Art At Hand

Now that Judith Leiber's whimsical handbags are on exhibit, anyone can appreciate their artistry, even if buying one remains only a dream.

October 27, 2002|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

WASHINGTON - As a little girl in Hungary, Judith Leiber had her heart set on studying chemistry in London.

An aunt had married into a Romanian family that had made fortune in moisturizing facial creams, and Leiber envisioned herself following in their footsteps. That is, until World War II broke out and quashed Leiber's plans.

Instead, she stumbled upon work connected to a longtime love of her mother's - purses.

From Leiber's humble beginnings as a handbag-maker's apprentice grew a passion for the craft. In the decades that followed, she began designing under her own name and built an empire out of her vision for whimsical yet beautiful purses that have been in the clutches of red carpet winners on Oscar night and first ladies at inaugural balls.

After designing more than 3,000 bags so coveted as objets d'art that women have been known to build cabinets to display them, Leiber is being celebrated as a treasure in the art of purse making. Recently, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington decided to honor Leiber with an exhibit of her handbags titled Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber.

"Survival was the only reason for going into the handbag business," said Leiber, now 81, reflecting on her career during a Washington visit to celebrate her exhibit's opening two weeks ago. "I said, `I have to learn a trade because after the war, I am getting out of here.' My mother had wonderful handbags because she loved bags. And here I am, making handbags."

Big enough for a $100 bill

To call them handbags would be like saying Monets are mere paintings, which is part of the reason the Corcoran is casting the spotlight on her. In recent years, museum talking heads have spent much time pondering whether fashion is art. In Leiber's case, curators argue that her pieces have always been just as worthy of a spot in a display case as in a lady's hand.

Leiber's pieces are far from the standard fare available in department stores. They are sparkling, rhinestone-studded creations, most of which are small enough to fit in a lady's delicate hand. ("Big enough for a handkerchief, a lipstick and a $100 bill," Leiber said. "That's what you need in case you want to get rid of your boyfriend and have to pay your own fare.")

Each bag is handcrafted, even the jeweled ones, some of which are encrusted with as many as 13,000 crystals. And because each crystal is carefully applied with an adhesive-coated stick, it can take five days to make a purse.

"The level of craftsmanship is unparalleled," said Stacey Schmidt, assistant curator for contemporary art at the Corcoran. "They go above and beyond your average bag because of the amount of time, the materials involved. She falls in the tradition of Tiffany, Lalique and Cartier: very few designers who have been given museum retrospectives. Her bags have stood the test of time and they hold up over time. She is interested in creating as opposed to selling."

The more than 160 on display at the Corcoran through Dec. 30 include a bejeweled menagerie of a pig, panda bear, penguin and polar bear. There is the quirky series inspired by the garden - a bright red tomato, a bunch of asparagus - and gilded pieces in the shape of a meditating Buddha or a Tutankhamen-style monkey.

The exhibit also includes the beautiful, white "Peace Dove" bag that Leiber gave Barbara Bush at the end of the Gulf War and the inaugural ball purses of Bush and Nancy Reagan. Leiber's repertoire also includes day-bags - envelope purses in a variety of hues made of python or alligator skin.

"Judith Leiber has definitely won a place in the history of the handbag," said Valerie Steele, chief curator and acting director of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "She has been instrumental in reviving the idea of the little artistic evening bag. In fact, she virtually created the amusing style of evening purses shaped like tomatoes and pandas and so on. Many of her clients really like to think of them as little works of art."

And these works of art don't come cheap. Leiber's bags for everyday use cost between $1,500 to $4,000 while the evening purses are at least $3,000. Even with the hefty price tags, they've been so desired by the moneyed from Paris to New York that she's sold hundreds of thousands of bags since she founded her company in New York in 1963.

"She's probably the most world-renowned, American-made bag that we carry," said Martha Slagle, vice president and general manager of Neiman Marcus in Washington. "When women carry them when they go to an event, it really makes them stand out. It says you've arrived."

A `lucky accident'

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