Byline: Deirdre Mendoza

On an overcast fall afternoon, comedian-turned-sports-commentator Dennis Miller is leaving Pierre Lafond/Wendy Foster’s gourmet deli in Montecito with his family in tow, laden with takeout. Like most local residents, Miller has become a regular at the two-story, hacienda-style row of boutiques affectionately known as “Upper Valley,” run by a husband-and-wife retailing team that are a force in specialty retailing here.
By now, the tourist flood has just about dried up. But even the weekend warriors who invade Santa Barbara’s “South County” during its peak season, May through September, are quick to figure out that the names Lafond and Foster rank high among the handful of specialty stores clustered here in two main shopping districts: Montecito’s Upper East Valley Road and State Street in downtown Santa Barbara.
What Miller, and the tourists, will find in Santa Barbara is a retail scene that would best be characterized as “reluctantly chic.” Although this town is only 92 miles from Los Angeles, fashion trends can take more than a year to get here, and sometimes never make it in. The quintessential Santa Barbarian is more polished and preppier than those Angelena fashionistas. The retailers staked out in this reliably sunny little world accept such a state of affairs, even — as in the case of Foster and Lafond — thrive in it.
But the other barbarians — the ones with the little “b” — have been crashing the gate. Santa Barbara now rivals Palm Springs as a prime destination for Hollywood players, at least those coveting some downtime. Tourism has surged in their wake, leaving stalwart locals surfing among waves of weekenders and nouveau riche renters. In this land of former presidents and 18th-century missions, homebuyers now pay an average of $589,000 for a single-family residence, according to Dan Hamilton, director of economics for the UCSB Economic Forecast Project.
The historic Miramar Hotel in Montecito will receive a stylish update from lodging icon Ian Shrager in early 2002. It will join the 34 beachfront hotels that hover at full capacity throughout most of the year. And 10 minutes from the Santa Barbara airport, Bacara, a controversial new spa rambling across 78 acres, has some residents contemplating the start of a creeping coastline sprawl.
This invasion has not happened overnight.
Flash back to the Seventies, when Santa Barbara residents had comparatively paltry retail choices. State Street had an I. Magnin, a Lou Rose shop and not much else. By the Eighties, the picture started to change, with the addition of El Paseo Nuevo, an outdoor shopping center anchored by The Broadway (now Macy’s) and a Nordstrom. By decade’s end, the town welcomed a cadre of national brands, including the Gap, Banana Republic and Express.
Santa Barbara’s downtown district could be said to have finally arrived in early 1998, when a 48,000-square-foot Saks Fifth Avenue store opened up for business on State Street.
“Santa Barbara has tremendous cachet, and its downtown area has a very strong cultural center,” said Marshall, Rose, executive director of the Downtown Organization of Santa Barbara, a business improvement district, sounding very much like the director of a business improvement district.
Today, State Street is a long, breezy corridor of boutiques, coffeehouses, restaurants, bars and bookstores that hosts an Anthropologie, an Urban Outfitters and a Lucky Brand store. Merchants confirm that retail rental spaces have soared to between $3 and $5 per square foot.
Here, families frequent surf shops, megastores and eateries. Tanned UCSB students hang out at the trendier specialty stores, drink wheat grass smoothies at Blenders, or check out local bands on weekends at Soho or Cannon’s.
“This is an active community, but we don’t dress up a lot, except for the [society] functions. The woman 35 to 55 is in Reeboks half the time,” said Wendy Foster, who spoke by phone from New York while on a buying trip. Foster co-owns one store on State Street, Pierre Lafond/Wendy Foster, and three others in neighboring Montecito with her husband Pierre Lafond.
She said her State Street customer is more price-sensitive and, generally, more youthful than at her other locations. Rattan couches, classical music and unfinished wood floors give the store an urban loft vibe. Foster stocks a range of contemporary labels and accessories at the store, including Earl Jeans, Tova Celine and Susana Monaco dresses, as well as shoes by Sigerson Morrison and NM70.
Down the block at SHE, assistant buyer Robin Gross was relieved to be over the tourist season and have “life back to normal.”
The store, which is owned by Daniele Smith, has been in the same location on State for 12 years. Gross, who has lived in Santa Barbara since 1992, said the street has really come of age in the last few years.
SHE caters to a sophisticated, well-traveled customer. Sweaters from 212 and 525, Sienna Leather coats, pants and skirts, Central Park West Cashmere, Serga Dana sportswear from France and For Joseph denim are part of the resource mix.
SHE’s customer drops about $200 to $300 per purchase and shops year-round. Sales average $50,000 per month, according to Gross.
