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Drawing attention at the altar as well as the red carpet



Published: Fri, January 21, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The designer says her mother's glamorous style was her lifelong inspiration.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Monique Lhuillier has quickly gone from fashion fan to bridal designer to red carpet sensation.

That jade goddess gown on Diane Lane at the Golden Globes? It was hers. Britney Spears' strapless, princess mermaid wedding dress? Another Lhuillier frock.

You can't quite call her an overnight success, though: The petite Lhuillier, who was raised in the Philippines, has been interested in fashion as long as any 33-year-old could be. She says her mother's glamorous style has been a lifelong inspiration and Paris and Los Angeles have been her favorite cities for as long as she can remember. She knew in high school that she wanted to pursue a fashion career, so when it came time for college, Los Angeles' Institute of Design and Merchandise was an easy choice. Her studies focused on bridal and eveningwear.

Pampered bride

She got engaged soon after she graduated and, once she began shopping for herself, saw there was room in the market for modern-yet-sophisticated styles. Lhuillier ended up buying the gown she wore when she married Tom Bugbee -- "I wanted to be pampered as a bride," she says -- but she went into business soon after.

Lhuillier says she loves the intimacy of working with young women who are excited, nervous and in love all at once. "With bridal, I feel a huge responsibility for my customers. I really feel like when the whole event is done they're my friends. We bond that much. It's beyond the dress; I'm responsible for making their dreams come true."

In 1996, she made a sample collection of eight gowns and brought them to a trade show. She picked up five stores right away. Six months later, and with another trade show under her belt, Lhuillier began to build up a following, and Bugbee decided to leave his auditor's job at Deloitte & amp; Touche and take over the financial side of the company.

Team work

She says their skills complement each other.

"I don't know the business side of things," Lhuillier explains. "I hear about it, but he makes the decisions."

He adds: "But, she'll speak up. And I will too if I see something missing from the collection. Sometimes she listens, sometimes not. But when I get involved in the creative side, it's an ad or a photo shoot. The dresses really are Monique's thing."

The decision to stay on the West Coast, however, was a joint one.

The couple had considered moving to New York when they began to feel confident that they'd be in the fashion business for a while, but, says Bugbee, it was a fleeting thought.

Turns out that being in Los Angeles was a good thing.

The right choice

"I feel that since we're here, celebrities have the opportunity to work one on one with me. Sometimes they want a custom dress in a week and we don't lose any time since I'm physically here. I can go to fittings and make adjustments," Lhuillier says.

She added eveningwear in 2000 and opened her own store. Those moves paid off since Lhuillier says Hollywood stylists started to show an interest in her work around the same time -- but that's not why she did them. "I just got tired of working just in white and ivory. I wanted to work in color!" she says.

All in a name

Her first major red-carpet credits came at the 2002 Golden Globes when Angelina Jolie wore a strapless black satin mermaid gown and "Judging Amy's" Amy Brenneman wore a black and white beaded outfit.

"Amy was stopped (on the red carpet) because she was a nominee and she mentioned my name a lot," Lhuillier says.

The next steps for Lhuillier, who had started selling to national high-end retailers Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, were catwalk shows during New York Fashion Week and the addition of ready-to-wear. She plans to be in Manhattan again in February armed with even more daytime looks.

Her spring collection ranged from tropical-print chiffon gowns and gold glitter camisoles to a belted white linen short trench and a white linen pencil skirt.

Michael Fink, senior fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, says that unlike many up-and-comers, Lhuillier has a clear vision of her customer -- a woman with a clean, modern sensibility. Her collection "really filled a void," Fink says, and her expansion means that this woman has stylish clothes for all occasions.

"Her signature use of lace is amazing," adds Fink.

She says she does her best work not when she's sketching on paper but when she starts draping fabric on a fit model. (When money was short early in her career, Lhuillier doubled as her fit model but since she's only 5 feet 2 inches tall, she'd have to stand on a chair.)

"The advantage of being a woman designer is that I can ask, 'Would I wear that?"'

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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