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Timeless Totes

October 11, 1998|JEANNINE STEIN

It's not often that a handbag collection inspires a museum-like retrospective. But then, these aren't ordinary handbags.

These are Judith Leibers, the ne plus ultra of women's handbags. Made from hand-set pave crystals and exotic skins, they command up to four figures and have accessorized the outfits of first ladies and countless celebrities.

Some 150 of the bags representing the company's 35 years are on view through Oct. 18 in the Jewel Court of South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, celebrating the Judith Leiber boutique's one-year anniversary.

"Mrs. Leiber's bags are so timeless that you can't tell what era they're from," said Catherine Carmichael, the company's New York-based public relations director. "You do see her inspirations from her travels, like when she went to the Orient. But these pieces could go on forever."

Included in the retrospective are her signature crystal bags: one bearing the likeness of first cat Socks, as worn by Hillary Clinton; a bag in royal blue satin that Barbara Bush wore to her husband's inauguration; pieces in wood and Lucite; and other crystal bags grouped by theme--fruits and vegetables, eggs, flowers, geometric, and novelties. Some of the minaudieres (small jeweled bags) are so tiny there's room for a lipstick and little else--but then, that's the point.

Although the Hungarian-born Leiber officially retired in January, a three-person design team is taking over her duties, with no major style departures planned.

That's good news for Leiber devotees--and there are a lot of them.

Said Clare Landesman-Steele, manager of the Costa Mesa store, "Collectors always come in and look at the latest and greatest work," she said. "Presently, the hot item is the polar bear [done in crystals]. A lot of the collectors like the animals she does.

"People will often look at her bags and say, 'How does she come up with all these beautiful ideas?' "

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