Moore From L.A.: Monique Lhuillier Reflects on 25 Years of Designing Luxury

The designer has a new Rizzoli book, a new collection with Kay Jewelers, and ambitions to get into beauty.

While Los Angeles is a global luxury hot spot now, when Monique Lhuillier started her fashion business here 25 years ago, she was a trailblazer.

“The two that were representing L.A. were Richard Tyler and James Galanos, who was retiring,” said Lhuillier during an interview last week at her Melrose Place store.

“I was able to hire some of those craftsmen, so that helped me in the beginning. But L.A. was not at the forefront of luxury, and when I was in fashion school, I actually wanted to be in New York. But my parents didn’t want me to go!”

So she started sewing wedding dresses in her parents’ Malibu basement, and launched a made-in-L.A. empire that now encompasses custom gowns, bridal, ready-to-wear and diffusion lines, with 1,000 points of sale and prices spanning from $300 to $60,000; accessories, fragrance, lingerie with Hanky Panky, home goods with Pottery Barn and a new Bliss bridal fine jewelry collection with Kay Jewelers being announced today.

In the course of it all, she’s dressed everyone from Britney Spears to First Lady Michelle Obama in her romantic, traditional-meets-trendy brand of femininity. The Philippines-born designer outfitted what could be a record eight stars for the 2019 Golden Globes.

“Monique is woven into so many of my memories,” Reese Witherspoon writes in the forward for the designer’s new Rizzoli book, “Monique Lhuillier,” out this week, recounting how she designed her wedding dress for a 2011 wedding. The blush pink tulle confection set the bar for trendy pink wedding gowns, which have been core to the designer’s collection ever since.

“I wanted it to be more of a picture book, describing the product, process and a little of my emotions,” Lhuillier said of the hardcover, full of photos of famous brides, red carpet moments, rtw shows at New York and Paris Fashion Weeks and behind-the-scenes peeks into her L.A. atelier.

courtesy via wwd Los Angeles designer Monique Lhuillier

She is also releasing a 25th-anniversary dress on Nov. 8, a hybrid of styles designed for Taylor Swift and Kaley Cuoco.

“Being in L.A., in the beginning, was a hindrance,” Lhuillier said, reflecting on those early years. “People discovered me through customer word of mouth, not through top editors of glossies. I was not part of the Vogue Fashion Fund. It was really organic how we started our business — product first, then celebrities on the red carpet spreading the word, and eventually, people knew how to say my name,” she laughed.

By showing at New York Fashion Week and being part of the CFDA, she gained more industry exposure, but she gave up the runway four years ago.

“Now, living in L.A. is the perfect balance of me, because I don’t hear the noise of other fashion houses, and we’re doing our own thing with our own factories. I’m influenced by the outdoors, and the California relaxed point of view,” she said.

While the company would not disclose revenues, sales are up over 2019, she said, adding that she is open to taking on partners to help accelerate growth, particularly internationally. She has three boutiques — in L.A., South Coast Plaza, and New York — but sees London and eventually China as logical next markets.

WWD caught up with the designer ahead of the launch of her Kay collection on Oct. 6, to discuss building her brand organically, the value of celebrity exposure, and how wedding gowns have changed for the better.

Monique Lhuillier: That’s why I started this, I was 21 looking for a wedding dress, and it was all traditional leg-of-mutton sleeves and heavy embroideries. Then the swing of ultramodern minimalism starting coming up. But I was in the middle.

courtesy via wwd Items from the Monique Lhuillier Bliss collection for Kay Jewelers

That’s what gave me the idea to start in bridal. And I’m so glad I did because in the first five years, I perfected fit and I educated myself on how to run a business. Tom [Bugbee, her husband, and chief executive officer] was getting his MBA at night at USC, I was creating dresses one at a time and building a team slowly. Our trajectory was gradual — perfecting our product and connecting with ours.

M.L.: When I sold to small bridal stores. I would work on product Monday through Thursday, then get on a plane Fridays to go to trunk shows; brides struggled to say my name for so long. But by 2000, they were saying Lhuillier right, so we realized we were making progress.

We also had confidence in 2003 to open our first retail store. Stylists started coming in saying, “can you make that in another color for the red carpet?” So there was interest. But our real aha moment was in 2003 when we had multiple girls on the carpet for the Emmys and Britney Spears was getting married in one of our dresses.

That introduced me to the worldwide stage, to paparazzi interest, it was the first mega-celebrity we dressed. I have never paid a celebrity to wear my clothes, which is why when I had eight [people] wear my dresses at the Golden Globes in 2019, it was so incredible.

WWD: Was it the red carpet asks that gave you the confidence to launch rtw?

ML: One-hundred percent and we had Neiman Marcus asking to carry our dresses, so the progression made sense. I was also ready for more color, and to reach a bigger audience.

