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The designer making Rihanna, Scarlett and Gwyneth look good

From Felicia Taylor, CNN
updated 10:33 AM EDT, Thu May 10, 2012
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 11: Actress Scarlett Johansson arrives at the 49th Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center on February 11, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 11: Actress Scarlett Johansson arrives at the 49th Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center on February 11, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
  • Monique Lhuillier is one of Hollywood's favorite fashion designers
  • At 23, she started a bridalwear business that has expanded into a luxury lifestyle brand
  • She believes her success is due to her ability to relate to her customers

Los Angeles (CNN) -- Born and raised in the Philippines to a businessman and a socialite model, Monique Lhuillier is today one of LA's most celebrated fashion designers, with a clientele that includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Kristen Stewart, Reese Witherspoon, and Scarlett Johansson.

A graduate of LA's Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, Lhuillier began designing wedding gowns while shopping for one for herself. She launched her first bridal collection in 1996 and today, her atelier also produces ready-to-wear evening gowns, linens and tableware, fine paper and home fragrances.

Her dresses, which sell for $1,500 to $16,000, are stocked at Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue and, in a few months, she will open a flagship store -- her third outlet -- and a new showroom in New York City.

Lhuillier's average day is spent convening with her design team, monitoring the progress of licensing deals and conducting fittings, overseeing PR and production, making visits to her LA flagship store and her factory. At night, after her two children are in bed, Lhuillier often attends functions too.

Here, she tells CNN about building a business from scratch, working with celebrities, and having a husband for a CEO.

I was always putting myself in the shoes of the ladies I was designing for.
Monique Lhuillier, fashion designer

On early ambition ...

Ever since I was a little girl, I always loved fashion. I would watch my mother get dressed and suggest things she should wear. When my parents used to entertain, I would come out and perform after dinner with my little outfits that were cut up and restyled. I always thought I was going to be a dancer and then fashion kind of took over. Every young girl goes through that stage, but it didn't stop. I would go and sketch with our local tailor in the Philippines.

On breaking into bridal as a bride ...

When I looked at what was out there, I felt that there was a lack of fashionable options for young women so I said, 'This is what I want to do: I want to start with wedding gowns'. I was 23 years old.

My husband [Tom] was like 'it's a phase.' We got married and six months later I came up with a small line of wedding dresses -- probably six of them. I went to a local trade show and had a little booth and showed my dresses and to my excitement and delight, five stores ordered pieces from me. We drove home and I realized that I actually had to make everything.

Building the Monique Lhuillier brand

On getting established ...

The first year, people could barely say my name. They were like 'Monique L ... that Monique girl.' Then after a year or three, they were saying 'Monique Lu-yay' and I was like, 'Well, something's happening.'

On her point of difference ...

I had not worked for a storied house before, so I had to prove myself from the very beginning. I followed my gut and was always putting myself in the shoes of the ladies I was designing for. 'Would I want to wear that? Would I feel special in that? Would that flatter my figure?' Since we started in bridal, I really perfected the fit. I think, you know, that was the key to why so many women responded to it.

On making the old feel new ...

I do three bridal collections a year, and what's been helpful is that I do ready-to-wear in between, so when I approach bridal, I'm ready for whites and ivories again. Before, there was a point where I was like 'I can't do one more white wedding dress.'

I'm injecting new color. There's blush: That's so subtle, yet it's a big commitment to go outside white and ivory. That's a trend I've been pushing for the last two seasons and now brides are embracing it. Another trend I started five years ago was adding a sash and introducing color that way.

The downside of dressing celebrities is you don't have all the control.
Monique Lhuillier, fashion designer

On designing for celebrities ...

[It's a] platform for the world to see what my work looks like and they showcase it beautifully. They're trendsetters and that's such a positive -- to get that exposure. The downside is you don't have all the control. Sometimes when they put something on, they change the design a little bit to make it their own and our point of view is lost along the way.

I love working with Taylor Swift. Kristen Stewart has been amazing. Reese Witherspoon was a dream to work with on her wedding because she knew what she wanted and has a great sense of style. It was a very easy collaboration.

On having a CEO/husband ...

It's hard to keep family life and workplace separated. We always say we do but we don't. When you're married to your business partner, it's very hard.

I always make sure his needs are met. We bounce ideas off of each other and he is my soul mate. Yes, everybody needs to work on their marriage but I feel like he is really an extension of me. I don't know what I would do without him.

On work-life balance ...

I realized when we were starting our company that you have to give up everything, personally, in the very beginning. There's no balance at that point. It's all about work. The first 10 years we worked almost 24 hours (a day). I mean, obviously we slept, but if we were not in the factory doing something, we were travelling, doing trunk shows, selling the collection. We did everything and I don't think there's any other way to start.

I am a perfectionist but I know how to live life. When I 'm working, it's 100%. When I'm with my friends, I put everything away and enjoy life. When I come home to my kids, it's pure joy and everything's worth it. Every time, I really focus 100 percent on one thing. I've learned how to juggle my life and I feel like now I have the perfect balance.

On how to live a good life ...

Start with a career, then have a beautiful family, and then it's time to give back.
Monique Lhuillier, fashion designer

I don't know what tomorrow brings, but right now, I'm grateful for everything that I have. In the future, I'd like to be able to give back as well. That's part of how I think one's life should be led -- start with a career, then have a beautiful family, and then it's time to give back. That's just the way the world should be.

On delegating ...

That's the only way to grow so we're building our team and we do delegate but we never turn off our Blackberries or iPhones.

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