Up Close and Personal with Monique Lhuillier

Inside Weddings editor-in-chief chats with designer Monique Lhuillier.

On July 23, 2003, we sat down with Monique Lhuillier to talk about life, love, and weddings. Her husband and business partner, Tom Bugbee, was nearby. Started in 1996, at the age of 24, Monique Lhuillier has become a leading designer of bridal gowns and evening wear. Here's what she had to say:

WS: How did you and your husband Tom meet?
ML: Oh, my best friend was dating Tom's roommate and she said, "I think you should meet – I should really set you up." And, then we double-dated and after three months they broke up, and, Tom and I were still going strong. I was having so much fun, so I said, "You know what, my brother's coming into town, let me introduce you to my brother." I introduced her to my brother. She married my brother a year and a half later and then I married Tom a year after that. So, now we're all related.

WS: How long did you date before you got married?
ML: Four years.

WS: And, how long was your engagement?
ML: A year.

WS: What made you fall in love with Tom?
ML: So many things! Where do I begin? First of all, there was a lot of chemistry between us from the get-go. We had a lot of things in common. Our families are similar. The first time we met, we talked for five hours straight and then we had so much more to talk about. It was great. Probably on our second date, we knew we were going to get married. He was kind and he spoke well of his family. He was also very driven – he had direction in life, and I like that, and he was very social. He had everything I was looking for.

WS: What was your wedding like?
ML: It was very traditional. We had our reception at The Ritz-Carlton, Marina Del Rey. It was a little chaotic because the first place we were going to get married was at the Good Shepherd church here in Beverly Hills and then we had this big earthquake.

When we were planning the decorations and all that stuff, they said, "Oh, scaffolding will be up, so you can't use the side aisles, you can only use the center aisle." And, so, they started putting up all these restrictions and I couldn't have that. So, we contacted Loyola Marymount, where we originally wanted to get married, because it meant so much to Tom and the church there is so beautiful. And they made an exception for us. So, we got married at the church at Loyola Marymount overlooking the ocean. And, that's why we chose Marina del Rey because it was much closer. You know, The Ritz-Carlton is like a 10-minute drive from the church.

WS: Was there a theme to the wedding?
ML: No. It was so understated. It was just very elegant and traditional. The arrangements were tall and just full, and lots and lots of flowers. And, I used ivories and light pinks. I love pink.

WS: Nice. Were there any surprises at your wedding?
ML: The open bar bill at the end. No, I'm kidding (laughs).

I'm not kidding (laughing). Any surprises? I don't know, I've been married for eight years now.

WS: Anything you would have done differently?
ML: Yes, I would have made it less about the hooplah and more about us, more intimate. I mean, we had 450 people, and we were trying to keep it a small wedding. That's the only reason I didn't want to get married in the Philippines. If I got married at home, I mean it was going to be a circus. My two brothers got married before me and both weddings had 550 people. You don't really know everybody at all. I didn't want that, I wanted to get married here where we didn't know as many people. And yet, I still felt like I didn't know all the guests. It was so traditional and more geared to what our parents wanted, and, you have to also remember that we were much younger and our parents were paying for it. And more formal, I guess, it was very formal. Then the two nights before, we entertained all of our out of town guests and we had several events before the big day. I liked that part. I wouldn't change that, I just would have made it a little more intimate.

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WS: If I understand it correctly, you decided to become a fashion designer early in life.
ML: Yes.

WS: When you were still in high school?
ML: Yes, because I was crazy for clothes. 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. Also, 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.

WS: Then your interest in bridal gowns peaked when you met and married Tom.
ML: Yes.

WS: Why was that?
ML: First of all, I also made the bridal gowns for my sisters-in-law before that. But, I only did that because they, you know, they asked me to, and I really enjoyed designing gowns. And my debut project in school was a wedding theme. So, it interested me, I really enjoyed working on it, but I didn't know that an industry out there existed. I thought you just went to a tailor and had it made. But when I was looking for a gown, I realized that there was so much more out there and this whole wedding business existed and then that's how I decided I wanted to be part of it. And, so, that was the introduction.

WS: Got it. So, you designed your mother's gown for your wedding and your bridesmaid's gown. But you didn't design your own gown.
ML: No.

WS: Which gown did you choose?
ML: I bought a Ron LoVece gown from a local store and the reason I didn't make my own dress is because I wanted to be pampered and I wanted the whole experience of being the bride, and going in and, so that's why I went that route.

