Monique Lhuillier, (pronounced le-hu-lee-ay), is a fashion designer known for her bridal, ready-to-wear, and lifestyle brand. Born in the Philippines, the now Los Angeles-based designer has been able to take her interest and talent in fashion design to become “internationally recognized as one of America’s foremost designers.” This article looks at how Monique Lhuillier was able to attain such a great title and how she makes the dresses that bring her recognition.
Monique Lhuillier Love for Fashion and Designing
Monique Lhuillier was born on September 15, 1971, in Cebu City, Philippines. Her father is Michel J. Lhuillier, a French-born Filipino businessman who owns businesses in several industries. Her mother is Amparito Llamas, a Filipina society figure and former model. Her mother was one of the reasons why she loved fashion and wanted to be a fashion designer. Monique Lhuiller said that she used to love watching her mother get dressed and seeing their guests dressed, as well as dressing herself.
Traveling Growing Up
She grew up in the Philippines but also lived in Switzerland. She eventually moved to Los Angeles to study design at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM). No matter where she was, she always loved clothes. She says, “At an early age, I would meet with local designers in the Philippines and kind of direct how I wanted my wardrobe to look, and we'd make things for me. When I was 12 or 13, we came to the States and traveled to Europe. I would say, ‘Just drop me here, and then, pick me up after in the mall.’ I would scour the place in search of new outfits, stuff like that.”
Her Early Design Projects
As a design student, she would make dresses for her family and for school. She made bridal gowns for her sisters-in-law, and her debut project in school was a wedding theme. Although she was able to make dresses, she didn’t think about starting her own business because she didn’t know that a whole wedding industry existed. Everything she was doing early on was because her family had asked her to make their dresses and because she enjoyed doing so.
The Turning Point: Her Wedding
What introduced Monique Lhuillier to the wedding industry was when she was preparing for her own wedding. At the age of 21, she was engaged to her now-husband, Tom Bugbee, and searching for a wedding dress. As a young bride, she thought the dresses on the market were too traditional and had an excess of lace. She did eventually settle on a Ron LoVece gown from a local store rather than making her own dress because she wanted the whole experience of being a bride. Even though she didn’t make her own dress, she did put her design skills to use and sketched twenty-five dresses for her friends and family to wear to her wedding. The wedding was held in 1995 and had 450 guests. With such a large wedding, she didn’t personally know a lot of the people there. A few of the guests left their business cards for her at her wedding because they were impressed by the dresses she designed. This, along with her realization that there were no modern dresses on the market, inspired her to get into the wedding fashion business.
The Start of Monique Lhuillier’s Label
To start her label, she received financial support from her parents, and her husband Tom stepped in as the CEO. Monique Lhuillier and Tom Bugbee established the company in 1996. Before starting her company, she worked at a small French firm that did high-end ready-to-wear. Through her former job, Monique Lhuillier had met some seamstresses that helped her put together samples for her first collection consisting of five dresses. The very first dress Monique Lhuillier designed was a simple spaghetti-strap dress called the “Laura.” The “Laura” is still one of her bestsellers to date. With all her samples prepared, she went on a trade show, and five stores were interested in her work. At this point, even though she was a business, she still didn’t really have a business plan. She said, “It was me being creative and putting something out there, but I didn't think it through, like how this was all going to work. It was more spontaneous.”
Monique Lhuillier’s Style
Monique Lhuillier describes herself as “feminine, refined, and modern,” which translates to her designs that are known to be luxurious, chic, classy, and sophisticated.
The three designers who influence her the most are Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino, and Oscar de la Renta. The commonality between all three designers is that “they like dressing the society ladies, the girls who really understand glamour and chicness.” Monique Lhuillier wants to cater to that same audience, which is why she takes a lot of inspiration from them.
Monique Lhuillier also gets a lot of inspiration from “society ladies” themselves. She particularly loved Grace Kelly’s and Audrey Hepburn’s wedding dresses. Grace Kelly was known to be very elegant and classy, and her wedding dress reflected that with its high-neck lace bodice and bell-shaped skirt. It was also how she carried the dress and her overall classy aura that Monique Lhuillier loved. With Audrey Hepburn, she went in a more nontraditional direction by wearing a billowy organza dress with flowers in her hair. She found Audrey Hepburn’s look to be “romantic and beautiful,” even if it wasn’t traditional to the times.
Monique Lhuillier’s Dress-Making Process
In a piece written by The New York Times, Monique Lhuillier explained her and her team’s process when making dresses.
Platinum Collection Dresses
- Create a mood board.
- The mood board consists of photos of architecture and destinations, swatches of fabric and textiles, and anything they want to convey in the dress.
- Drape fabric onto a dress form.
- Monique Lhuillier first drapes the fabric on her own to get a rough idea of what she wants.
- Once she likes what she sees, her patternmaker will drape the whole form from the top to the skirt and discuss with her if it is what she was thinking.
