Born Diane Monique Lhuillier, c. 1971, in Cebu City, Cebu, Philippines; daughter of Michel (a jeweler and real estate investor) and Amparito (a real estate investor) Lhuillier; married Tom Bugbee (a retail executive), 1996; children: Jack Nicholas. Education: Graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, 1995.
Began career as designer with Melivier; launched eponymous bridal design company, 1996; opened first retail store in Beverly Hills, CA, 2001; launched home-furnishings, fine china, and handbag lines, 2007.
Monique Lhuillier’s understated but luxurious bridal designs have earned her a devoted clientele since she launched her business in 1996. Her second line of eveningwear has also garnered accolades and an impressive roster of clients, including Angelina Jolie, Jessica Simpson, and Tyra Banks, but Lhuillier’s best-known celebrity commission may be the dress she designed for pop star Britney Spears for her 2004 wedding to Kevin Federline. “On special occasions women should shine from within,” Lhuillier explained to InStyle writer Hal Rubenstein about her design ethos. “Their glamour should be clean. No overaccessorizing, no overstyling. It’s always dangerous to go out there in something that is not you. People should notice your personality first, not your dress.”
Born in the early 1970s, Lhuillier (pronounced LOO-lee-ay) grew up on Cebu, one of the islands of the Philippines archipelago, in a home with two brothers and a sister. Their father was of French heritage, but had been born in Vietnam when that southeast Asian country was still a French colony, and had a varied career as a diplomat, jeweler, and real estate investor. Lhuillier’s mother was from the Philippines and had once worked as a model. The Lhuilliers’ cosmopolitan household was the setting for extravagant soirees, which the future designer recalled as an inadvertent influence on her choice of career.
Lhuillier’s parents kept a firm check on their daughters’ own sophisticated tendencies, however, and both were forbidden from wearing black clothes during their teen years. Their mother designed their clothes and, when they were still quite young, sewed them herself—a hobby at which she proved so talented that for a time she even ran a small home business. Later, the daughters’ clothes were made by seamstresses, and Lhuillier became en- tranced by the design process. “At 12, 13, 14, I was with my local designer and we would sketch,” she told W writer Bridget Foley. “I loved it. My parents would say, ‘Okay, we’ve got these events. Go and decide what you want to wear.'”
At age 15, Lhuillier left home for Lausanne, Switzerland, to enter a boarding school, Chateau Mont-Choisi. Her plans for college centered on fashion design, but her parents were wary about allowing her to move by herself to where her first-choice schools were located, New York City. Los Angeles, where her brothers and sister had attended college, was more suitable, and so she enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising there, sharing a house with her siblings. Lhuillier enjoyed the creative laboratory of design school, and her final project, featuring a bridal theme, foreshadowed her future career path. When she graduated, she found a job with Melivier, a sportswear maker, but came to realize that the job was not conducive to creative thinking.
Lhuillier met her future husband, Tom Bugbee, in Los Angeles when he was working on his graduate business degree. She quit her job to plan the wedding, and her first inkling that the bridal market was in need of some fresh blood came when she went to shop for her own dress. Hoping to find something modern, she found instead that “sleeves were too big and bodices too junked up with beads,” she told InStyle ‘s Rubenstein, and was particularly appalled by the excess of lace in most designs. “They all made me feel dowdy,” she recalled.
Fortunately, Lhuillier was able to find a dress that met her expectations, but did put her fashion degree to work in designing the 25 dresses for her relatives and members of her bridal party. The wedding reception was at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey, California, and as the party was winding down she was informed by the hotel’s front desk staff that “I had business cards waiting for me,” she told People writer Allison Adato. “They were left by people asking if I could design for their weddings. That’s when I knew I could make a business out of this.”
Lhuillier launched her company a year later, in 1996, with the help of a $20,000 loan from her parents. She made a few calls and found out when the next trade show for the bridal-wear industry would be held, and in the space of a month made six different bridal gowns, plus several bridesmaids’ dresses, and showed them off at a booth she rented at the event. When it ended, she had signed five bridal stores as her first accounts. Her husband, apprising the onslaught of interest, decided to quit his job as a retail consultant and work with her full-time on the new business. Within a few years they launched a side eveningwear division that also proved to be lucrative, with Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus placing orders from the onset. In 2001, she opened her first retail space in Beverly Hills, California, near her home.
Lhuillier’s business soared in earnest, however, when she scored two significant public-relations coups in fall of 2004: For the Emmy Awards ceremony that September, several stars showed off Monique Lhuillier gowns on the red carpet, including Jamie-Lynn DiScala of The Sopranos and Will & Grace star Megan Mullally. Several weeks later, paparazzi photos appeared overnight of Britney Spears’ top-secret wedding, and Spears’ elaborate dress was revealed to be a Lhuillier creation. The designer had signed a confidentiality agreement that kept the details of the dress—and even the wedding date and place—top-secret, and worked overtime with her staff when Spears moved the nuptials up four weeks. The singer, Lhuillier told Kim Palmer in an interview that appeared in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, “came up with the idea of the gloves and the beaded neckpiece. It looked like a necklace but was part of the gown.”
Lhuillier’s husband serves as chief executive officer of her company. They became parents to a son, Jack, who was born in 2006. By then she was already working on her next design project, a line of home furnishings and fine china, both launched in 2007 along with a line of handbags. Her bridal business remains her core focus, however, and she often counsels brides-to-be who, like she once nervously did, are searching for the dress of their dreams. “Go into the store with an open mind,” she told the Star Tribune ‘s Palmer when asked for her advice. “Don’t be limited; try on all kinds of silhouettes. And don’t bring too many people with you. Everyone has their own opinion and it confuses the issue.”
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