“When I first moved here, the locals were trying to keep the chains out, but slowly they’ve been creeping in because they needed to provide tourists with somewhere to shop and spend their money,” said Gross.
Groovy mothers and daughters, college students and women heading out on a Friday night shop for contemporary looks at Bryan Lee, a trendy clothing shop on State, whose walls highlight the narrative paintings of local artist Carlos Paz.
Customers spend about $2 to $300 for labels including Miss Sixty, Betsey Johnson, Diesel, Mavi, Bianca Nero and Sue Wong, according to Nicole Baldridge, a leggy hipster who has been the store manager for the past four years.
Popular footwear includes boots and shoes by Steve Madden, Luichini, Atmosphere and Destroy. Dita eyewear and Harvey’s bags also move steadily off the shelves. Sales revenue projections are about $750,000 for yearend 2000, according to Baldridge.
“Girls will come in before the weekend and they want something fun and sassy to wear. Or if all the functions are going on, they want gowns–which we stock all year,” said Baldridge.
Across the street, contemporary brands abound at Link, which opened in November 1999. Owner Suzanne McDonald took a break from an 11-year stint in production at Wendy Foster’s company before opening her own women’s specialty store.
“I wanted to try to hit a niche for the local market, stylewise and pricewise,” said McDonald, a Santa Barbara resident for 18 years.
McDonald noted that residents are “careful shoppers,” who prefer to “stay grounded,” rather than to jump on every trend. Link’s prices range from $19 for a Project E Tee-shirt to $500 for hand knits by White & Warren. By November 2001, McDonald hopes sales figures will reach $800,000.
“Things that are too trendy may work in L.A., but they don’t necessarily work here,” said McDonald. “Santa Barbarians will pick up items that stay true to their lifestyle without looking like a fashion victim.”
The mix is not bereft of trends, however. For the more adventurous, Link offers glitter jeans from Sanctuary and prickly “eyelash” sweaters from Kenzie in pink or baby blue, as well as snakeskin print pants from Wildcat.
Among the store’s top sellers are jackets and washable suede bottoms by Wash to Wear (W2W) out of Canada, shiny jeans by Buffalo (also from Canada) and zip-front skirts by Billie Blues. Other key resources include Donna Degnan, Sanctuary, Lance Karesh and Mac & Jac.
“We’re seeing a lot more fashion on the street in the last 10 years,” said McDonald, noting that she initially got stares from locals when she first sported a pair of cropped Capri pants.
“Wendy [Foster] was the only game in town, for forever, but now we have influences from entertainment people and we seem to be getting a little more into fashion, a little more liberal.”
Pro surfers and active families shop for world class boards and surfwear at Channel Islands, a 3,500-square-foot store, which is co-owned by Terry Merrick and her husband, Al Merrick.
The family-run retailer has changed locations three times in its 30 year history in Santa Barbara, but the concept has remained essentially the same.
“This is a specialty shop destination. It’s the only place you can get Channel Island boards, but we carry most of the major women’s surfwear brands as well,” explained Terry Merrick.
She noted that her more mature customer might buy a Roxy skirt and a White Rice top, while the younger generation goes for brands such as Billabong Girls, Hurley and Lucy Love by Holly Sharp.
Channel Islands’ customer buys surf wear year-round, paying an average of $150 for three items, according to Merrick. However, the business does have a definite seasonal swell; the store sees a 200 percent increase in traffic during the summer months, according to Kate Merrick, assistant buyer.
A five-minute dash along Route 101 gets you to Montecito’s East Valley Road, where Lafond and Foster’s lifestyle concept has expanded to 10,000 feet of shopping and dining.
The first stop is Wendy Foster’s namesake store, which offers a mix of domestic and international resources to a mostly 35-plus, upscale clientele. Tse cashmere, Maria DiRippabianca and separates by Dosa and John Patrick are strong sellers at this shop, along with Gentry Portofino Italian knits.
Next door, the Lafond-Foster team offers weekend and casual looks at a space that locals refer to as “Sportswear.” Denim pieces, along with lines such as Eileen Fisher and Isda, are popular with Montecito residents and tourists.
Post-binge culinary cravings are answered by the adjacent Pierre Lafond market and deli, which stocks tempting sandwiches, specialty food items and Lafond’s labels from the Lafond and Santa Barbara vineyards.
One level up, which the Lafonds refer to as “upstairs,” home accessories, children’s clothing and garden items complete the lifestyle package at the store.
“We never started off with the concept of being a lifestyle store, but I guess we ended up satisfying people’s needs,” said Lafond, a soft-spoken gentleman who is also an architect.