One summer day in the mid-1990s, as she recounts it, Beth Gorenfeld was at her booth at the Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum’s antique show when two women made a beeline to her handbags. “They both stood looking at the bags for a while,” Ms. Gorenfeld, a reseller of vintage fashion items, recalled earlier this month. “I told them, ‘These are my Judith Leibers.’”
“I know, dear,” one of the women replied. “I’m Judith Leiber. Why are these bags so expensive?”
The question was not theoretical. The handbag designer was, it turns out, on a mission to buy back as many of her fun crystal-encrusted objets as possible. Over the years, Mrs. Leiber reacquired at least 1,700 pieces, including many purchased over eBay or acquired from collectors as donations, said Ann Stewart, the manager of the Leiber Collection and the chief negotiator of Mrs. Leiber and her husband, Gerson.
Mrs. Leiber died on April 28 at 97, within hours of Gerson, 96, known as Gus. They were married 72 years. Their remarkable lifetime creative output — a vast stash of handbags, purses and minaudières, as well as thousands of oils, watercolors and prints — is now housed in the Collection, which the couple built next door to their home in the Springs hamlet of East Hampton. Apart from sales to private collectors and museum acquisitions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, the bulk of Mr. Leiber’s work was willed to the Judith and Gerson Leiber Foundation.
The Collection reopened on Saturday with an era-defining exhibition, “A Marriage of True Minds Remembered,” displaying about 380 rarely seen bags. There are also four new Gerson Leiber paintings on view for the first time. The show contains one of the few known Leiber-to-Leiber pairings, “The Much Admired,” in which Mr. Leiber’s oil portrait of two fashionable night owls inspired his wife’s corresponding handbag.
The wit and whimsy of the Leibers’ work will be celebrated at the East Hampton Library on June 23. And the Leiber Collection will hold a memorial garden tea party for the Leibers on July 28.
The show summarizes a poignant love story even as it memorializes an era whose midcentury standards of elegance and wit have begun to recede. The Leibers’ story began in Budapest in 1945. The future Mrs. Leiber — then Judith Peto — had escaped capture during the Holocaust by hiding inside a Swiss safe house.
Mr. Leiber, serving in the United States Army, was stationed in the city as a Signal Corps radio operator. After the liberation, Miss Peto was outside peddling handmade purses when Sergeant Leiber strolled by. The two struck up a romance and were married the following year in the Petos’ living room. Together they came to New York and moved into a hardscrabble work space near the Empire State Building.
While Mr. Leiber completed his art studies, Mrs. Leiber worked for designers like Nettie Rosenstein, then opened her own label in 1963. Thanks in part to the publicity generated by a succession of first ladies toting her clutches to their husbands’ inaugurations, the brand took flight. Mrs. Leiber wryly dismissed the notion that she was an artist; museum directors and gallery owners thought otherwise. Harold Koda, the longtime curator with the Costume Institute at the Met until he retired in 2016, was one of many influential collectors.
The Leibers sold their business in 1993 for a reported $16 million to $18 million. In semiretirement, Mr. Leiber painted nearly every day while his wife haunted vintage markets, high-end consignment shops and later online auctions to track down her creations. Over all, Mrs. Leiber designed about 3,500 unique handbags, purses and accessories, according to Ms. Stewart. “Mrs. Leiber wanted to own a copy of each original bag and eventually put them on display,” she said.
Kelly Ellman, a fashion enthusiast and philanthropist from Paradise Valley, Ariz., has donated about three dozen bags, including the Judith Leiber Hollywood bag — a black carryall with silver stars recalling the iconic mountainside sign.
Deftly preserving the tension between easy-access pop culture and luxury consumerism — her fanciest containers now fetch $6,000 and up — Mrs. Leiber’s Hollywood bag, like many of her others, is pop art you can carry stuff in. “The bags are whimsical,” Ms. Ellman said, adding: “Judy was inspired by pop culture, as she was inspired by animals like frogs and pigs. Her bags are charming and beautiful, the craftsmanship impeccable. And yes, they are art.”
Tina Plesset of East Hampton donated a 1967 chatelaine owned by her mother. The purse “was Judith Leiber’s first metal handbag,” Ms. Stewart said in an email. Mrs. Leiber “wanted a metal handbag that ‘the ladies’ would not need to store in a safe deposit box, so she made it in gold-plated and silver-plated brass.” Ms. Plesset said that her mother had worn it to the opera.
“When my mother gave it to me, I knew that unfortunately I wouldn’t use it except perhaps occasionally,” Ms. Plesset said. “Styles have changed. What we wear today doesn’t reflect the glory of the Judith Leiber era.”
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