By  on March 11, 2011

On Tuesday, the highly regarded Blue Bee group of stores in Santa Barbara, Calif., abruptly shuttered its doors, with signs going up thanking customers for their 10 years of patronage.

Also earlier this week, trend-setting retailer Lisa Kline notified vendors that she was phasing out her women’s business to focus solely on men’s and would no longer accept shipments of women’s merchandise, WWD has learned.

Blue Bee owners Marty Bebout and John Doucette declined to speak on the phone with WWD, but in an e-mail Bebout noted: “John and I have decided to close the Blue Bee stores. We are very grateful to the many designers and reps that have supported our stores and believed in Blue Bee. It has been a great ride and an experience we will always hold in our hearts. There is a lot of sadness as we close this chapter of our lives, but an equal amount of excitement as we continue on to new endeavors.”

Bebout declined to answer questions about payments owed to vendors or whether Blue Bee would file for bankruptcy.

News of the closure surprised vendors as Bebout had made the rounds of the most recent trade shows last month in Las Vegas looking at fall merchandise. Some vendors, however, noted that Blue Bee was notorious for paying invoices late and owed large sums to the prominent brands the stores carried.

“There has never been a time when they did not owe me at least $200,000,” said the vice president of wholesale at one of the biggest L.A. premium denim brands, who requested anonymity.

The president of another denim firm said he had spoken to peers who have already contacted Blue Bee’s attorneys about payments owed to them. “There’s no money there,” said the president, who also requested anonymity.

Bebout and Doucette founded Blue Bee in 2000 with a single store and grew it into seven doors and a warehouse on State Street, Santa Barbara’s main shopping district. Each store targeted a different category and customer, including Blue Bee Jeans, Blue Bee Luxury, Blue Beetle and Blue Bee Men, the latter of which was one of the few specialty stores in the nation permitted to open a Ralph Lauren Black Label shop-in-shop in 2007.

In the last few years, the stores had been reduced to just Blue Bee, Blue Bee Jeans and Blue Bee Men.

At Lisa Kline, the trendy retailer has been battered by the economy and fierce competition from neighbors like Kitson and Intermix. Reached by phone, Kline declined to comment on her decision to exit the women’s business, noting that she wanted to talk to all her vendors first.

At its height, the Lisa Kline business extended to six stores but had more recently dwindled to two locations, including a kids store. Last year, Kline shuttered her original women’s flagship at 136 South Robertson Boulevard and combined that business with a men’s store across the street at 143 South Robertson Boulevard.

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