Within five minutes of opening her first New York store — a two-story brownstone on East 71st Street — on Oct. 5, Monique Lhuillier made her first sale: a fur and lace jacket from her fall ready-to-wear collection. "Hopefully it's a sign of wonderful things to come," said Lhuillier on Wednesday, while prepping for her fall 2013 bridal show in her New York showroom. "The next day we were completely booked. We had 43 brides that had appointments for the second floor. So we feel like this is a good time for us to be here."
Lhuillier has waited patiently for a boutique in New York, where her flagship comes 12 years after she opened her first store in Los Angeles, and a second one four years after the one in Edina, Minn. "We are very strategic in how we grow, and we grow within our means," said Lhuillier, who owns the business with her husband Tom Bugbee, the company's chief executive officer. "There was never really a rush to [open the New York store]. It's just when it feels right."
Lhuillier and Bugbee knew they wanted a space on the Upper East Side — "that's where are our customer base is," she said — and were close to signing a lease on a different spot in New York in 2008, but issues arose with the landlord and they walked away. "Tom said, 'This doesn't feel right,'" said Lhuillier. A few days later, Bear Stearns went under.
They started scouting again in 2010 and found the current location, which initially was limited to the ground floor, formerly occupied by Sigerson Morrison. The second-floor gallery became available soon after, followed by a one-bedroom apartment also on the second floor, which is how Lhuillier ended up with the 3,000-square-foot townhouse in which all of the label's collections — rtw, bridal, tabletop, shoes and chandeliers done with Waterford — are housed.
Designed with a+i architecture, the space has been restored to its original high ceilings and outfitted with an open staircase framed by 22-foot-high glass walls. Lhuillier worked with interior designer Jennie Abbott, who also designed Lhuillier's Los Angeles home and store. Her signature gray color scheme is consistent across all stores.
In New York there are gray suede walls, chairs from the Sixties and Seventies covered in gray velvet and banquettes. Artwork includes pieces by Hervé Van Der Straeten, Daniel Gluck, Neal Small, Nancy Lorenz and two commissioned pieces by New York sculptor Silas Seandel. From the ceilings hang Monique Lhuillier Waterford chandeliers designed with tiers of multifaceted crystal baguettes to imitate the layers of fabric and beadwork of her gowns.
The first floor houses rtw, with the bridal salon upstairs. Lhuillier said having everything under one roof was the idea from the beginning, although if they couldn't find a space to accommodate both collections, they were open to separating them, as other designers with big bridal businesses such as Vera Wang have done. Rtw is on the ground level because Lhuillier wants it to be more accessible to the customer. It's also a category she and Bugbee see as prime for the most growth.
When Lhuillier launched in 1996, the business was strictly bridal. She became one of the top designers in the category thanks to her celebrity bridal clientele, including Britney Spears, who wore Lhuillier to her 2004 wedding to Kevin Federline. "I was doing a lot of red carpet at the time and people started coming to trunk shows and saying my name right," she said. "I think that was the turning point."
Bridal has been a solid foundation for a flurry of recent licenses, including a capsule collection of evening shoes, which launched for spring with a broader offer of boots and daytime styles for fall. Lhuillier also recently announced her first jewelry license (bridal and fashion pieces) with BlueNile.com, which launches this month. "If we have the right partner, we license," said Lhuillier of the past year's brokering. In addition, she also has licenses on tabletop, bridesmaids' dresses, stationery, home fragrance and ML Monique Lhuillier, a diffusion eveningwear collection.
Yet rtw is a primary focus. "I feel like in bridal we're at the top of our game right now," she said. "With that market, there is room for growth but I feel like we've kind of capped that. I always want to be known for bridal — the core of the company that started in there. But there's just so much more. The customer gets married once in her life. I want her to think of Monique Lhuillier multiple times a year, to come in if she just wants something special."
Now that the doors to the New York store are open, Lhuillier and Bugbee are looking for more real estate in the Philippines, where the designer is from, and Hong Kong. Leases have not yet been signed but they're in the works. Establishing her own store network is key to the company's expansion. "A lot of department stores or specialty boutiques that carry me buy me for wedding gowns or just solely evening gowns," said Lhuillier. "We really feel like the future for us is the ready-to-wear collection and housing the entire thing in our stores. Now the customer has access to all of it."
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