Welcome to E!'s Tales From the Top, our series on women who are leaders in their fields and masters of their craft. Spanning industries and experiences, these powerhouse women answer all the questions you've ever had about how they got to where they are today—and what they overcame to get there. Read along as they bring their resumés to life.
There was a time when people couldn't say Monique Lhuillier's name. Now, it's a household one.
But before she became the empress of evening wear and synonymous with wedding gowns (even Britney Spears was a client!), the Philippines-born budding designer was a bride-to-be herself—and not exactly thrilled with the options for her big day.
"I went to the bridal salon and I tried some things over there, but everything was either too traditional or like big leg-of-mutton sleeves and lace and very heavy, or the extreme was happening—it was very minimal," she recalled in an exclusive interview with E! News of the options she found on hand in the '90s. "I just felt like neither one was me. And I couldn't believe that I was the only one feeling this way. So, that's when I thought there was an opportunity in the marketplace that I could fill."
In a way, it was fateful reassurance for Lhuillier, who was getting ready to graduate from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising around the same time of her engagement. But, first, she had a telling final project, one that helped plant the seeds for her career to come.
"There was going to be a runway show," she recalled. "We all had to present a mini collection. And for some reason, I chose to do a wedding scene." At that point, everything in her life was pointing to bridal. "As I was putting that collection [together], I was like, I really want to have my own collection. And I was thinking of the label and all this stuff. And then, I also got engaged at that time and I started to look for a wedding dress, and that's when everything started to fall into place."
After growing up a fashion devotee with a penchant for glamour, Lhuillier was well on her way to making her dreams a reality, but the path onward would not be familiar territory.
"When I graduated from design school and decided to set out and start in the bridal business, I really did not know what I was doing," she said. "I had not worked for a storied house before. I just knew I wanted to create these beautiful gowns." So she got savvy, calling up retailers and asking if she could show them her five gowns. Through those conversations, Lhuillier learned she could put her work on display at a trade show, where she ended up getting multiple customers and a whole new slew of anxieties. "In spite of us being so happy, it dawned on me, 'Oh my God, five stores picked us up. Now we are in business and I have to make all these dresses.'"
She got through it with help from her husband, then-business student Tom Bugbee, but without the help of outside investment. "We were a very lean startup. I started the company from the basement of our home in Malibu," she described. "We would design Monday through Thursday, pack up all the boxes, ship out the stuff through UPS. And then on Friday we would board a plane and go to local bridal salons throughout the country that would carry us. And I would do trunk shows from Friday early evening and leave Sunday."
Eventually racking up the miles paid off.
"People could not say my name for the life of me. They would be like, 'Oh, you know that Monique girl, she's new?' Or 'Monique Lhu...I can't say her name,'" she remembered. After nearly four years, "People started saying Monique Lhuillier," she said. "And I was like, 'Oh my gosh, something's happening. We are going in the right direction.' And that gave us confidence to keep going."
Then, in 2002, Angelina Jolie stepped out at the Golden Globes in a black strapless gown by Lhuillier. "Seeing her on the red carpet," the designer recalled, "really opened my eyes to the exposure a celebrity brings to your designs."
The milestones ramped up for Lhuillier as she expanded from bridal into evening and ready-to-wear and made her debut at New York Fashion Week. At the height of the early aughts, she dressed the bride of all brides, Britney Spears, for her wedding to ex Kevin Federline. Countless stars have since donned her dresses, from Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge for her three-time winning night at the 2019 Emmys to former First Lady Michelle Obama to Carrie Underwood and Reese Witherspoon on their own wedding days.
But her talents have not stopped with the celebrity set. In the course of her 25 years of business, Lhuillier, now a mom of two, has extended her designs from church aisles, runways and red carpets to wedding invitations, fragrance, intimates, homewares and now a BLISS bridal jewelry collection with Kay Jewelers. The latest collaboration seems like a full-circle moment for Lhuillier, whose first job as a teenager involved helping her parents with their jewelry business.
"I always say there is no wedding without an engagement ring—it all starts from there," she said. "I've taken all the inspiration from my wedding dresses—the floral details, the vines, the intricacies. Inside the ring, I even put on the bottom so you know it's a Monique Lhuillier, this ring. There is a diamond band inside with a little XO, which is like a love note from me to the bride."
While she's offering up mini love notes with her rings, she gave E! News some major lessons from her enduring career. Vow to commit yourself to a few of her hard-earned pieces of wisdom.
On her hands-on approach to her work:
"Until this day at a photo shoot, I am fluffing the dresses, picking up the steamer. I mean, I have people that help me, great teams, but I feel like we're all in it together. And so, we just want the best result in the end. I don't sit back and wait for people to do it. I get in there and do it myself. I'm very hands-on and I feel like you have to listen to your gut and do what feels right to you."
On waiting to start a family:
"The best decision I made was to hold off on starting a family till 10 years after we were in business, so we really dedicated all our time into the business. And once we did start our family, we already had a great team in place and, yes, we were busy and still juggling, but I felt like we already had a strong foundation."
On her recurring career mistake:
"I used to stress out about everything. I was like, 'Oh my God, I could have done that one better'...Wondering if it was good enough. And looking back now, I'm like, I was just so hard on myself. I'm enjoying what I'm doing more now because I feel like when I'm designing the collection and I feel good about it, then I don't second guess. I put it out in the world. Before, I would just go over and over and be super stressed. I have more balance in my life now. Before, the first 10 years, it was really all, all work. And now I've been able to have my family life, I have my friend life, I have a very healthy balance now. That took me a while to get there."
On her biggest advice to brides shopping for their dress:
"Go in with an open mind, try on as many silhouettes as you can, and then to listen to your gut when you're deciding on which is the one. Forget about what's expected, what the traditions are. Just buy the dress that makes you feel the most beautiful."
On what she would tell her 24-year-old self:
"I would say it's ok to make a mistake every now and then, and not be too hard on myself and expect on your first try it's going to be perfect. I think there were a lot of nights I was very stressed and hard on myself and I'm going to tell my younger self to just breathe and it's going to be fine...Also, now that I'm older and wiser, I also feel I would tell my younger self that it's really important to have a group of women who support each other and lift each other up. I have that now in my life, but I can't tell you how important that is. We can all do so much individually, but together we're even stronger. So, encourage each other."
On the lesson behind her lasting career:
"All it really boils down to finding what it is that you love to do because, for me, this is what I think I was here to do and so, I never gave up. Even when some seasons were not so good, not so well-received or there were some setbacks, I never stopped believing in myself, saying, 'So, that was that. Next season is a whole other thing.' And I think keeping that optimism going and believing in myself is why I'm here. I did not have a lot of contacts in fashion when I started. I was 24 years old, graduated from design school and didn't really work for anybody else, so if I can do it, anybody can do it, but you just need to really believe in yourself."
Monique Lhuillier's BLISS bridal jewelry collection with Kay Jewelers is available now online and in stores.