Recently, a small dark gallery at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology was set ablaze with a jewel-like display of purses by Judith Leiber, whose work is aptly found in major-league museums and in the hands of the absurdly rich. If you missed the show--being on the opposite coast, or ashamed to attend with your stuff stashed in that crummy canvas backpack--you can ogle the book: "Judith Leiber: The Artful Handbag." The 192 handsome photographs, mainly by John Bigelow Taylor, can't quite capture the sheen, dazzle and tactile luxe of the originals, but will nevertheless abet you splendidly in breaking the 10th Commandment. (Covetousness. You didn't know?)
As Enid Nemy's ebullient text relates, the 74-year-old Leiber was trained in her native Hungary, becoming the first woman to attain the rank of master with the reigning guild. When she emigrated to the States after World War II, her disgust with the quick, shoddy mass production she encountered provoked her into starting her own enterprise. For over three decades now, she has been designing and overseeing the making of bags that refer discreetly to the history of fashion while boasting openly--as inanimate objets can--about the swell materials and elaborate workmanship that give them their splendor.
Like the people who've led you astray, each of Leiber's creations, while individual, can be assigned to a general category. My humble origins lead me to favor the gravely beautiful handbags in fine skins and glowing colors (pumpkin, pomegranate, caution-sign ocher; the inky green of leaves under moonlight); these can make daytime appearances without undermining an aura of serious purpose. The evening-regalia departments include clutches in subdued fabrics or leathers rescued from reticence by "important" frames or clasps, the beaded, the bejeweled and--the most extravagant members of the Leibertine society--the minaudieres: tiny, hard-shelled clutch bags for gala events. (Minaudieres, from the French minauder : to simper. You didn't know?)
Now today's "Everyms." has as much chance of acquiring a Leiber minaudiere (for most, we're talking hefty four figures) as the well-heeled owner of multiple Leibers has of possessing a Faberge egg (out of sight these days unless you're a czar). The taste governing the yearning for either, however, is about the same: It relishes the ingenious and ornate, intricately wrought in tiny proportions. The minaudieres render animals, vegetables, amphibians, flowers, fetishes, chimeras, shades-of-Faberge eggs, as well as abstract designs in lusciously tinted rhinestones. Exotic shells, once mollusks' housing, are renovated with gold-plated hardware. Whimsy abounds, though it occasionally falls heavily (the Buddha piece) or flat (the computer-graphics pattern). You must deal as you see fit with the irony of the "Miser's" bag, drawstring-tightened pouch.
Like so many objects of delight, Leiber's minaudieres are decidedly impractical. At their most capacious they can contain, say, a couple of high-denomination bills, a two-dose supply of a controlled substance, a wand of jet-black mascara and a scarlet lipstick, or similar small accessories of gaudy nights. The non-utility of these purses, which also deprive their carriers of the use of one hand, is critical to their point; they signify leisure. Their bearers simply do not expect to be following a tense round of business appointments noted in a bulging Filofax or to be needing the unencumbered use of their upper limbs to defend themselves against low-life attackers. Admittedly, some of these ornamental boxes come equipped with a drop-in chain, and a few are small enough to be slung from the neck--to lie, swinging softly between breasts and navel, an emblem of conspicuous pleasure.