Judith Leiber's Customers Are Left Holding the Bag

updated 04/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When Nancy Reagan decided that she needed a red lizard pocketbook to take with her to the Geneva summit in November 1985, she rang up designer Judith Leiber. "This is Mrs. Ronald Reagan calling Mrs. Leiber," the First Lady informed Leiber's switchboard operator, who dutifully inquired, "What company are you with?"

Leiber was understandably chagrined. But for members of the fashion elite like Mrs. Reagan, a slight indignity is a small price to pay for a Leiber creation. Rich and famous fans such as Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Ross, Barbara Walters, Mario Thomas, Claudette Colbert, Carol Burnett and Beverly Sills can't wait to get their hands on her bags. Even Queen Elizabeth, who never goes anywhere without a Corgi or a purse, owns a Leiber. Declares Stanley Marcus, chairman emeritus of Neiman-Marcus: "Judy makes the most beautiful bags in the world." Also among the costliest, selling for from $600 to $3,100, which places them beyond the grasp of most working women.

Though Leiber's reptile skin designs are widely acclaimed, she may be best known for her minaudieres, evening clutch bags that are constructed of brass, plated with gold or silver and set off with rhinestones or semiprecious jewels. These bags come in assorted shapes, from eggs and teardrops to a dazzling menagerie of cats, rabbits and cranes. All of them have jewel-studded clasps that close with a "thunk" as satisfying as that of a Rolls-Royce door.

Considered by many to be works of art, her bags are on display at museums in New York, Dallas and New Orleans, and the purses she designed for first ladies Mamie Eisenhower, Pat Nixon and Mrs. Reagan to use at their husbands' inaugurations are kept at the Smithsonian. "We try to make the bags so they enhance a lady's costume and possibly dominate it—that is my dream," Leiber says.

Now 66, that dream started at age 18, when she became the first woman apprentice in the handbag-maker's guild of Budapest, where she was born and raised. "I got liberated early," she says. The younger of two daughters of a businessman and housewife, she married American-born artist Gerson (Gus) Leiber in 1946, when she was 25. Gerson, now 65, was a U.S. serviceman working for the Allied Control Council, and when he brought her to the U.S. in 1947, she found work as an assistant pattern-maker for dressmaker Nettie Rosenstein, who had become one of New York's finest handbag manufacturers. Within four years Leiber rose to become chief of design, and when Rosenstein retired in 1960, Gerson encouraged his wife to start her own business. "He is my severest critic and my sounding board," says Leiber of her husband. The childless couple ("these bags are my children," she says) resides in Manhattan, with Gerson assuming the role of house resident comedian. "When I complain about the circles under my eyes," she has said, "Gus says to me, 'Judy, in your business, you should have bags.' "

Does she ever. Today she presides over Judith Leiber, Inc., in Manhattan, which grossed more than $13 million in 1986. Leiber puts in 10-hour days and, with the help of her staff of 100, designs 100 new styles a year, as well as a line of small leather goods. This summer she'll introduce her first signature line of accessories, priced from $60 for a zippered cosmetic pouch to $450 for a large shopping bag. Her wares move briskly in department stores and swank specialty shops, such as Amen Wardy in Newport Beach, Calif., where Arab princesses gobble up Leiber's bags by the dozen in a single visit. "Mrs. Leiber is the Queen Bee," Wardy says firmly. "There is no one like her, even in Europe."

If Leiber is guilty of anything, perhaps it's of being too good at what she does. "The bags last too long," she says. "Some of my friends have had the same one for 20 years." Perhaps the handbags are simply modeled after their durable designer. Leiber, in the bag trade for 48 years, has no plans to pack it in. "When I'm 95," she says, "I'll start worrying about leaving."

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