Because I play for everybody else. If I had to do it again, I would have made my own dress, and I would have changed it. I would have made it more fun and less traditional. I mean, I had an off the shoulder gown with lace, lots of lace and flowers. And, I felt like a princess that day. But, you know, when I was shopping for the dress I had family members with me.  I was young and they looked at me as their little princess getting married. So, I really looked like a princess that day. But, I would have done it differently now, if I was an older bride. But I must say that I did feel special and pretty that day, so it worked in the end. It was a good thing.

WS: It was a good thing. Now, you launched your company in 1996 out of your home.
ML: Yes, in Malibu.

WS: Tell me about that experience.
ML: Frustrating, you know what I mean? You're so isolated at home, and you're trying to be creative, and it takes so long to get something done. You know, you have to run out to get the fabric, and then go and have the pattern made. Then, you know, have them cut and sewn, all the way in Malibu. It was just very isolating and a little frustrating, but it was a beginning.

WS: Why Los Angeles? What are the challenges being a designer in Southern California?
ML: Well, the thing is that I started in Los Angeles. I graduated from design school, then I got married, so I thought that's what you do, you stay in the town where you're from. So, I'm from here and, it was just the easy thing to do. Then when I started designing and I did some research to see where I could show the collection, it took me to Las Vegas. After three seasons, I realized New York is the place to be. So, after saying that, I realized that being here is an advantage to your lifestyle, but it is a deterrent – a little bit – to be a West Coast designer.

WS: What do you mean?
ML: I think that 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.

WS: But you're doing exceedingly well now.
ML: Yes. That's true and I'm fortunate. But, I think that if I was based in New York things would have happened maybe faster.

I'm not saying it's impossible. I'm just saying it's harder. And, now I'm finding that as things are kicking in I need to be in New York more often. So, even if I don't live there my presence there needs to be a little stronger.

WS: So, you're traveling more?
ML: Yes, I'm traveling more.

WS: Now, Tom is a very supportive husband and has headed the company since 1997.
ML: Yes.

WS: What's it like running a company together?
ML: Well, in the beginning it was a challenge because, remember when I started, I was alone with three people and I was in control, and I'm a Virgo. So, apparently, we like to be creative and in control all the time. And, so, when he came, it was a joint decision because I didn't have all those finance and business skills. I didn't have that background. I had a lot of street smarts maybe and a lot of, design skills. So when he came it was a good decision, but at the same time, the first six months were a struggle for me to let go and let him do his thing. So, it was shaky a little bit in the beginning. But, now I look back and I don't want to have any part of the business side because I can't do both. You know what I mean? And, this way, my creations can be fresh and untainted because I don't have to hear the business side, and, you know the marketing side, and the employee side. It's like, you know, I get to do my thing and have fun without being pulled in so many directions.

WS: How do you two resolve conflicts?
ML: Communication. We just talk it over and hammer everything out. But, we never go to bed upset. And, we try not to talk about business past ten o'clock.

WS: Yeah, the strength of your relationship seems to be in the fact that you like each other.
ML: Oh, yeah.

WS: You genuinely like each other.
ML: And we respect each other. You know, he does what he does really well. And, he respects me. I have my opinions in design arid he lets me do my thing, except if the fabrics are too expensive and it's not any more salable, then he steps in sometimes. But, for the most part, we really make a good team.

WS: Do you think that's what makes your marriage work?
ML: I think that aside from being great business partners and all that stuff and we respect each other, I think that deep down inside we really love each other. So, I feel like there's that balance. It's not all about business.

WS: How do you get through the rough moments?
ML: I would say it's communication. If I'm upset, I really say it. Now, I don't hold a grudge much longer than, I don't know, a couple of hours. I blow up and then, it's like, oh, yeah, next, "What do you want for lunch?" You know what I mean? Because we don't take it so personally. You know, it's a business thing and then you're over it.

WS: And he can do that as well?
ML: Oh, yeah. He's a very good communicator. He didn't used to be, but he is now. (Laughs.)

WS: What changed that?
ML: I think just being together so many hours in the day. Before when he used to be upset in the very beginning, he'd just keep quiet and keep it to himself, and then, you know, couldn't let it go. But, now we like to voice everything out. We're very opinionated now. And, usually, we always come to the same conclusion.

WS: You know, with your hectic schedule, designing collections, going to trunk shows, traveling to New York, how do the demands on your time effect your marriage?
ML: Well, Walt, I don't know if you know, I can't do everything by myself (laughs). You know, we're in New York, and Tom maybe can go to the office and do business stuff. And, I'm like, "Well, who's going to take me to my appointments? I don't know how to get from 39th to 40th." I don't know that stuff. You know, and in the meantime, I'm just waiting, so he brings me to all my appointments, even if he has to leave me there. I'm not very independent. I really like to hold onto that. I'm still kind of being taken care of at the same time. So, there's never been a trip that I've gone to New York by myself in all these years. I mean, even if there's so much here to do, he drops it and we go together. Oh, we go everywhere together. I maybe have done one trip without him to Chicago.

