When Monique Lhuillier peeks from behind a rack of her lavish wedding gowns, you could easily mistake her for one of her A-list clients. Personal chic is just one asset that has made Lhuillier (pronounced Loo-lee-ay) the designer for trendy young celebs like Sarah Jessica Parker, Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Connelly, whether they're walking down the aisle or the red carpet. As this year's award season opens with the Golden Globes, Lhuillier's signature look--figure-hugging sleek, often with a jeweled halter top--is the one to watch for. "She has a very hip sense of style," says Jessica Simpson, another repeat customer. "It's sexy and sophisticated at the same time. That's what any girl wants to look like when she steps out of the house."
Although Lhuillier's wedding gowns and eveningwear have been a fashion force for the last few years, 2004 was her big breakthrough. At the Emmys, Jamie-Lynn DiScala dazzled in a teal satin Lhuillier halter gown that landed the "Sopranos" star on just about everyone's best-dressed list. Lhuillier also put "The West Wing's" Allison Janney in the standout green chiffon dress she wore as she happily clutched her Emmy. But the high point, Lhuillier says, was adding Britney Spears to her client list when she created the showstopping gown the pop star wore for her September wedding to Kevin Federline. "Britney was icing on the cake," says Lhuillier. "Everybody is intrigued by her and everything she does. We became part of that, and I can't say I mind."
It turned out to be a tough assignment. Spears, trying to avoid paparazzi, didn't want to come to the store when she first called in June, so the designer went to her house, where, Lhuillier recalls, "she was so sweet and absolutely excited about trying dresses just like any other bride." But on Sept. 19 Spears called back to say the date had been pushed up four weeks--which meant everything had to be ready the next day. With her staff on red alert, Lhuillier managed to finish the strapless silk gown (complete with a cathedral-length train) in just 24 hours. She also created a postceremony lace minidress and five burgundy crepe bridesmaid dresses, plus gowns for Spears's mother and Federline's mother and stepmother. "The dresses were a dream," Spears says. "It was all exactly as I wanted."
Beautiful dresses have been on Lhuillier's brain since her childhood in the Philippine city of Cebu. Her father was a wealthy French jeweler and former diplomat; her Filipino mother was a model. Lhuillier, now 32, grew up watching magical parties in the lavish family home. "People were dressed to kill," she recalls. "It was dreamy, and I knew I wanted to be part of creating that somehow when I got older." Her parents sent her to a Swiss boarding school. From there, she went on to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles because her parents thought New York (the obvious destination for a future fashionista) wasn't safe. In L.A. she met business student Tom Bugee, who had a background in retail finance. They married in 1996 and, with $20,000 in seed money from Lhuillier's parents, started their own company. After building a couture clientele in top stores like Saks and Neiman Marcus, they launched a ready-to-wear line just three years ago that accounted for 60 percent of the company's $15 million in sales last year. Up next: handbag and shoe lines. The price of all this glamour is high, as much as $10,000 for a top-of-the-line wedding gown. But her clients clearly think it's worth it. Lhuillier's goal is to "give them what they need for the events in their lives. There's no better feeling." Unless, of course, it's actually wearing her creations and watching jaws drop.