Two months ago I posted about a beautiful Magda Makkay handbag I’d bought. I wasn’t familiar with the name, but the handbag experts at the Vintage Fashion Guild quickly identified the bag as being made by Makkay. I was able to piece together a small biography of Makkay through old newspaper accounts of her work.
And if not for the wonder of the internet, the story would be over. But two weeks ago I got an email from a person in New York who had seen my post, and as it turns out, is Magda Makkay’s neighbor. She wrote to tell me that Magda was alive and well at 88, and would love to talk with me.
The next day I called Magda. She gladly told me about her life and career, and then she offered to send some photos and things that would fill in the gaps in her story. We’ve talked again, and it had been so much fun getting to know her.
Magda was born in Hungary in the 1920s. As a child she would help her mother and sister produce clothing from their home knitting machine. By the time she was fourteen, she went to work as an apprentice in a Budapest handbag factory. There she worked for three years, perfecting her craft. She was the first woman to ever finish the program. Magda also took classes in fashion, graduating from Hungary’s leading fashion school.
After marrying and the birth of a daughter, Magda returned to work as a newspaper reporter. The paper was impressed with her knowledge of making things so she was assigned to write about and sketch manufacturing plants. All was well until Magda was approached about joining the Communist Party. When she refused, she lost her job. With the help of the Hungarian Underground, Magda began to plan her escape from Hungary.
In 1956 she was hidden in the back of a truck among large cartons. She was taken to a hideaway, and from there was led across the border to Austria. Eventually she made her way to New York City.
In New York she went to the Pocketbook Local Worker’s Union, who suggested that she contact Hungarian business leaders in New York. Through one of them, Mickey Gordon, she was given employment at Koret Handbags. She worked as a handbag designer for Koret for the next nine years.
In the mid 1960s Magda began producing handbags under her own name. In 1975 she joined Charisma by Make Well as handbag designer. There she developed what was called the Fashion Organizer.
In the above illustration you can see an Organizer. The flap lifted up to reveal a folded section with pouches. It could be carried like a handbag, or it could be a shoulder bag using the detachable strap. If you are sharp-eyed, you can spot Mary Tyler Moore carrying one on her 1970s television program.
In 1978 Magda designed a handbag especially for Princess Grace of Monaco, and she traveled to Monte Carlo to present it to the princess. She also made a briefcase for President Gerald Ford.
Magda told me that she is still making handbags in her home. She explained that making bags was more than just a job – it was her craft and a lifetime passion.
Many thanks to Magda for her conversations and friendship.
I found a 1970s Fashion Organizer on etsy, and got the seller’s permission to share the photos here.
Thanks to YesterdayIsBack for the use of the photos.