New York Judith Leiber's handcrafted handbags have evolved over the past four decades from fashion accessories into art.
Her mostly crystal-covered purses boast a craftsmanship and a lasting quality that is hard to find even in luxury goods, says Stacey Schmidt, the assistant curator of contemporary art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.
Leiber also thinks outside the box; it seems as if there is no form or color she isn't willing to work with. Her purses take the shape of penguins, polka-dot pigs and Buddhas.
"I think Judith is in line with a short list of designers who make it into the category of 'art,"' Schmidt says, also naming Tiffany, Lalique and Cartier as accessory makers that transcend the fashion world.
The Corcoran is featuring a retrospective of Leiber's accessories through the end of the year called "Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber."
Leiber, now 81, says her roots were in more practical purses but she began to get more creative to keep herself interested.
"I always thought of my work as fashion and as fun but I'm lucky that others saw it as art," she says.
She began her career in the 1940s as the first woman in the Hungarian handbag artisan guild. After marrying an American solider, she moved to New York and worked as a pattern-maker and foreman at handbag factories. She and her husband, Gerson, launched their own company in 1963. Judith made the bags while her husband delivered them.
Four years later she made her first signature crystal bag and it happened by accident.
Leiber says she didn't want to make gold bags which were fairly common among socialites at the time that had to be kept in a bank because women wouldn't use them often, so she decided to experiment with gold-plated brass. A shipment of the metal frames arrived tarnished and there wasn't enough time to return them to the factory, she explains. Her solution to cover up the blemishes was to cover the minaudieres with crystals. Her now famous Chatelaine was born.
That bag is still among her favorites, says Leiber, who lives in New York, but her closet is filled with scores of other "favorites." She kept 360 of her bags, lending some to the Corcoran, including her modern-art bag inspired by a Piet Mondrian painting and a bag in the shape of a monkey's head that resembles Tutankhamen. She also has a frog and the aforementioned penguin.
Leiber says one purse that has eluded her is a giraffe bag. "It's too tall and I thought nothing would fit in it," she explains during a telephone interview.
"She's more interested in creativity and mining new forms," says Schmidt. "She has a hunger for experimentation and that's what makes her an artist."
Other women known to carry Leiber bags are first ladies Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush, who each carried one of the purses to presidential inaugurations; and Hollywood actresses, including Charlize Theron and Jennifer Lopez.
Some fans have been known to build special cabinets to house their Leiber bags, Schmidt adds.
Leiber retired from her company in 1999 and sold her name. She says the company has carried on in her tradition.
But Leiber says she got tired of being retired and is now creating coffee-table and dining accessories in silver for department stores under her maiden name of Ditty Peto.