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Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber

January 23, 2004 to April 30, 2004

For more than 30 years, a Judith Leiber handbag has stood for the ultimate in craftsmanship and design. It has become an American icon of fashion and style and has evolved into a coveted status object for celebrities, socialites and collectors. Yet beyond the glamour and celebrity, Judith Leiber handbags also stand as remarkable works of art. Fashioning Art celebrates Leiber's extraordinary artistic achievement by showcasing her creative genius and influence on nearly four decades of fashion. Organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber presents a comprehensive survey of Judith Leiber's career and art.

"Judith Leiber's handbags are created with such exquisite workmanship and design that they transcend mere accessory. The become objets d'art," says Stacey Schmidt, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. "Judith has always understood that a fashion accessory can express many things simultaneously - sophistication, cultural wit, reverence, style and humor. Almost single-handedly, she has advanced the artistic possibilities of the handbag."

Leiber bags are one of the few products still made by hand in the United States; each beaded bag takes two years to design Minaudieres, or gilded metal evening bags, for instance, are constructed out of stamped brass, gold plated, painted and beaded. Each crystal is picked up with a stick with beeswax at the end and individually glued onto a design that has already been outlined on the bag. One beaded bag may be encrusted with as many as thirteen thousand Swarovski crystals and can take up to five days to complete. In 1963, the first beaded minaudiere was created by accident: the gold-plated metal frame arrived tarnished in Leiber's factory. Working under a tight deadline, Leiber did not have time to send the frame back to Italy where the molds are made. Her solution was to apply thousands of crystals to the blemished evening bag. The handbag was so popular that even when the plating process was improved, Leiber did not return to unadorned metal bags. Her original design, which she called the Chatelaine, is still in production.

Born in 1921, Judith Leiber was the first female apprentice and master in the Hungarian handbag guild. She survived World War II in hiding, and met her husband, an American soldier, in the streets of Budapest when the city was liberated. After moving to the United States as a GI bride, Leiber worked as a pattern maker and then foreman for several handbag companies until she formed her own company in 1963. Initially, she and her husband were the sole employees of the company. Leiber did all designing and production while he made deliveries to major department stores. Leiber's first factory had four employees whom she worked alongside, teaching them her expertise.

"There was such a sense of camaraderie, with all of us working together, producing these handbags," said Leiber. "I make my first line in a gray/green calf which was not that well received. Nevertheless, I was determined to make my bags as beautiful and as well as I could and not to compromise. I have never swerved from that goal. Never."

Featuring more than 160 bags, Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber includes a range of work, from the first beaded bag, created in 1967, to more recent designs. Judith Leiber bags are inspired by a variety of sources, including Asian culture, nature, Hollywood and museum objects. For instance, Leiber designed a line of Chinese Food dog handbags that combines traditional Asian motifs and innovative use of color. Her nature-inspired handbags include beaded bags with elaborate floral patterns. Artists such as Piet Mondrian, Georges Braque, Gustav Klimt and Charles Rennie Mackintosh and periods of art such as Art Deco or Pop art are represented. There is a nod towards Hollywood with a bag nicknamed the "007" because it has a secret compartment for glasses or a cell phone. Judith Leiber bags have graced the arms of numerous First Ladies, including Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton and most recently, Laura Bush.

Judith Leiber's contribution to the world of fashion was recognized from the outset of her career. After only six years in business, she was given the Swarovski Great Designer Award for artistic use of the company's crystals. In 1994, Stanley Marcus, of Neiman Marcus, presented Leiber with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers. She was awarded the Silver Slipper Award from the Houston Museum of Fine Arts Costume Institute in 1991. Leiber was the first in the field to be given a Coty Fashion Award in 1973, and in 1980 was awarded the Neiman Marcus Winged Statue for Excellence in Design.

Judith Leiber retired from designing handbags in 1998, but the power of her vision and creativity continues to attract new generations of aficionados. Inspired by Leiber's original designs, Judith Leiber Inc. continues to enchant new customers and established collectors to this day. An enduring example is he Chatelaine minaudiere. Evolving reinterpretations of this classic handbag represent a meeting point for a new design generation and a pioneer.

Judith Leiber bags are included in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC), the Historical Society of Chicago, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber opens on January 23, 2004 and runs through April 30. Museum hours are Monday - Saturday, 9:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. and Sundays from 12:00 until 5:00 p.m. Museum admission is $7.00 for adults, $4.00 for students, $5.00 for senior citizens 62+ and groups of 20 or more with reservations. Children age 6 - 17 are $2.00, Children under 5 as well as Texas A&M and Blinn College Students with valid ID are free.


Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber is organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art.


A privately funded institution, the Corcoran Gallery of Art was founded in 1869 as Washington's first museum of art. It is known internationally for its distinguished collection of historical and modern American art as well as European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts. Founded in 1890, Corcoran College of Art + Design is Washington's only 4-year college of art and design offering BFA degrees in Fine Arts, Graphic Design, Digital Media Design, Photojournalism and Photography-and AFA degrees in Fine Arts, Interior Design and Photography. The College's Continuing Education Program, which offers part-time credit and non-credit classes for children and adults, draws more that 3,500 participants each year.

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