M.L.: My brides now are more daring to try what feels right for them and less worried about what people expect them to do, and what family expects. They are ready to push the boundaries.

I have lots of different brides, the over-the-top bride who wants princess silhouettes with modern laces I created, or a lily-of-the-valley gown with 3D flowers. Then I have brides who love prints and billowy sleeves, and those who want more form-fitting Old Hollywood, so it depends who she is. And also the convertible dresses with jackets that come off are popular.

WWD: Have you seen a “Bridgerton” effect?

M.L.: I have seen how cinema and shows have influenced what brides are looking for, and from my new collection you will see more empire silhouettes.…I had the honor of dressing Dakota Johnson for “Fifty Shades Darker” in a silver gown with feathers and that moment lives forever and people still come and say they want that dress. I also made the wedding dress for “Fifty Shades Freed.”

courtesy via wwd A Monique Lhuillier bridal sneaker

WWD: Why did you stop showing on the runway and instead start shooting collections at Lake Como, Cartagena, the French countryside and other fab locales?

M.L.: I feel like I can show the dream more on location than a runway. I started doing that four years ago and it’s really been resonating with my customers. Sometimes I even guide them on where to go for their wedding or party. The travel is so much more fun and creative and the images magnify what I do.

WWD: Did you ever take on outside investment?

M.L.: We never did, we kept it a family business.

WWD: Tell me about launching other categories.

M.L.: This whole journey has been about following my customer in her different stages in life and in mind. When we published our home on the cover of Elle Decor in 2008, Pottery Barn sent an email saying, we saw your beautiful home, and that you did a collaboration with Goop, would you be interested in doing a collaboration for us on Pottery Barn Kids?

That was the beginning of that partnership. We were successful in taking elements from my dresses into bedding, frames, and mirrors. Then after multiple seasons, the mainline Pottery Barn and PB Teen asked partners. I do all three and they are all different design teams, but it looks fluid and seamless. During the lockdown, people were buying bedding, redoing their kids’ rooms, updating their homes. So that business grew exponentially.

WWD: How did the Kay Jewelers partnership come about?

M.L.: I’ve always believed jewelry is part of what I do, because, without an engagement ring, there is no dress. I tried being in that space with a few other partners, but being with Kay, which is a leader in that space, is exciting. During COVID-19, there was lots of back-and-forth sketching, samples, refining the visuals.

They are an amazing partner and team and they saw my vision. I’m excited about the launch because it’s going to reach a bigger audience. I’m so ready for this and I believe in the product.

There are more than 36 pieces, engagement rings and wedding bands. But that will expand in the next few months to bridal jewelry, necklaces, earrings, bracelets. You will see a lot of floral and botanical motifs in the settings of the rings, micro setting on the sides, baby fancies on top, so you see every angle has a special detail.

Then the box is special because it is quite slim and narrow so the groom can put it in his pocket or suit jacket. This was a year and a half in the making, but no detail has been spared. Engagement rings are from $3,000 to $19,000, bands are $900 to $5,000 and we have men’s bands as well.

WWD: How has the business pulled through COVID-19?

M.L.: Bridal is doing extremely well, we don’t even compare the numbers to 2020. We are up over 25 percent from 2019 because everyone wants to get married and celebrate again. With protocols, we can’t have as many appointments as we did before, so that’s a challenge. In our stores, it’s quite hard to get an appointment. We’re working through it.

Our factory is busier than ever and it’s fortunate our supply chain was not affected. Rtw is up at least 20 percent above 2019. We focused more on direct-to-consumer, and the last two collections I designed during the pandemic had more relaxed silhouettes. I also developed hoodies, T-shirts and joggers in our signature prints. I have my lingerie collection, which was relevant for people staying home. We were lucky to have a diverse portfolio, so we made it through.

WWD: Have your accessories and fragrance sales rebounded?

M.L.: Accessories are a growing category, but I’m keeping it small because there is only so much we can handle as a team. We have a bridal sneaker and more handbags in the works. But if anything that channel, since everything is made in Italy, was affected more.

My first fragrance was set to launch on March 10, 2020. It suffered the most because I could not be in front of people. We had so many plans with marketing and distribution, then the world stopped and we couldn’t do any of them. I had great partners carrying it, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, but it never had its moment to shine.

But I’m so proud of it and it’s the scent of the house, I only wanted there to be one. Every product, whether licensed or not, I have to believe in it. It’s a lot of me living and breathing this product and journey.

WWD: What do you want to do next?

M.L.: My dream is to expand globally — we need a bigger presence internationally. We also need a bigger digital presence because people are comfortable buying jewelry and clothing online. I would also love to step into the beauty space, makeup and beauty for that big day.

I’d eventually be open to bringing a partner in to grow. We have built the brand already, and we could open more stores faster. But I don’t see an exit strategy, this is my passion and inspiration. I wake up every day and am constantly inspired and creating.