By  on October 21, 2009

At age 88, Judith Leiber is as enthralled with handbags now as she was as a child in Budapest, dreaming about clutches, totes and satchels.

Leiber, a Holocaust survivor who spent World War II in Budapest and Switzerland, immigrated to the U.S. in 1947. She reflects on her life and career in accessories in a new self-published book, “No Mere Bagatelles: Telling the Story of Handbag Genius Judith Leiber & Modernist Artist Gerson Leiber” by Jeffrey Sussman.

The book is the first time the designer, the winner of a Coty Award and a Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement Award, has publicly shared the story of how she built her company, Judith Leiber LLC, which started in 1963. She retired in 1998. Schottenstein Stores Corp. acquired a majority stake in 2008.

Leiber, who married Gerson Leiber, an American artist she met in Europe when he was a G.I., has outfitted almost every first lady since Mamie Eisenhower with her iconic crystal-studded minaudières.

She will be honored with a retrospective exhibit from Thursday to Monday at Bergdorf Goodman’s Manhattan flagship and will appear in the store Friday. The exhibit, showcasing the most well-known of Leiber’s 3,500 designs, will later travel to Neiman Marcus stores in Dallas and Houston. Leiber will appear in Houston on Dec. 9 and in Dallas on Dec. 10.

WWD: During the shellings in Budapest in World War II, you said didn’t dream of idyllic beaches or white knights. You fantasized about the handbags you’d design. Have you always had an affinity for handbags?
Judith Leiber: When I was a young girl, my father used to go [on trips] to Western Europe. He would always bring my mother a handbag as a gift. My mother always loved her handbags and I loved them very much, too. So, I decided I was going to do that.

WWD: How did you get started in the business?
J.L.: I worked for [designer] Nettie Rosenstein when I first came to New York, then for [handbag maker] Morris Moskowitz, but I was fired because their business dropped off at that time. My husband said to me, “You are not going to look for a job. You are going to start your own [company].” I was scared to death, but I did it.

WWD: How did you fund the business initially?
J.L.: The challenges were enormous. We had $5,000 from my father; my sister gave me $1,000. It was about $13,000. In those days it was simple. You could get credit when you needed it.

WWD: How did you come to create your signature style, the crystal-covered minaudière, in 1966?
J.L.: I was making metal bags, but they were getting tarnished. To cover it, we put each rhinestone on with a flat back and a little glue.

WWD: Greta Garbo, Beverly Sills, Barbara Walters and many of the first ladies have been your patrons. What does that mean to you?
J.L: It was a wonderful thing. We did the bags for [the inauguration festivities for] most of the first ladies…we had everyone except for Rosalynn Carter. We didn’t make anything for Mrs. Obama because she probably didn’t want that.

WWD: You and your husband started a museum in East Hampton, N.Y., for both of your works. Why?
J.L.: We decided for posterity it would benice to have a museum. There is a big room that houses paintings, drawings, printsand watercolors.

WWD: How do you keep busy since you’ve retired?
J.L.: I take exercise class every week. I use my treadmill. In the summer, I swim 50 lengths of my swimming pool every morning. I stopped doing it in the winter.…It gets very complicated.

WWD: What would you like your legacy to be?
J.L.: My legacy should be that I made a lot of wonderful bags, not just metals, but also leather.

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