The blond matron in head-to-toe Chanel confessed she felt "bad this morning." She found herself toting a Chanel purse while meeting handbag designer Judith Leiber.
"And I have so many Leiber bags," she said apologetically. The woman added that she even names her Leiber purses. The crane-shaped one is Olivia, she said.
The Hungarian-born Leiber, dressed sensibly in black-and- white houndstooth, listened calmly, as if her handbags always prompt confessions.
In fact, she doesn't create mere purses. At $400 to $3,000, these are status symbols women clutch above the waist for high visibility, keep on--not under--tables and collect as if for menageries.
"You spot her bags and her belts from a mile away," said Jackie Banchik of Brentwood, who attended a recent breakfast honoring Leiber at Neiman-Marcus, Beverly Hills.
The New York-based designer admits she too likes to spot her own bags on the street. When at the Metropolitan Opera with her husband, she said, "our pastime is to count bags."
Whether an exotic skin pouch or a metallic bag covered with semiprecious stones, Leiber works on a small scale.
"Ladies look more ladylike with a little bag," she said.
Her dressier bags borrow from Art Deco images or themes from museum exhibits: There's the jeweled egg she made after seeing the Faberge eggs. The black-and-silver jeweled clutch she thinks resembles "a 1930s car." The cylinder-shaped metal bag she calls a "twist."
But she's most famous for her animal designs: cranes, owls and flower-covered cats, for example. When she disclosed at the breakfast her plan to make a butterfly, the room broke into a collective "Ahhh."
Leiber's mother "loved beautiful bags," and that's why the daughter sought out purse-making, learning the craft "from start to finish" under the Hungarian guild system.
But following World War II, that's not the system she found in New York City, where she moved with her husband, a U.S. serviceman.
Going to work as a pattern maker in a purse factory, she was shocked at the speed and ineloquence of the work. Pieces were thrown about. Workers knew only small segments of their trade.
"I was very unhappy there," she said. After a stint with a second purse firm, Leiber started her own company in 1963--and did things her way. Twenty-three years later, her New York factory has 100 employees and produces thousands of pieces a year.
Each Leiber bag has 70 parts, she said. The beading work alone can require four days.
"When it all comes together, it looks as if it always should have been that way, " she said, holding a jeweled Deco purse affectionately.
Belts Another Specialty
In the early '70s, Leiber also entered belt-making. Her belts are mostly one-size-fits-all reptile designs, decorated with semiprecious stones, and priced about $300.
But the purses are what her believers track with fervor.
"I've got all her animals," said Judi Friedman of Encino, toting a purple ostrich Leiber bag.
"I've got the rabbit, the crane--and I love the new one. I thought it was a frog--but she (Leiber) said it was an owl."
It's one for the menagerie regardless.