Worth More Than What's Inside

Fuji-Servetto rider Juan Jose Cobo Acebo reacts as he crosses the finish line to win the 19th stage of the Spanish Vuelta cycling race over 179 kilometers (111 miles) with start in Avila and finish in La Granja, Spain, Friday, Sept. 18, 2009. AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza

They sparkle as brightly as Christmas ornaments, and for the past 40 years, they've been carried by lucky grown-up girls at glamorous gatherings.

"Well, my husband knew what I wanted every Christmas," says opera diva Beverly Sills.

She wanted handbags designed by Judith Leiber. Sills owns more than 60 of them.

"It's a work of art."

Handbags as art? That's right. More than 100 Judith Leiber bags are now on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The gallery has bags shaped liked Buddhas, bears, penguins and pigs. Hillary Clinton loaned her Socks the Cat bag to the gallery. Barbara Bush let Corcoran display hers depicting Millie the Dog.

"I think Judith Leiber's handbags are to purses what Rolls Royces are to automobiles," says Stacy Schmidt, curator of contemporary art. "They're very humorous. I think one of Judith's most remarkable qualities is that she is able to combine whimsy with sophistication. Who would think that a tomato could be sophisticated?"

Leiber is not some madcap fashion designer, but a quiet and matronly 81-year-old. She grew up in Hungary, wanting to study science, but was not allowed to because she was Jewish.

"I loved handbags, so my mother said, 'Well, why don't you go into that,'" says Leiber. "So I did. And I was the first girl apprentice in Hungary."

She and her family were among the few Hungarian Jews to survive the war. In 1945 Judith met Gus Leiber, an American GI.

"It was wonderful and we met the second day he was in Budapest and we started going out together and a year later, we got married," she says.

They came to America in 1947, and young Judith went to work for various New York bag makers. In1963, she set up her own shop with four employees.

"I used to make the patterns and I used to pack every piece. And Gus would deliver them uptown to the stores. That's how we started," explains Judith.

Today, the Judith Leiber handbag factory is still going strong, with 150 union workers making the famous crystal bags in the heart of New York City. Each can take as long as 10 days to make, and sell for as much as $4,000.

First, gold-plated metal boxes are carefully lined, then painted with designs — each color meticulously laid down. Swarovski crystals from Austria are applied one at a time with a dab of beeswax. The company goes thru 85 million beads a year, with about 14,000 on each bag.

The idea for these tiny masterpieces was born of necessity when a shipment of metal evening bags frames made in Italy came in with spots.

"I didn't want to send them back, so I decided that I was going to put Rhinestones on all the spots," says Leiber laughing. "That's what started it all."

Basically, the famous Lieber bag that every woman wants was born of a mistake.

Victor Lipko is now chief executive officer of the company, which Leiber sold to an investment firm a few years back so she wouldn't have to worry about day-to-day operations.

Rita Braver took a tour of Lipko's factory.

"We're probably, in our cut and sewn factory, the last factory of its kind in America," says Lipko. "That's what's so wonderful, it's that America produces a product which is incredibly beautiful — made by hand in America."

Leiber showed Braver a pinto bean-shaped bag that some may complain is too small to carry anything practical.

"It doesn't matter," says Leiber. "They're not gonna need much. After all, all [women] need is a handkerchief, some money and a lipstick."

Beverly Sills couldn't agree more.

"I just love them," says Sills. "I never take them for granted and I take a long time in choosing the ones that I want to carry. I just think of them as very special creations."
  • Rome Neal

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