- Have an in-house model try on the dress.
- Monique Lhuillier's goal with this step is to see how the fabric moves and identify where changes should be made.
- A back and forth happens between building the dress and holding fittings.
- Designs can be combined into one dress or be completely dropped during this step.
- Once the final look is approved by Monique Lhuillier, the patternmaker puts all the details from the fabric to the pattern on paper.
- For example, the “Secret Garden” dress is a blush, off-the-shoulder, silk organza gown with a textured skirt. It can have up to 75 pieces.
- The chosen fabric is examined by the bundler and cut by the cutters.
- The bundler packages the pieces needed to make the dress to give to the operator.
- The operator is the person who sews the dress with a machine first and then by hand.
- Once they finish, there is another fitting to check the stitching.
- The hand-finisher then adds all the little details like the embroidery, lace, buttons, and hooks.
- They hold the final fitting.
- At this point, designs can still be dropped.
- Once samples are complete, they hold a photoshoot.
- Monique Lhuillier finds it important for the photos to be in the setting that was imagined so that brides can get the overall feel of the dress.
- From then on, the dresses are shown at Monique Lhuillier’s showroom in New York City. It is up to buyers to choose what dresses they want to buy for their boutiques. From those dresses, brides will then choose their gowns, get their measurements taken, and Monique Lhuillier’s team will make the dress for them.
This was just a brief summary of the process that is most likely much more intensive. It takes an average of 15 people and 1,000 hours of work to make one gown for a platinum collection. If you multiply this by the 29 gowns in one collection, it takes a lot of work and time. This work and time are translated into dresses starting at $12,000.
Couture One-of-a-Kind Dresses
Monique Lhuillier only accepts 10 couture wedding gowns a year. Couture wedding dresses are different from custom dresses because couture dresses are created completely from scratch, while custom dresses only modify existing ones. The couture dress-making process is similar to the dresses made for Monique Lhuillier’s collections, but the difference is the bride’s involvement. Monique Lhuillier meets with the bride to discuss everything from concept to fabric. They use “the finest materials specifically sourced and cut for the bride.” They will make a sample for the bride based on what was discussed. If it is approved, then they will make the actual gown. Throughout the process, they require 6 fittings that all happen at their Los Angeles flagship boutique. In some cases, the head tailor will even attend the wedding to make sure everything looks good and to make any necessary adjustments. These couture one-of-a-kind wedding dresses are priced starting at $55,000 but completely depend on complexity and materials. One of Monique Lhuillier’s clients for a couture gown was Jennifer Cain, the daughter of Kathryn Hall, the former United States Ambassador to Austria and owner of Hall Wines in Napa Valley.
Celebrities and Public Figures
Monique Lhuillier owes a lot of her public exposure to celebrities and public figures wearing her dresses at their weddings, on red carpets, and at important events. The first celebrity who gave her exposure was Britney Spears; she wore a Monique Lhuillier gown at her wedding in 2004. Other celebrities who’ve worn Monique Lhuillier are Blake Lively, Demi Lovato, Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon, Michelle Obama, Emma Stone, Jennifer Lopez, Taylor Swift, Melaina Trump, and Katy Perry.
How Monique Lhuillier Built Her Celebrity Clientele
Monique Lhuiller wasn’t actively working to get celebrities to wear her dresses. It was celebrity stylists contacting her to ask if their celebrity client can wear a particular dress to an event. Monique Lhuillier would say yes, which turned into many more celebrity calls. She says that they were really “naive” about it. “In the very beginning, it was them picking up the phone and calling us saying, ‘We saw this dress, can we borrow it?’ or if they saw a dress in white, asking me to make it in black. She says that “the celebrities wearing my dresses really helped build the brand and helped the public be able to say the name right; to hear them say it, it was a great thing.”
Today, Monique Lhuillier has multiple flagship boutiques in the United States. She also has partnerships with Pottery Barn and its kids and teens subsidiaries, Waterford, Kay Jewelers, as well as her own collections consisting of fine jewelry, lingerie, wedding invitations, and signature and home fragrance. Her collections are also sold at premium department stores and specialty stores around the world. She still holds trunk shows for her bridal and ready-to-wear collections at her own stores and at the stores that carry her pieces. In 2017, Monique Lhuillier got to hold her first international fashion show for her Spring 2018 collection at Paris Fashion Week. The move to go to Paris was to focus on her international clientele and bring the brand “to the forefront of fashion.”
Although she has had a lot of success and continues to, Monique Lhuillier did find some difficulty being a West Coast designer. She says, “People in high fashion look at big cities like New York or Paris or Milan, as more fashion forward. It takes you longer to prove yourself if you're not from those places.” Although there are many benefits to being based in New York, Paris, or Milan, we have seen the fashion industry change a lot. More and more designers from other cities and countries, like Monique Lhuillier, have been able to realize their fashion designer dreams and make an impact in the industry.