marriage. They were both 97.
In 2005, the Leibers created the Leiber Collection in Springs, a museum to house their works of art, offering visitors a retrospective of their illustrious careers.
The Independent interviewed and published a profile on Judith and Gerson last Memorial Day. Below are excerpts from that interview, which took place at the Leibers’ Springs home in May 2017.
Like many artists, the two ended up falling in love with the hamlet of Springs in the 1950s. Gerson would paint and work on the garden while Judith would design patterns for her handbags.
“We were invited on a weekend, we liked it so much . . . Of course, at that point, this was the hub of abstract expressionism: de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and so on. What was there not to like? I was an art student! It was just a natural for us,” Gerson told The Independent.
Born in Budapest in 1921, Judith became the first woman to join the Hungarian Handbag Guild. To avoid Nazi persecution during the Holocaust, her family escaped to a house set aside for Swiss citizens. Her father, a Hungarian Jew, was able to obtain a Swiss schutzpass, a document that gave the bearer safe passage.
In the flat where Judith survived the war, 26 people were housed. Her family was later placed in one of the Hungarian Nazi-run ghettos, where they lived in a basement with 60 other people.
The two met while Gerson was a sergeant in the US Army and Judith was making purses for the secretaries of the American Legation in Budapest.
“I was standing with a buddy. Two girls came up to us and began to talk to us,” Gerson recalled. “It seemed that one of the girls had a room in a nearby apartment house, the windows were not broken, and they wanted to find an American to rent it to,” he continued. Judith was one of the two girls.
“She survived [the war] and there she was. When I saw her, I knew that this was my destiny,” said Gerson.
“It was very good. We were very lucky we met each other. That was 71 years ago,” Judith added, recalling the fond memories.
“Our story was a good one. There were so many bad ones,” said Gerson.
In 1946, they married. They moved to New York City shortly after.
After working as a handbag designer for a few companies, Leiber founded her own business in 1963.
Her process for designing the bags was a very intricate one, with a fine attention to detail. “If I didn’t like it, I destroyed it,” said Judith. Samples were made in Italy and brought back to Manhattan for manufacturing.
In the beginning, she would create every bag, start to finish. Once the company grew, she would oversee the process of every bag made, going floor to floor in the factory they operated “in the shadow of the Empire State building,” said Ann Fristoe Stewart, director and curator of the Leiber Collection. The beading on a single bag would take a one person a whole week to complete. Judith would oversee every job, one Swarovski crystal at a time.
Her favorite bag was the Chatelaine.
“My favorite is my first metal bag that I made. Unfortunately, when we got the design to New York from Italy, they couldn’t do a good job on [the plating]. So, we had to cover the brass piece with rhinestones. We loved the way they looked,” said Judith.
“It was a very good piece; it looked beautiful. It was very successful. We sold about 3500 of them,” she continued.
Holding a Judith Leiber bag has become a fashion symbol for many women. First Ladies Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara Bush, and Hillary Clinton all carried Judith Leiber bags.
When it comes to an evening bag, “All you have to do is put a $100 bill in it, a handkerchief, and a lipstick. That’s all you need, because all the rest you already have on before you go out,” stated Judith.
Last Memorial Day weekend, the Leiber Collection showcased “Magnificent Obsession — Fashion, Passion, and Collection.” The exhibit showcased the handbag assortments of three Judith Leiber collectors.
“Visitors can look at all of the bags we made. [I’m] hoping that they will love them,” said Judith.
“All of these collectors are the satellites of the center, the star right there,” said Gerson, referencing his wife, who sat across from him in their living room in Springs. The accolades he offered came with a great sense of pride.
Also on display was “Fashion Series,” a collection of paintings and prints Gerson created in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The exhibit featured a “fairly small group of prints that I created. I accompanied Judy, my wife, to all the fashion events and openings,” Gerson explained.
“Being a part of the whole fashion scene, I found it so exciting to become acquainted with American fashion personnel and stars,” he said.
In the past, Gerson’s paintings were displayed at the Judith Leiber showrooms. When the buyers, many of whom were movers-and-shakers in the fashion world, would come to see the new Judith Leiber collection, “They would see Mr. Leiber’s paintings,” said Stewart. Many would become collectors of Gerson’s art.
Gerson designed charming and intricate gardens, which surround the museum. They were modeled after English gardens. The museum itself is a Renaissance-styled Palladian edifice. With great attention to detail and design, the museum and gardens provide the perfect backdrop to display the acclaimed bags and paintings.
In 1994, Judith received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers. While many of her bags can be found in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, East Enders have the unique opportunity to see the impressive collection at the home and garden the Leibers have created themselves over the years.
“First of all, they have to work very hard. You have to learn the trade, and it’s very difficult. But once you know how to do it, you have to be able to create something that’s interesting enough to make the customers happy,” Judith offered as advice for up-and-coming designers.
“Mr. Leiber says that Mrs. Leiber saw the handbag in everything,” said Stewart. Dedicated to her art form, she was inspired by everything she saw.
“She had a singular vision,” said Gerson, with admiration and love.