Monique Lhuillier Previews Upcoming Paris Runway Collection, A "Love Letter" to the City of Light

PRETA_MoniqueLhullier-062317-1412 - THR - H 2017
Jessica Chanen

"It's everything I've ever wanted," says the L.A. designer of her upcoming runway debut in Paris.

Monique Lhuillier is finally making good on her French last name: The L.A.-based bridal and evening-wear designer, who has dressed Elisabeth Moss, Olivia Wilde, Reese Witherspoon, Drew Barrymore and many more Hollywood lights on the red capret, is holding her first fashion show in the City of Light, Paris, on July 3.

"I'm half-French, and Paris is one of the things that inspired me to get into fashion," says Lhuillier, 45, on a recent afternoon at her atelier in Vernon, California, the industrial city just south of downtown L.A., where she gave The Hollywood Reporter a preview of the spring 2018 ready-to-wear collection she will be showing during what is traditionally haute couture fashion week in Paris.

Lhuillier, who has been showing her ready-to-wear in New York, is one of several designers who have decamped to Paris' couture week this season, including Rodarte's Kate and Laura Mulleavy and Proenza Schouler's Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, who will also show ready-to-wear collections to the smaller crowd of press, buyers and clients assembling for the shows.

"There's less noise," says Lhuillier, who lives in Beverly Hills with her husband and their two children. "During New York Fashion Week, there are 250 shows; during couture there are 30. It's really about me disrupting what's normally done. I'm also looking at it as my introduction to the world, to different markets like Paris and Asia that aren't as familiar with my brand."

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 for college, enrolling at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. The idea to start a bridal line in 1996 came out of Lhuillier's own experience shopping for a gown when she married at age 22, and all she could find were traditional and conservative designs.

In terms of exposure, her big break came in 2004 when she dressed Britney Spears for her wedding to Kevin Federline (remember him?). Since then, Savannah Guthrie, Lauren Conrad, Carrie Underwood and others have turned to her for their sleek, modern wedding dresses, elevating her to the role of the Vera Wang of the West.

Lhuillier's husband, Tom Bugbee, a former consultant at Deloitte & Touche, turned out to be a perfect partner in the business, which has expanded to include high-end evening wear in feminine silhouettes with intricate details, made-in-Italy shoes and handbags, eyewear, a lower-priced ML Monique Lhuillier line, stationary, fragrance and housewares for Pottery Barn Kids and starting in October, Pottery Barn. Total brand retail sales are north of $50 million with 150 points of sale worldwide. 

With her first Paris runway show, which will be an intimate affair held in a townhouse next door to the Ritz, for just 275 top clients, stylists and press, Lhuillier is out to prove that the handwork coming out of her atelier in L.A. can stack up to what's being produced by such famed French couture maisons as Lesage (embroidery) and Lemarie (flowers and feathers). And indeed, when Lhuillier was a student at FIDM, she visited those specialty shops in Paris, which she calls "my entrée to specializing in fantasy evening wear."

At her studio in Los Angeles, the attention to detail is just as fine.

"I'm so proud of the quality and craftsmanship we do here, I want the world to see that. We've developed all the embroideries from sketch to life," she says, giving a tour of the production floor, where women in white lab coats are clustered around dress forms, needles and thread in hand, embroidering beads and butterflies.

In her design studio next door, white paper marks a practice runway on the floor for a fit model. "The collection is a love letter to Paris," says Lhuillier, marveling over a white deco-beaded gown with feather sleeves that looks like it could have come out of Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris.

Another gown, in what can be described as La la Land yellow, is made from a draped velvet floral print.

"There's movement but without the kind of volume that can be so restricting, deflated silhouettes and softer fabrics," she says of the collection. "We've seen this move toward relaxed elegance. Women still want special, but they don't want to look like they have tried so hard."

As for whether or not her move to showing in Paris will be permanent, she's not sure. "Maybe next season we'll show in another market, but it feels right now to show in the fashion capital of world," says Lhuillier. "To show in Paris 21 years after I started has been quite the personal journey. It's everything I've ever wanted."