500 Judith Leiber handbags in East Hampton

While Leiber is primarily a handbag designer, she’s

While Leiber is primarily a handbag designer, she’s branched out into costume jewelry like belts and brooches, including these on display in the collection. (Credit: Gordon M. Grant)

Handbag fanatics, start drooling.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has 80 Judith Leiber handbags, and the Smithsonian has the bags she designed for nearly every first lady since Mamie Eisenhower. But now, for the first time you can see more than 500 of her handbags -- the largest collection ever assembled, and each one a tiny work of art -- at the famed designer's gallery in East Hampton.

Leiber, 92, who lives in East Hampton with her husband, artist Gerson Leiber, says he's the one who convinced her to go into business for herself.

"I was scared to death, but we did it."

The exhibit, "Judith Leiber -- An American Journey: From Artisan to Fashion Icon," celebrates the luxury brand's 50th anniversary. It opens Saturday and runs through Labor Day at The Leiber Collection (leibermuseum.org).

Leiber has designed pricey purses of leather, crystals and exotic skins for many high-profile women. Though that didn't dawn on her receptionist when Nancy Reagan once called.

"Where are you calling from?"

"The White House."

"And where is that store?"

Leiber told that tale to Jeffrey Sussman, her biographer, who chronicles the remarkable life of Leiber and her husband in his book "No Mere Bagatelles."

Born into an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Budapest, Judith Peto had planned to study chemistry at a university when World War II broke out. Unable to study, she got a job at a handbag factory, learning the business from the ground up.

Along with her parents and sister, she was eventually shuttled into a Jewish ghetto, and later wound up in hiding, on the brink of starvation. After the war, she met Gerson Leiber, an American G.I., and the two fell madly, instantly in love. They married, and moved to the United States

Sussman is continually amazed by her vigor.

"She speaks five languages, she's well versed in opera, reads voraciously, and last summer was swimming 25 laps a day," he says. "How many 92-year-olds do that?"

WHERE The Leiber Collection, 446 Old Stone Hwy., Springs (a hamlet in East Hampton)

WHEN Saturday, opening reception, 2 to 4 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays thereafter, 1 to 4 p.m., through Labor Day

INFO Free; 631-329-3288; leibermuseum.org

For more

Judith Leiber revolutionized the industry with a small metal box purse, which she designed in 1966. And hated. To salvage the samples, she covered them with rhinestones. That first minaudière -- aka a small gemmed purse, like this one -- was a sensation and became the brand's signature bag. After that, she let loose with all kinds of shapes -- veggies, watermelon, Humpty Dumpty -- but that first gem of a bag remains her favorite.

"It's a tiny bag," Leiber says, "but I always tell ladies, you don't have to carry much -- all you need is a lipstick and a hundred-dollar bill so you can get home if your boyfriend or husband doesn't want to take you."

Then she laughs.

"It's a crazy story, but that's what I told them."

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