Where did the whimsy go?
Jun 14, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I don’t know about you dear reader, but I often find myself asking this question as I peruse the latest fashion trends: when did we get so serious? I always joke that you can tell when an article of clothing is expensive when the woman modeling it is not smiling. When did joy become the enemy of good taste? Perhaps this is just my cynicism of all things new taking hold – let me know in the comments if you feel this way too! In the recent past I’ve talked a little about the whimsy in jewelry, but today I want to delve into another fab accessory – the purse.
Perhaps no one championed an artfully whimsical purse quite like Judith Leiber – just check out this carnival example. Looking at the diversity of these pieces, you can see why her work is about to be featured in an exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan. Her designs weren’t meant to be a mere functional storage device – they were meant to be the star of the show. To stand out. To wow. In her own words, “I wanted to make something that was more interesting and more special than what other people made.” I think it’s safe to say she achieved her goal. But just how did she do it? Let’s learn more about her creative force…
I have a good sense of humor. I think everything we do should have whimsy in it. – Judith Leiber
Born in Hungary in the early 1920s, young Judith was sent to London to study chemistry. Her family was convinced of two things: she’d be safer in London than her native country and that her future would be in cosmetics. With the onset of WWII she returned home and her dreams were dashed. This twist of fate was no small thing. When you consider how much planning and funding had to go into sending their daughter abroad for studies, you can imagine how devastating this all must have seemed. Not just for them personally, but now there was the backdrop of an uncertain world. Keep in mind that Judith’s parents came from the generation that lived through the Great War (WWI) and thought the destruction and devastation seen then was the last time the world would enter into that level of turmoil.
But as people around the world do to this day, in times of struggle their life moves on. A sense of normalcy can be created even in the trickiest of seasons. And that’s just what Judith did. She kept living, taking up an apprenticeship with a local handbag company. She dedicated herself completely to this new dream – becoming the first woman to graduate to master craftswoman and joining the handbag guild in Budapest. In fact, she was the only woman represented in the guild – a voice for her entire gender. Talk about moxie!
During the war she met her sweetheart, American soldier and abstract expressionist painter, Gus Leiber. In 1946 they moved to New York City and she continued her work, designing and creating for American handbag companies. In the early 1960s her husband encouraged her to venture out on her own. I want to give Gus a special shout-out because he was his wife’s biggest supporter. After his day job was done, he would make deliveries and help out wherever was needed. We often talk about the strong women behind the well-known male leaders, but we don’t often celebrated the strong men behind the well-known women in history. As Morris and Rose Michtom would attest to – it takes a great partner to achieve great goals.
I have a few customers who have two or three hundred bags. When you see a lady carrying a little dog bag or a little cat bag or an egg, it makes you happy. – Judith Leiber
With the support of her husband and family, Judith channeled her creative genius and designed at a furious pace. While the debut collection had some fits and starts, soon she was finding success and unprecedented growth. Her company grew from four to nearly 200 employees in a very short span of time. For four decades Judith injected fun, sparkles, and joy into nearly 3,500 unique designs. She drew her inspiration from the world around here – even the grocery store itself. Her food series remains a favorite with celebrities and icons. I started out this article asking where did the whimsy go? The answer is that it’s alive in all of us – the designers like Judith Leiber who thought an asparagus pocket book was a necessity, the woman who proudly dons a Trifari jelly belly into her next board meeting, and the men who go for a cheeky bow tie rather than the traditional blue or gray stripe. The whimsy lives in those unafraid to make some bold choices. So dear reader, tell me – what whimsical fashion choices are you going to make?