Written by Megan C. Hills, CNN
Filipina American fashion designer Monique Lhuillier wants to realize your dreams. She wants you to imagine yourself dressed in cream silks, lace and verdant florals, racing through Lake Como gardens and towards the love of your life — a scene captured in one of her brand’s recent campaigns.”People come to me for that fantasy,” explained Lhuillier, who is best known for designing wedding dresses for the likes of Britney Spears and Reese Witherspoon, over video call. “They want that over-the-top look.”
Even during the pandemic, when weddings were scaled down and brides around the world were forced to put plans on hold, the fantasy “never went away,” she added.
A gown from Monique Lhuiller’s latest bridal collection. Credit: Monique Lhuillier/KT Merry
“(Brides) never wanted to compromise on the dress. Even if they were going to have a small ceremony, they still wanted the dream dress… (whether there were) five people in the room with them, or 200.”
Lhuillier has been doling out fantasies — and realizing her own dreams of running a successful label — since 1996, when she set up her eponymous brand in the basement of her parents’ Malibu home without so much as a business plan (“we didn’t know anything,” she recalled). Then a recent graduate from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, she and her husband Tom Bugbee built their business from the ground up, and put having a family on hold for ten years as they poured “90% of their time” into the venture.
A floral gown by Monique Lhuillier. Credit: Monique Lhuillier/Rizzoli
At the time, Lhuillier, who was born and raised in the Philippines and later lived in Switzerland, was inspired by a sense of “California ease,” she writes in a new book charting her 25-year career. Her early designs offered romantic, modern silhouettes that were close-cut to the body and embellished with unexpected details, from colorful sashes to blush veils.
However, the brand was not, Lhuillier recalled, an instant runaway success. As she raced between bridal fairs and trunk shows, ringing up anyone who would sell her label’s gowns — all while running a Beverly Hills store and developing new designs — there was no time to work with Hollywood stylists. And anyway, the pair “didn’t realize the power of celebrity dressing,” she said.
Angelina Jolie wearing Monique Lhuillier at the 2002 Golden Globes, accompanied by Billy-Bob Thornton. Credit: Gregg DeGuire/WireImage/Getty Images
That all changed in 2002, however, when Angelina Jolie asked to wear one of her dresses to the Golden Globes. The elegant look was not a cream, beige or white, but rather a black strapless dress paired with a shawl and pearl necklace. Then, the following year, the brand stepped into the spotlight when Lhuillier made a wedding dress for a “mega celebrity” for the first time: Britney Spears.
Spears was splashed across every magazine at the time. Having famously kissed Madonna at the VMAs then married Jason Allen Alexander — only to have the union annulled 55 hours later — she then announced a surprise engagement to backup dancer Kevin Federline.
In search of a dress for the wedding, a friend and stylist of Spears contacted Lhuillier and set up a series of meetings in secret locations to avoid paparazzi hounding the singer. It made giving Spears the “whole experience of a bride” difficult, the designer recalled, as she couldn’t just show up to her atelier.
Monique Lhuillier’s ready-to-wear collection, showcased during Paris Spring/Summer Fashion Week in 2017. Credit: Monique Lhuillier/Rizzoli
“I didn’t just bring her two dresses, I showed her what I would show (all of) my brides, so she could feel like she really had the (typical bridal) experience,” Lhuillier said, explaining how the label crafted the custom lace, accessories and a veil for Spears, as well as the dress.
Lhuillier was also tasked with making a “fun and flirty” reception dress, and gowns for the entire wedding party, to a strict color palette. She was given six weeks to design and produce it all, an enormous task given she was also preparing to show a ready-to-wear collection at New York Fashion Week.
When the press found out about the nuptials, the pressure mounted.
“The day before my show, I got a phone call from her team,” she recalled. “They said, ‘People are finding out about it, so we need to make the wedding happen sooner, so now you will have three weeks.’
“(I told them) ‘OK, we’ll get it done. Don’t worry.’ But inside, I was dying.”
Designer Monique Lhuillier attending a 2018 gala. Credit: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images
Somehow, she pulled it off. Photos of the nuptials were splashed across magazines and the internet, with Spears’ white silk gown, embroidered train and floor-sweeping veil taking the spotlight. Soon, more of her ready-to-wear items were appearing on celebrity red carpets, and Lhuillier “could feel the momentum” when people finally started getting her French surname right — loo-lee-ei.
“It helped that people understood how to pronounce our name; it helped hearing that multiple times on the (red) carpet. It really cemented our name, and the idea of Monique Lhuillier and glamour.”
A quarter century on
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the brand remains proudly independent, with Lhuillier as creative director and Bugbee as CEO. Their gowns — and now furniture and jewelry, among much else — are American-made, so the designer can remain “hands on.” (“It’s not the least expensive way to do it, but it’s how I like to work,” she said.)
Taylor Swift wearing Monique Lhuillier in 2014. Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Lhuillier is now more attuned to the power of celebrity, and has an employee in charge of VIP requests. The likes of Taylor Swift, Kaley Cuoco, Heidi Klum and Elizabeth Banks have all turned to her for major events, while Carrie Underwood and Lea Michele have tapped her for their dream wedding dresses. Reese Witherspoon, a close friend of Lhuillier’s, wore a white gown and blush satin sash by the designer for her second wedding, to Jim Toth, in 2011. In the foreword to Lhuillier’s new book, Witherspoon wrote: “(Monique) understands why women want to wear something that makes them feel beautiful and how her creations will become a part of the fabric of their lives.” Indeed, Lhuillier’s knack for understanding what women want to wear during life-changing moments remains astute, with her self-described “whimsical” new collection focusing on floral prints, colors and shorter hemlines. But the pandemic damaged her business, as brides around the world turned to Zoom fittings and scaled down their plans. With more time to herself over lockdown, the designer kept busy with a new fine jewelry line. Created in collaboration with retailer Kay Jewelers, it is a project close to Lhuillier’s heart, as her grandfather was a jeweler.
The book cover for Monique Lhuillier’s new book, a retrospective of her career published by Rizzoli. Credit: Monique Lhuillier/Rizzoli
“Fine jewelry, for me, was a natural (progression). It’s a part of the story. Without a ring, there’s no dress,” she said, adding that each piece is engraved with a short message from her.
Figuring out what comes next is a tall order, especially as she’s already shown at Paris Fashion week, been awarded a Presidential Medal of Merit by former Philippines president Gloria Arroyo and received a stamp of approval from US First Ladies Michelle Obama and Melania Trump. Lhuillier said that, as an immigrant who has lived in the US for nearly 35 years, it was “an honor” to dress the women of the White House.
First Lady Michelle Obama wearing Monique Lhuillier in 2014, alongside her husband President Barack Obama. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
The designer, who lived in the Philippines until she was 14, said she carries the country’s “kindness” and “traditions” with her to this day. Describing herself as a “citizen of the world,” she said: “It was a gift to be raised in Asia… picking up all these cultures and bringing family (back) was always the most important thing.”
Designer Monique Lhuillier (second from the left) with models wearing her Spring 2019 Bridal collection. Credit: Monique Lhuillier/Rizzoli
Yet, rather than creating Filipiniana-inspired designs, she believes that “good design transcends so many different cultures.”
“I set out to build this brand to make women feel empowered and make them feel beautiful.”