WS: Do you find it hard to make time just for yourselves?
ML: Harder, but you know, we just say we have to. We probably do it three times a year when we go to Europe or we go to an island somewhere and we drop everything for a week and then we just say, "Oh, if we lose something in that," we just have to take the time. We need to go. But, you know, we have so many good people who work for us that it's usually nothing.

WS: What do you like to do when you have a break?
ML: I like to shop, which still involves the work. Oh, my God! (Laughs.) I love to shop. I love to go to restaurants and eat out. And, then I love to do some more shopping. Sometimes, when we're in Europe, we go to the countryside and catch up with family. You know, talking, drinking wine, playing tennis. I like being around people. So, since we don't get a lot of time, free time, whatever we do, we try and meet family.

WS: I think you should. What's your favorite destination? What's your favorite city?
ML: Oh, gosh. I love going to Paris and I go three times a year. So, I must say that's probably my favorite. I also really enjoy going to, like, a remote island, where there's no phones, no computers, no nothing. So, we went to the Caribbean and I enjoyed that.

WS: What's your favorite hotel?
ML: Oh, my God! My favorite hotel? The Ritz in Paris.

WS: And your favorite restaurant?
ML: Okay. Tom, where do we love to eat? Oh, I know, Nobu in Malibu. One of our favorite restaurants. Right? We love to eat there.

WS: What's your favorite store?
ML: Neiman Marcus!

WS: What do you do for fun?
ML: What do I do for fun? Oh, gosh, have dinner with friends. That's really what we do for fun.

WS: Do you have any hobbies?
ML: I feel like, you know, I spend most of my free time thinking up designs and stuff, and if not, I'm out with girlfriends eating and talking. I don't have time for something else. But, I would really like to start tennis lessons or something like that. I feel like I should be outdoors more.

WS: What's your favorite movie?
ML: Oh, my God! Movie?

Wait. Grease.

WS: Grease?
ML: I loved Grease.

WS: Your favorite book?
ML: I'm not going to tell you the shallow books I'm reading. (Laughs.)

WS: How about your favorite record?
ML: It's a toss up, because I really enjoy Enya and I also really like Moby's new album. It's a toss up for both of them.

WS: (Laughs.) Which designer or what styles influence you the most? A couture designer?
ML: A lot of the couture houses in Paris influence me a lot, but I'd say I like the work of Karl Lagerfeld, good design  and the amazing staying power he has to be in fashion, always pushing it along, and being able to create for different houses, and maintain the identity of the house rather than him. I really look up to him. Also, Valentino. I love Valentino. His styles. He really understands women and makes them look beautiful. And, then the American designers, say Oscar de la Renta is one of my favorites. So, if you notice, they all have one thing in common, which is they like dressing the society ladies, the girls who really understand glamour and chicness. I feel it's like my customers. I'd like to feel like I'm the next generation of these talents. (Laughs.)

WS: You've designed a lot of gowns and clothing for celebrities. What was the most enjoyable or unique experience?
ML: Well, the thing is, a lot of the time I deal with their stylist, so I don't really work with a lot of them one on one. I can judge by their figures what I think will look good on them. So, I treat the celebrities just like other customers, they want to look their best, and I put myself in their shoes. So, if I was going to this event what would I want to wear? What would I want to highlight? So, the only difference is that sometimes for them you have to work three days in advance and they need the dress tomorrow or the day after. So, there's just a little bit of that pressure and knowing that you're up against so many other dresses. That's the stressful part, but all the other things stay the same.

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WS: What advice do you have for brides that are selecting their gowns today?
ML: First, I would say if you're shopping for your wedding gown, keep an open mind and keep your budget in mind. I feel like those girls who are looking at $8,000 dresses and, honestly, only want to spend $3,000, are going to be torturing themselves in the end, thinking they didn't get what they really wanted. So, I feel that they need to keep that in mind, too. If you have a true budget, if you know the maximum you can spend is $3,000, why look at $8,000 dresses? I feel like, in every price point you'll find something beautiful. So, I don't feel you should over extend yourself.

And, another thing I would tell brides is that the first time you look, go with an open mind and, don't go with too many people because everybody has an opinion, and I feel like you should do some of the research on your own, to really try on a lot of silhouettes. Maybe, on your second trip, bring one close friend or your mother and then show them your picks, but don't have them involved the first time when they do influence you too much. What else? Be true to yourself and purchase a dress that makes you feel the prettiest and look more like your personal style and at the end of the day you need to be happy in your dress, so don't listen to everyone around you. Oh, and also, go to a reputable salon with a solid reputation. It is an important and expensive decision and you don't want to trust it to just anyone. If you are buying from a designer, try to go to their salon, that way they will make sure it's right.

