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Lhuillier’s Moment: From Britney to the Emmys

LOS ANGELES — When her phone rang early Sunday, designer Monique Lhuillier’s thoughts were on the Emmys later that day and the four actresses — Allison Janney, Jamie-Lynn DiScala, Megan Mullally and Famke Janssen — who would...

LOS ANGELES — When her phone rang early Sunday, designer Monique Lhuillier’s thoughts were on the Emmys later that day and the four actresses — Allison Janney, Jamie-Lynn DiScala, Megan Mullally and Famke Janssen — who would walk the red carpet in her gowns.

The voice on the other end wasn’t a stylist panicking over a last-minute fit issue. It was the message she had been waiting for to end the secret she couldn’t share because of a confidentiality agreement she was required to sign — Britney Spears was married, and in a Lhuillier creation.

“I had to keep quiet for a long time,’’ Lhuillier said Monday night. “It was tough because so many people kept asking if I got a call from her or her camp; so I was so relieved after it was over.”

Although she can’t say much more on the subject, Lhuillier and Tom Bugbee, her husband and business partner, have been beseiged since Spears and Kevin Federline wed on Saturday.

Lhuillier and Bugbee, both 33 and married more than nine years, have been in the eye of a whirlwind gathering speed in the last three years. During this period, Monique Lhuillier, founded in 1996 as a bridal house, has attracted a celebrity following since taking its signature eveningwear collection to the New York runways and opening a boutique in Beverly Hills. Lhuillier counts Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Connelly, Angelina Jolie, Sharon Stone and Jessica Simpson among her clients.

Retail sales for 2004 are on track for $15 million, Bugbee said. Sales of the ready-to-wear collection, which includes daytime suitings along with the evening gowns, rose 40 percent in the last year and are expected to jump another 40 percent in 2005, he said.

While the rtw/bridal sales ratio has tipped 60-40, the wedding business is also booming. It is projected to have a 50 percent spike before the year is over, and to grow another 35 percent next year, Bugbee said.

Eveningwear retails from about $1,600 to $10,000, with an average price of $3,500 for a gown. Linen day suitings are just under $3,000. Bridal runs from about $2,000 to $10,000

“Monique sells extremely well,” said Wilkes Bashford, owner of eponymous stores in San Francsico and Palo Alto, Calif. “One of the great things about Monique’s work is it’s very glamourous and sexy, very sophisticated. But it works for women of a broad span of ages.”

Bashford said the line has retained high quality and craftsmanship even as the company has grown. “Sometimes, in the interest of saving money or to turn around larger quantities, designers compromise,’’ he said. “She doesn’t.”

Joan Kaner, Neiman Marcus senior fashion director, agreed. “She has become a very important vendor. I think it’s because it’s a woman designing for a woman. Sometimes men, especially when it comes to eveningwear, go over the top. But Monique is always wearable, fashionable, special.”

Growth has been studied and strategic for the self-financed house. Lhuillier found an ideal business partner in her husband, a former consultant in the retail and distribution arm of Deloitte & Touche, the financial services firm.

Bugbee, a native Californian, approaches their recent high marks with both enthusiasm and realism. He recognizes the challenges — ensuring deliveries are on time as orders tax the 70-member staff at their downtown Los Angeles factory, or going from a manual to automated production software system to keep up. The company this year relocated to a 16,000-square-foot headquarters downtown, more than five times the size of the previous space. Another 12 employees work in the signature stores and the New York showroom.

Bugbee also realizes the company is hot enough now to strike with additional categories. The couple plan to visit Italy in October to complete details to license dressy footwear. Evening handbags are next on the list.

Lhuillier returned from New York, where her spring 2005 collection was well received by buyers and editors, and had to immediately switch gears to tend to her A-list clients, both Emmy- and altar-bound.

She started on Spears’ strapless white gown not long after the engagement was announced. Although the pop star had dressed in Monique Lhuillier for a private event, the two had never met.

Even with the final fittings last week — in between handling nips and tucks for the other stars — she didn’t know for certain Spears’ nuptials were finally happening. She also had to focus on her spring bridal collection, bowing in New York at month’s end.

The youngest daughter of a French father and Filipino mother, both involved in real estate and financial businesses, Lhuillier was born and raised in the southern Phillipines city of Cebu. “My mother was very glamorous,” she recalled. “My parents would entertain a lot, and my sister and I would sit and watch her dress.”

At 15 she went to boarding school in Switzerland, then followed her two brothers and sister to Los Angeles for college. The four lived in a home their parents bought them. Lhuillier had alternative plans to attending Pepperdine University as her three siblings had. Instead, she headed to the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising to study fashion design, specifically eveningwear.

Right after graduation, when she was shopping for a wedding dress, the idea to design her own bridal line developed. She bought someone else’s gown. (“Your own wedding is not the time to design your own dress,” she noted.) But a year into the marriage, she hit the road with her first samples. “I picked up five accounts right away,” she said.

Eveningwear was introduced in 2000. “After working solely with whites and ivories,” she said, “I wanted to start infusing color.”

Two years later, the duo presented the collection at New York Fashion Week.

The 38 looks for spring 2005 rtw are a collection of luxe jewel- and ocean-colored silk crepes, lace and beaded tulles, as well as the new day suitings, cut in linen. A “more is more” sensibility, said Lhuillier, characterizes the three dozen styles for the bridal group, bowing in New York next week. “Think of a night at the grand opera. There are brides who still need a dress to be over the top. It is her day, after all.”

There are two company stores now, and sales at those sites are expected to rise by 50 percent in the next year, Bugbee said. A 2,100-square-foot door opened in Minneapolis last March.

More stores, like more categories, are in their future, they said. But neither are in a huge rush. After all, Lhuillier said, “I’m just trying to catch my breath right now.”