By  on October 12, 2007

After outgrowing her first retail home in Beverly Hills, Monique Lhuillier has moved to roomier quarters on a Melrose Place corner in West Hollywood with an eye on extending her brand.

The 4,200-square-foot store that opened Wednesday is more than double the size of the previous location. It gives Lhuillier and husband Tom Bugbee, the Los Angeles-based company's chief executive officer, a retail blueprint as their 11-year-old brand, which swelled from bridal to ready-to-wear and evening gowns in 2002 and has added handbags and tabletop goods, keeps expanding.

But it was the wedding dresses that cast a spell on the crowd that feted Lhuillier's new digs on Wednesday night, including Maria Shriver, Kristen Bell, Rebecca Gayheart, Maggie Grace, Kate Mara, Dita Von Teese and Michelle Trachtenberg. "My girlfriends who are [getting] married love her wedding dresses," Grace said.

The party topped off 11 months of construction at the former antique shop, now welcoming customers with a slouching mannequin at the entrance draped in a Lhuillier showstopper to make brides-to-be drool. The museum-like foyer leads to an airy showroom flanked by wedding dresses and distinguished by high ceilings and towering windows.

"Two years ago, we felt that our current space was very tight....We looked in Beverly Hills for about a year,'' Lhuillier said. "There was nothing that felt right. I like how there is a lot of style on Melrose Place, and it is actually quite quiet. People can take their time."

The two-block strip was legitimized as a fashion destination by Marc Jacobs, and Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera and Diane von Furstenberg are among the designers who have opened boutiques there.

Montalba Architects Inc., a Los Angeles-based firm that handled Lhuillier's Beverly Hills and Edina, Minn., units, constructed the Melrose Place store, and Jennie Abbott Interior Design did the interior. The look mimics Lhuillier and Bugbee's Los Angeles-area residence with an exterior inspired by French Regency architecture and an interior that softens contemporary design with warm hues; vintage furnishings from the Forties, Sixties and Seventies, and oversize chandeliers. Shades of gray and taupe characterize the color palette, and embossed lizard skin covers the walls."The first location was very minimal, very gallery-like," Lhuillier said. "We wanted it to be more cozy and luxurious."

Lhuillier estimated that about 45 percent of the store's merchandise is bridal, 45 percent special occasion and rtw and 10 percent handbags, table wear and other registry-related items. The average Monique Lhuillier bridal purchase is $6,000, about $2,000 more than the average special occasion buy. The launch of a 10-style capsule handbag collection was timed with the store's opening, and Lhuillier said a key piece, called the Audrey after Audrey Hepburn, is a clutch in the shape of a bow tie. Handbags retail from $1,050 to $3,295.

Bugbee estimated that Monique Lhuillier's sales are almost 60 percent bridal, although the noncore segments have been growing 15 to 20 percent annually, compared with 10 percent for the company as a whole. Hollywood's embrace of Lhuillier's red-carpet and bridal designs — America Ferrera won plaudits for a ruched cobalt dress at the recent Emmy Awards, while Kate Walsh and Britney Spears both wore Lhuillier wedding dresses — broadened her audience.

Bugbee said 20 percent of the $20 million company's revenues come from retail operations. The firm expects to plant another location in New York within two years and then go abroad with stores in the Philippines, where Lhuillier grew up, and other select Asian and European locales. Monique Lhuillier also is available in about 125 doors, including Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.

Bugbee indicated that Monique Lhuillier, which is solely owned by Lhuillier and Bugbee, might be forced to bring on outside investors if it opted for an aggressive retail expansion path. "Right now, I don't see that happening," he said. "I would hate to take on a partner for financial reasons. It would have to be more strategic."

Monique Lhuillier has enough to concentrate on with its existing retail stable and branching out in ways that make sense for the brand. China, which is being produced by Royal Doulton and is expected to enter Bloomingdale's in January, could be joined by sunglasses and footwear.

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