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On the A-list

Times Staff Writer

For years, people struggled to pronounce her name. But no more. L.A.'s Monique Lhuillier (loo-lee-ay) has become a force not only on the runway but the red carpet too.

Her collection, presented Tuesday, was her most confident yet and her most refined. Inspired by the jewels of the maharajah, evening wear came in spicy shades of plum, olive, mustard, magenta and brown, embellished with semiprecious stones. A paisley halter gown was anchored with a harness of chunky jewels, while a black lace cocktail gown with a feather-flecked skirt featured tulle shoulder ties. For daytime, Lhuillier gave sportswear an elegant twist, offering a mustard taffeta shirt dress, and a plum metallic tweed skirt suit trimmed in fox fur and cinched at the waist with a ribbon, tied in a neat bow.

“She’s becoming an important designer for us,” said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director for Neiman Marcus. “Her look is ageless, and she knows how to make the figure look good.”

Lhuillier started her business in 1996 as a bridal house, creating sleek, modern designs. But over the last four years, she’s expanded into evening wear, taken the collection to New York Fashion Week, and attracted a celebrity following that includes Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Connolly, Diane Lane, Virginia Madsen, Sarah Jessica Parker and Allison Janney.

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“Her clothes are feminine and interesting and special, but they don’t make women look like they are trying too hard,” said Cindi Lieve, editor in chief of Glamour magazine. “That’s something a lot of actresses can relate to because they live in fear of being [fashion] don’ts.”

Her most famous celebrity client may be Britney Spears, who married Kevin Federline in September in a custom Lhuillier creation, a strapless mermaid gown with pearl buttons and a train covered in crystals and sewn with platinum thread.

The way the designer tells the story, she received a phone call from the pop star’s “people” not long after Spears announced her engagement. “The caller mentioned a celeb who wanted a wedding dress but wouldn’t say who,” Lhuillier, 33, said at her downtown L.A. studio recently. “I told them we don’t set up appointments if we don’t know who we’re setting them up with.”

After a confidentiality agreement was reached, Lhuillier met Spears at a secret location, arriving with 40 dresses in tow. “I thought she was going to try them all on and play dress-up, but she made a quick decision. We worked with one of the first designs she tried, exaggerating it and putting more beading on it.”

To protect her privacy, Spears did not disclose the date of the wedding, even to Lhuillier. So it came as a surprise when, during Fashion Week in September, the designer got a call indicating that Spears needed not only her wedding dress but dresses for the entire wedding party -- in a week. “I stopped everything and we managed to do it,” said Lhuillier.

After the wedding, the designer, who lives in Beverly Hills not far from her boutique on Little Santa Monica Boulevard, was besieged with press requests. “I had been doing what in my mind were beautiful dresses for years, but all of a sudden people were calling me,” she said. Although customers have not requested Spears’ dress, they have asked for the “Camelot” gown Lhuillier made last fall for Christine Baumgartner (Mrs. Kevin Costner). The strapless ivory satin ball gown has a sweetheart neckline and a “whipped cream” skirt with multiple bustles and handmade flower accents.

The youngest daughter of a Filipino mother and a French father, Lhuillier spent her childhood in Cebu, a city in the southern part of the Philippines. After attending boarding school in Switzerland, she moved to Los Angeles to go to college, following her brother and two older sisters. After discovering she had the fashion bug, Lhuillier enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.

The idea to start a bridal line came out of Lhuillier’s experience shopping for her own gown when she married at age 22. Looking back now at a photograph of her wedding at the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey, she said the frothy dress with a poufy lace skirt wasn’t her. “It was so traditional and conservative.”

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Her husband, Tom Bugbee, a former consultant at Deloitte & Touche, turned out to be a perfect business partner. The dress that put her on the map was a simple bias cut gown with a shoestring tie across the back. It was named the “Laura” after the model who wore it in a company advertisement. “I think that’s still our No. 1 seller,” said Bugbee.

Lhuillier moved into evening wear as stores began to request the “Laura” in other colors. Now, she designs over-the-top wedding dresses, as well as gowns with more simple silhouettes.

Petite, with a long mane of brown hair, Lhuillier speaks with a slight accent and always with urgency. Although she travels to New York at least once a month, she likes having her business in L.A., where she is “detached from the industry.” Recently, she and Bugbee moved the company offices downtown, where their desks are on opposite ends of the 16,000-square-foot space. “We started off sharing an L-shape desk, but that didn’t work out too well,” said Bugbee.

One of his jobs is to keep Lhuillier’s creativity in check. “He tells me that I can do three outrageous pieces, but the rest of the collection needs to be salable,” Lhuillier explained. “I hear that speech a lot. And he gets very involved when it comes to pricing and resources.”

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Lhuillier’s clothes are less expensive than those by designers such as Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera. Dresses retail from about $2,000 to $10,000, although bridal gowns like Spears’ can cost much more.

On weekends Lhuillier likes to go shopping for Chloe, Prada, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. And she’s never without her Hermes Birkin bag.

“I go to lunch with girlfriends at Barneys and get my nails done.” She recently picked up several pairs of Christian Louboutin wedge espadrilles for spring.

“I think she bought every color,” Bugbee joked.

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“No, I returned one because I didn’t think I needed five pairs,” she said with an eye roll.

Her favorite part of her work is putting a collection together and seeing it come alive on the runway. After New York Fashion Week, she will head to a fabric show in Paris to shop for her next collection, then to London for a three-day trunk show at Browns. “And to Portobello Road where hopefully I will find something to inspire the next collection!” she said.

Lhuillier has boutiques in L.A. and Minneapolis. Her line is also sold in Saks, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. Plans include more stores, licensed shoes, handbags, furs and a fragrance.

“We would love to have more than just gowns, but we don’t want to try to be everything to everyone,” said Bugbee.

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When asked about becoming a West Coast Vera Wang, at the helm of a bridal and evening wear empire, Lhuillier demurs. “I enjoy designing,” she said. “Whatever form it takes is fine with me.”


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