Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A ‘FIT’ing Tribute

This has been Holocaust Remembrance Week and in commemoration of the solemn occasion, numerous events were held all over town. The Fashion Institute of Technology marked their Ninth Annual Holocaust Commemoration (sponsored by the organization’s Diversity Council), by ‘fit’ingly inviting famed handbag designer and Holocaust survivor Judith Leiber and her husband, the celebrated modern artist and World War 11 G.I. Gerson Leiber, to speak at Katie Murphy Amphititheatre on Tuesday afternoon. The Leiber’s biographer, Jeffrey Sussman, who penned ‘No Mere Bagatelles’, was on hand to read portions of his book and ask the remarkable duo questions (he also signed copies of the book afterwards). FIT President, Dr. Joyce Brown, kicked things off by addressing the assembled crowd and presenting the accomplished Leibers (she hailed Mrs. Leiber as a “creative genius with a pure appreciation of beauty” and Mr. Leiber as “one of the country’s most distinguished modernists”) with the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Among the topics covered: how Judith Leiber (born Judith Peto in 1921, Budapest, Hungary) survived and thrived despite unspeakable conditions under the Nazi and Russian occupations; how she got her start designing bags even though she studied chemistry in school in London; what life was like in the ghetto; working at home and making bags for her mothers friends; how she and a friend saved her father from a concentration camp; how she met her future husband (Gerson was a young G.I. stationed in Budapest and it was love at first sight when he first saw Judith) and married despite her parent’s objections (they didn’t know how Gerson would be able to support her); coming to America and working as an assistant to Nettie Rosenstein, then moving on to Koret, and finally Morris Moskowitz before starting her own business (Gerson told her, “You are not going to work for those schnooks any more - you’re going into business!”).

At the end, there was a Q & A (many FIT accessories students, presumably Judith Leiber wannabees, were in attendance). Among the questions asked was advice for succeeding as a successful handbag designer. As Mrs. Leiber put it, “You’ve got to start with a good pattern. If it’s not good, throw it out”. (For his part, Mr. Leiber credited his wife’s success to the fact that even from the beginning, they only used the “finest Ohio calf leather” and spoke of her “beautiful shapes that are never vulgar”). At one point, she was asked the price of her earliest designs (the highly coveted and collectible treasures carried by First Ladies and world class celebrities now cost well into the thousands). “$39.50” she quickly recalled. “Whose bag are you carrying”? someone asked, referring to the chic timeless structured black bag she carried to compliment her black pantsuit and crisp white blouse). To the delight of the audience, she replied: “Mine. I only wear my own bags”.

What came across loud and clear during the hour long proceedings, is Mrs. Leiber’s wisdom and sense of humor; how focused, motivated, confident, passionate, and determined she was from the very beginning (she knew exactly what she wanted, she had a vision, and she set out to make it happen); how strong was her desire not only to succeed, but to shine; how modern she is (her youthful spirit and energy knows no bounds); and the obvious admiration, love, and devotion the Leibers have for one another (married 62+ years and still going strong).

-Marilyn Kirschner

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