fashion

How Holocaust Survivor Judith Leiber Became a Fashion Icon

judith lieber

You probably know who Judith Leiber even if you don’t realize it. Leiber, who is a Holocaust survivor, is also a famous handbag designer. Her bags, for instance, have appeared everywhere from “Sex and the City” to her very own museum in East Hampton, and other museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian. No big deal, right?

Leiber, whose signature aesthetic is one of lots of glitz–there’s never enough Swarovski crystals, rhinestones, and semi-precious stones on a bag, for instance–also uses kitschy images like animals and cupcakes as shapes. Elle recently did a feature on Leiber, which was well-deserved considering she’s been around for a long time.

Here are some things you may not have realized about Leiber:

1. Her classic aesthetic all happened from a mistake. Leiber told Elle what happened:

“When the samples came in, it looked awful, because the bottom was greenish and looked very bad. I had to salvage it and decided to fix it by applying crystal rhinestones to the metal bag.

I never really made complicated or intricate drawings. I went straight to the cutting table with my ideas and created a pattern for a bag I was designing.”

2. She’s a Holocaust survivor–but still designed handbags even after Nazis captured her. 

Right as the war started, Leiber went to work at Pessl, the handbag company. This, however, was interrupted as World War II went on. As described in Elle: 

“As the war intensified, she and her family lived with 25 other people in a one-bedroom apartment when they were able to add their names to a pass from the Swiss consulate, allowing them to live under that government’s protection. But in the final terrible months of the war, the Nazis rounded her and her family up and forced them into a ghetto where she lived with 60 people in a cellar. Leiber says she designed handbags in her mind to create an escape. The war ended for Leiber when Soviet forces defeated the Nazis and left in April 1945, and she and her family were able to return to their home.”

3. She and her husband have been married for over 70 years.

Her husband, Gerson Leiber, was an American GI when she met him in Budapest. They married and then sailed to New York–where Leiber’s own art career took off. He’s an abstract painter whose own work has been featured in museums like MoMA. They currently live in East Hampton and fund a scholarship for accessories design majors at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

4. Her maiden name name is Judith Peto and she was born in Vienna in 1921.

5. She went King’s College London in 1938 to study chemistry for the cosmetics industry. Her father thought she would be safer in London because of the impending war.

6. There are only four boutiques of hers in the world, and they are located in New Delhi, Jakarta, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

Despite the fact that her own boutiques are rather limited and somewhat exclusive, she’s pretty active on Instagram–and it’s a fascinating glimpse into her world:

Rounding up the squad #JudithLeiberCouture #LeiberPets

A post shared by Judith Leiber (@judithleiberny) on

Hats off to @veuveclicquot Polo Classic #JudithLeiberCouture #VCPoloClassic #VCPC10

A post shared by Judith Leiber (@judithleiberny) on

Better than a unicorn frappuccino | Repost: @joey.kong #JudithLeiberCouture #LeiberPets

A post shared by Judith Leiber (@judithleiberny) on

One more day to @beautyandthebeast | Repost: @disneystyle #JudithLeiberCouture #DisneyXJudithLeiber #OnlyAtNM

A post shared by Judith Leiber (@judithleiberny) on

Thanks for following along my takeover today. See you at the #GoldenGlobes tomorrow! — @micaelaerlanger

A post shared by Judith Leiber (@judithleiberny) on

Ready for the festivities #JudithLeiberCouture

A post shared by Judith Leiber (@judithleiberny) on

Twinning | Repost: @saks_handbags #JudithLeiberCouture

A post shared by Judith Leiber (@judithleiberny) on

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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