By  on April 11, 2007

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Blue Bee has gone from apparel retail concept to trailblazer in seven years.

Co-founders Marty Bebout and John Doucette have grown the business to seven boutiques and a warehouse in Santa Barbara's shopping district — a total of 19,000 square feet — selling items from premium denim to contemporary and designer apparel and accessories for women, children and men.

Bebout and Doucette launched the Blue Bee-branded shops on a block and a half of State Street, the city's main concourse. Each specializes in a category of apparel or accessories.

The pair met in Los Angeles, and "decided to escape to where we really wanted to live," Bebout said. They launched the first store with $125,000, "but we charged all the clothes on credit cards," said Bebout, who worked as a sales representative for a T-shirt company. Doucette had been a federal inspector of medical equipment.

The pair's latest unit, Blue Bee Luxury, opened last month when they converted their 5,000-square-foot Honeycomb store, which sold pricy, rock 'n' roll-inspired casual looks for women. The outpost stocks brands exclusive to Santa Barbara, including Moschino Cheap & Chic and Chaiken. Prices range from $40 for T-shirts to around $6,000 for intricate, hand-beaded gowns.

The retailers recalled being received with some skepticism when they attended the Los Angeles contemporary market for the first time in 2000.

"We said we were opening a shop in Santa Barbara, and everyone in this certain showroom stopped what they were doing and just stared," Bebout said. "Then a rep said, ‘We write with [Santa Barbara-based contemporary chain] Wendy Foster.'"

They returned the next day with a printed, spiral-bound booklet that detailed their intentions for the store. The same showroom rep now has their picture on her bulletin board.

Blue Bee's sweet spot is "the woman in her 40s with some money who wants to look good," Bebout said, adding that both he and Doucette have begun giving their cell phone numbers to loyal clients, taking the idea of personalized service to a new level.

Blue Bee Jeans, the most lucrative of the seven boutiques, opened in 2002 and established the company as a preeminent West Coast denim retailer. Its clout has been solidified through its product collaborations with companies such as Paige Premium Denim and AG Adriano Goldschmied."They have supported our brand since they beginning," said Pepper Foster, co-founder of denim brand Chip & Pepper.

Frankie B. is in the final stages of collaborating on a boot-cut jean that will have an embroidered tag reading "Frankie B. for Blue Bee." And Diesel is staging an event Saturday at the Blue Bee Jeans unit and the men's casual-luxe Blue Beetle store. Prices at the jeans store range from $38 for C&C California tank tops to about $1,000 for specialty denim.

In addition, there is the original Blue Bee, which stocks contemporary women's apparel from companies such as Da-Nang and James Perse with prices from $40 to $500. Blue Bee Shoes has designer and contemporary footwear and bags priced from the $200s to around $3,000 from companies including Sigerson Morrison and Michael Kors.

Blue Bee Kids specializes in mini-me premium denim and sportswear looks from True Religion and Seven For All Mankind, among others. Blue Bee Men features designer men's apparel.

While ladylike looks from Robert Rodriguez and Paul Smith embody the new store's mission, vestiges of Honeycomb remain. A small loft area hosts stacks of bejeweled $1,000 Great China Wall hoodie sweatshirts and punky looks from Cosa Nostra. Next to this is a section dedicated to floor-length gowns from designers such as Jenny Packham and Dina Bar-El.

The store has four room-like spaces that open up into one another. Adobe-style cream-colored walls and brick-hued paved flooring are accented by a curving wrought iron balcony and staircase railing. Jeweler Erickson Beamon crafted a pearl and crystal chandelier in the store's most striking room.

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