Monique Lhuillier Branches Out

Monique Lhuillier’s career seems as magical as her latest fairy-tale bridal collection, which floated down the runway in New York during the recent Bridal Fashion Week.

Lhuillier has become the go-to girl for dressing Hollywood’s elite for the red carpet and many well-heeled ladies for matrimony. She dressed America Ferrera for her win at the Emmy Awards in September and Kate Walsh for her recent wedding nuptials. Reese Witherspoon, Jessica Alba and Scarlett Johansson are fans of her ready-to-wear line.

But Lhuillier’s story wasn’t created just by waving a magic wand—and her success did not come overnight. The designer has been building her brand since 1996, when she and her husband and chief executive officer of the company, Tom Bugbee, first launched the bridal collection in Los Angeles.

The company is now on the expansion path with a recently opened new store on Los Angeles’ tony Melrose Place, a newly launched handbag collection and a table-top collection set to debut at retail in January.

Catching up with Lhuillier is a feat in itself. The past two months have been a whirlwind of activity. She debuted her Spring ready-to-wear on the runway in New York, opened the new boutique in Los Angeles and returned to New York for her bridal runway show, a launch party for her china collection and to shoot her ’08 ad campaign. Now Lhuillier, may just have a moment to catch her breath.

The designer, who has brought a modern glamour to bridalwear, is looking to expand her brand of style. “We want to be a complete lifestyle brand, and that doesn’t only mean what [the customer’s] closet looks like but how she surrounds herself,” said Lhuillier, explaining the launch of both the china and handbag collections.

Lhuillier is envisioning shoes, a fragrance and more stores in the future. She and Bugbee plan to open a store in New York in the next two years. It’s not a plan for the fast track, but the designer’s approach has always been step by step.

For the first five years, Lhuillier specialized in bridal and built a strong, solid reputation. She next added eveningwear and then expanded into ready-to-wear in 2003. The line is now sold at Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, and 170 specialty and department stores worldwide.

Internationally, the collection is available at luxury stores, including Holt Renfrew in Russia, Harrods in London and Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong. And although brand expansion is the current order of the day, Lhuillier has maintained her focus on special-occasion dressing. “It’s not like I design dresses or clothes to wear to the office. It’s for that special lunch or cocktails; it’s still for a very specific customer,” she said. Lhuillier’s customer is fashion-savvy, appreciates luxury and is concerned more about how the garment looks on her rather than whether it follows the current trends.

Moving to MelroseThe chic new boutique on Melrose Place sets the tone for her quality-driven customer. After outgrowing her previous space in Beverly Hills, Lhuillier found the cozy, private feeling of Melrose Place to be a perfect fit for her brides-to-be and high-profile clientele. “Instantly, we loved the street,” Lhuillier said. “We thought it is such a charming street and it would be perfect for our new home.”

Melrose Place has become a destination in itself with a designer lineup that includes Marc Jacobs, Carolina Herrera and Marni and soon will house a new boutique by Vera Wang. Lhuillier’s store anchors one end of the street and is highly visible from La Cienega Boulevard. It took a year to revamp the place and lots of elbow grease to transform the former antique emporium into the elegant 4,200-square-foot boutique.

Lhuillier celebrated the opening on Oct. 10 with a fancy fecirc;te and a bevy of stars. California’s first lady, Maria Shriver, stopped by to celebrate with Lhuillier as did burlesque performer Dita von Teese and actresses Michelle Trachtenberg and Rebecca Gayheart.

Decorated in a warm palette of taupe and gray accented by custom-designed smoky cut-crystal chandeliers and embossed lizardskin wallpaper, the serene ambience of the boutique is patterned after Lhuillier and Bugbee’s home. The furnishings are a mixture of French and American vintage pieces from the 1940s, ’60s and ’70s. Custom pieces were inspired by early- and mid-century designers, including Denmark’s Poul Norkell, Karl Springer and Donald Desky.

At nearly double the size of her Beverly Hills digs, the new space is able to accommodate many more offerings. Fifteen percent of the store is devoted to handbags and giftwares, and the rest is divided equally among the wedding gowns, fancy party frocks and red-carpet hopefuls that line the racks of the luxurious space. The elegant new store has a spacious grand salon and six large fitting rooms.

New marketsThe opening event marked the launch of Lhuillier’s handbag collection and a preview of her tabletop collection. The china, crystal, flatware and stemware will be available exclusively at the Melrose Place boutique and Bloomingdale’s for the first three months. It is priced competitively, with china place settings retailing from $130 to $200 and crystal at $40 and up.

The capsule collection of handbags is a test run for Lhuillier. “I’ve always wanted to dress a woman from head to toe, so that’s a nice way of testing it out to see if it would work,” she said. The collection includes nine limited-edition styles made from exotic skins with subtle details such as pleating and beading on the clasp. The handbags update traditional styles with a modern twist.

“I didn’t want these bags to be too precious or too delicate,” she said. With retail price tags of $1,000 to $3,000, the bags are designed for Lhuillier’s high-end customer. The average bridal gown sale is $6,000. Evening gowns start at $2,500, and ready-towear starts at $700.

Shifting the mixIn the past, bridal sales have accounted for 60 percent of Lhuillier’s business, and ready to-wear and eveningwear made up the remaining 40 percent. But Lhuillier is hoping that with the additional space available to devote to the ready-to-wear and evening collections, sales for those categories will increase. In the previous Beverly Hills location, more space was delegated to the bridal side of the business.

“We feel like now that it’s given its fair share, it will maybe surpass it one day,” Lhuillier said. “And customers have several events—there’s a lot more that they can dress in with our ready-to-wear and evening collection. Brides get married once,” she said.