Conversation with Magda Makkay

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.


Filed under Designers, First Person Stories

46 responses to “Conversation with Magda Makkay

  1. What an AWESOME story! Behold, the power of the internet! And had you not written about your purse, her story would’ve never been told. Love it! Job well done Lizzie!


    • I have one of these bags. I bought it for my mother in the early eights she rapped it up put in her wardrobe and never used it. I now own the bag it has still never been used and is a clutch type with real snake skin front I have always love this bag.


  2. I hadn’t heard of Magda Makkay, but that was a fantastic story, Lizzie. Thank you.


  3. neatokeenetsy

    Wonderfully done post! Kudos on a great interview with a fascinating lady!


  4. valarielynn

    Love reading stories like this. Great job, Magda, and great interview on her.


  5. Teresa

    The internet never fails to amaze me. Magda’s history and her bags are absolutely fascinating. Thanks for sharing Lizzie!


  6. You have made history come alive with this interview, Lizzie. This story will stay with me for a long, long time! Thanks so much.


  7. Absolutely wonderful story and it’s just so amazing how small the world becomes via the internet!


  8. Fascinating post. What a treat to have been able to connect with Magda Makkay. Thank you for sharing.


  9. Such an interesting story; it would make a great film! Ah! The wonders of the world wide web. Thank you for sharing Magda’s story. 🙂 xx


  10. Wow! What a wonder both the internet, coincidence and Magda are..fascinating story beautifully told xxx


  11. Fascinating story, how great that you have told it. Thanks Lizzie!


  12. Thanks to you and Magda for sharing her story. Sometimes I love the internets.


  13. MS

    What a fascinating story! Being a “purse freak”, I always love to read about the history of handbags.


  14. Remarkable! What an amazing historian you are, I love learning the back stories of fashion history.


  15. I appreciate all the kind words. It was my pleasure to share Magda’s story.


  16. Incredible story! So wonderful that Magda is willing to share her story – and you, in turn- to the world.


  17. Wow! What a fantastic story! Your posting on the VFG is how I found you & have loved hearing the purse saga unfold…it’s really like a historical fiction book, only real! It must have been such an honor for her to be spotlighted by you!
    Thank you for sharing


  18. Sue

    She sounds like an amazing woman, and your story about her is wonderful Lizzie! The magic of vintage! Thank you for letting us share a tiny bit of your excitement with you!



  19. Very awesome blog post for sure. It left me wanting to know even more about Magda’s experiences and I also enjoyed seeing her organizer developed on paper and then the actual organizer handbag.


  20. Magda is an amazing woman. Thank you and her neighbor for getting her story out there!


  21. What a great story and wonderful post! Magda sounds like an amazing lady.


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  25. I throughly enjoyed the Magda story….She is truly amazing, and so are YOU, Liz.
    Your blog is so much more than just a blog. Thanks much.


  26. P.S. Is that pretty young girl in the picture Magda?


  27. thank you so much for sharing Magda’s story, and for your always delightful, entertaining and educational blog, Lizzie! xo


  28. A pleasure to read about this amazing lady! Thank you once again, Lizzie for sharing this with us all.


  29. So interesting, Lizzie. So glad you were able to find Ms. Makkay and learn her fascinating history firsthand.


  30. Pingback: Updates – The Rest of the Story | The Vintage Traveler

  31. Pingback: Denim Couture by Magda Makkay | The Vintage Traveler

  32. Wendy Thomas-Pomeroy

    I love this story! I just bought a beautiful black doctor bag style Magda Makkay. It looks like a crocodile print. It’s in the most beautiful perfect condition. I usually buy vintage purses at flea markets and thrift stores and flip them on eBay. I was so happy to read this wonderful story! I am going to keep this forever! I wish I could post a picture of it! Thanks again for the story!


  33. Smita Asrani

    What an amazing article! I met Magda through her daughter when we worked together. Magda helped me create some bags when I was thinking about starting a vegan handbag company. She is a darling person and extremely dynamic. She has clearly overcome many obstacles and accomplished so much. God Bless her always.


  34. I have a lovely little gold evening bag of hers. If you talk to her again, tell her her work is loved and appreciated…and carried on special occasions!



  35. Anna Ewa Scarpelli

    I also have a pocket book by her. The bottom is squarish, opens like an envelope and the inside is bright red. The clasp is towards the bottom is a “X” shape ( like a hot/cold faucet) in gold. I absolutely love it. It holds so much. Its my weekend go-to purse.


  36. Jessica Towne

    In the 1960s, my grandfather was a leather-goods salesman. He gave my mother beautiful handbags, and I’ve just realized on is a Magda Makkay. My mother never used the bags (by 1964, she had three children under the age of 5), and she gave two to me. I’ve used tehm a few times, but I’m just not that fancy!


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  38. Thank you for this! I love vintage fashion and recently purchased a gold clutch signed Magda Makkay! I have seen some of her other bags for sale on Etsy, however it wasn’t as easy to find info on her as a designer. My twin sister and I have a small vintage shop on Etsy as well called Vintage Gemella. I research every designer that I come across before I post items. Thanks for this great article!


  39. CYS

    I purchased mine 35 years ago in a vintage clothes store in Kentucky. Loved the structure, hardware and simple style of the navy bag. It is still a beautiful piece in my purse rotation.
    Thank you for the article. I just researched the label today and internet wins again.


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