Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU to Celebrate World Famous Handbag Designer

Judith Leiber's world-famous handbags will be exhibited at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU to celebrate the life and work of the designer. Photo collage provided by the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU

Camille Orquera/Staff Writer  

Judith Leiber’s iconic handbags that graced artists like Beyoncé and Presidential First Ladies are featured at a new Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU exhibit. 

The exhibit, “Judith Leiber: Master Craftsman,” celebrates the designer’s life and work through photographs of Leiber and her legendary creations.  

The museum’s Executive Director Susan Gladstone and Curator Jacqueline Goldstein worked with the Leiber Collection to borrow handbags from the personal collections of some South Florida women for the exhibit. 

“Her minaudières (small metal evening handbags) were truly innovative and the origin of a beloved style… Each bag was a work of art, that could only be made through hard work and dedication. The focus and imagination that define her and her work is visible in each of her minaudières,” said Goldstein.

While Leiber’s work is instantly recognizable around the world, not many people know the designer’s personal history or journey to creating such beloved handbags.

“The inspiration behind our Judith Leiber exhibition was her story: that of a woman who was able to achieve her dreams in the face of extreme adversity,” said Goldstein.

Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1921, Leiber and her family lived during the center of fighting during World War II. During the Battle of Budapest, the family was forced to hide in basements in the ghetto, while the Russians and the Nazis continually fought.

She was the first woman to be inducted into the Hungarian Handbag Guild, a professional association. Leiber would often imagine her designs in her head while in hiding to keep her sane during Nazi occupation.

“Judith survived the Holocaust but one can never unsee the traumatic things they witnessed during that time,” said Goldstein.

In 1946, Leiber met her future husband Gerson Leiber, a United States Army sergeant who served in Eastern Europe. The pair moved to New York City a year later.

Her handbag making experience eventually led to the creation of her own business in 1963, in which she began making her crystal minaudières in various forms.

Although recognized for her quirky food and animal designs, the Jewish Museum’s exhibit features a far more rare piece of her work. 

“Judith designed one of her minaudières after a painting by her husband, a well-known abstract artist in his own right. The bag is on display in the exhibition, along with the first one she designed (in 1967) as well as her last (in 2004),” said Goldstein.

Leiber passed away in 2018, hours after her husband died in their home in Springs, New York.

Her designs are still recognized and loved by artists across all mediums. Much of her work has been the arm candy for several presidential First Ladies and many famous celebrities such as Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez and Lizzo.

Goldstein made note of how her legacy lives on, not only through her designs, but through her history as a Holocaust survivor. 

“Her resourcefulness and fierce determination to live is how she showed the world that not only did she make it out alive, she fought for her hard-won success and truly lived. Judith is a striking example of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Never forget and never give up,” she said.

The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. at 301 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, FL 33139. Free for museum members, FIU students, faculty and staff, $12 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, $24 for family. The exhibition runs until Sept. 6.

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