WS: Why do bridal gowns cost what they do?
ML: Well, the workmanship in a bridal gown is part of that battle. It's like, there's the design factor, but then all the work that goes into putting the gown together will reflect into the price. We use better fabrics. They're primarily imported silk and also a lot of the beading is only done by hand. So, all of that, add to the hours that goes into the garment, and as you know, time is money.

WS: Any mistakes that you find brides regularly make that you would warn them against?
ML: (Pause.) The reason it's taking me longer to answer is because a lot of the time, I'm already detached from them when they come to their fittings, so I'm trying to think about what are the most common mistakes. I think a lot of the brides continue looking even after they've selected their gown and they start their fitting process. I think you should stop looking at wedding dresses, because sometimes you keep on looking and it just complicates things. You change your mind and then you want something else, and then you just get confused.

WS: At a certain point you just have to decide and let go of the decision.
ML: Let go and know that it's right for you.

WS: Feel confident.
ML: Exactly. You've made the right decision and now you're looking forward to the day and all that stuff. But, you have to stop and let go of the search. Some women love looking at wedding dresses and all. Two months before the wedding and they've chosen a gown and every fitting they come in for, they're still going through the racks and selecting more, it just makes them unhappy, because then they start second guessing their dress, and, if anything goes wrong with the fitting or some other plans are not going smoothly at the wedding, then they take it out on the dress, and then it just causes more stress then needed. So, that's my advice.

WS: How has it changed your life to have a name that is now recognized certainly nationally, if not internationally?
ML: Oh, it's flattering when people stop when you pay with your credit card, and people are like, "Oh, you know, I've heard of that name before." You know, "Don't they make beautiful dresses?" So, it's very flattering and then it makes you also, give yourself a pat on the shoulder saying that all this hard work pays off. Sometimes you can't see the big picture, because you're always looking at season to season to season, and where we're going to go, and then for them to recognize me, it just gives you the confidence to know that you're doing something right and you're getting somewhere and it makes you more motivated to keep going, I guess.

WS: Did that fame change anything?
ML: The only thing it does which I don't like so much is that it takes so much of our personal time to build the company, so our friends have to be so understanding because we see less and less of them. And, so they're the ones that I sacrifice seeing, you know. But, then I think you have to give up things and if you love what you're doing, and can make a living out of it and you know, every day wake up and say you love what you do.

WS: That's pretty terrific. What does the future hold for Monique Lhuillier?
ML: Oh, lots. I hope. I started in bridal, but as you know, the last two and half years, I have also incorporated evening wear into the collection and the business has really grown tremendously, and I feel like bridal will still be growing, but with evening wear, I've just began to tap that market and I feel like we can still grow that business. So, I think that's a great step for us and after that I would like to start a shoe line, a handbag line. I've been offered to do a line of furs. I'm not ready yet, but I'll be interested. And, then maybe another store, a flagship store in Manhattan. I'd love to open a store there. And, down the line from that, I'd like to have a fragrance. But, so much has to be done before that point.

WS: What are your fears?
ML: Fears? I have fears. I mean, I don't really have fears, but I must say that every time we take a step forward, and everything changes, I always tell myself, "Fashion is so fickle, you're only as good as your last collection." So, maybe that's the part that I find the most challenging because I feel like even if you've done so much to get to a certain point, you're bound to trip a little, not every collection will be as strong, and I always fear that two bad collections in a row would really set me back.

WS: Is that what drives you? What motivates you?
ML: What motivates me? I guess, I want to push myself and I want to feel like every collection I do out does the last one, and I want to feel good every single time. I want to feel like, even to me, "Oh, wow!" You know, I can feel the difference in my designs. I want them to always be evolving. The moment I stop growing, then I don't want to be with this anymore. And, then I'll have my baby.

That is the plan, by the way. (Laughs.) We have a very close knit family on both sides and, so I would say in the next two years we would like to start a family and that's another challenge. And, actually, now that you've dug that hole, that's a fear. (Walt laughing in background.) The fear of starting a family and what if I lose my focus. So, that's a fear. What if that will be a priority and it will effect the business, so all that stuff is going on in my head. But, I've seen a lot of women do it, so maybe that's just me being a weirdo, trying to be a control freak.

WS: And you own your own company, so you're able to determine your own future.
ML: Yes. That's a good thing too, isn't it?

WS: That's a very good thing.