Although it’s much more than a city of the super rich and ultra skinny, Santa Barbara is synonymous with style, wealth, and glamour. As a friend of mine said when visiting from Texas, “Can we please go to Money-cito for lunch?” She’d heard about it all the way from the outskirts of Houston.
In Europe, where I’m from, it’s all about fashion or “fare la bella figura,” as the Italians say, which loosely translates to “looking your best.” I know Europeans who would gladly take out a second mortgage on their house just so they could wear the latest and greatest in Prada. (Of course, they wouldn’t have to, seeing that they’re all still living at home with their parents at age 30!!!)
This addiction to fashion extends to Santa Barbara too, where people know the importance of being en vogue, and many of us relish the opportunity to cruise State Street in high heels and a brand new outfit. It’s not unusual to see femme-fatale-like behavior at this daily Santa Barbara fashion show, where some will draw blood for a front-row seat and a prime swag bag. While this may not be New York or Paris, the notion is clear: We want to look good, feel great, and ooze sophistication.
Most of us believe that when we look fab, we feel better. So it’s no wonder that we go to great lengths to shine and show off that inner-outer glow as often as possible. Many of my friends represent every sales clerk’s wet dream when browsing downtown, their Vuitton purses open and platinum cards handy. To them it’s hip or hell, fashion or famish. Good luck for them – and for the rest of us trying to keep up – S.B. offers every opportunity to pamper yourself with first-class jewelry, designer wear, shoes, bags, furniture, spa treatments, salon essentials, and so on. In fact, there’s enough to keep any fashionista busy for a very long time.
In that spirit, last month I managed to land a meeting with John Doucette and Marty Bebout during what was supposed to be their lunch break. Swamped in the midst of the year’s biggest season, the owners of Blue Bee were kind enough to offer their take on the style choices of Santa Barbarians, and their hottest items of Spring 2008
Since Doucette and Bebout first came to town and took over a T-shirt shop, they’ve established themselves as ringleaders in the S.B. world of fashion. They have grown Blue Bee into a successful business dealing in everything from luxury apparel to bags, shoes, and even kids wear.
When I show up at the Figueroa Street office, I am thrilled to discover a place resembling every girl’s dream of a dress-up party with beautiful clothes, fabrics, and garments everywhere. Doucette and Bebout are working ferociously and I get the sense that my timing might be slightly flawed. Both men are in their 40s, impeccably dressed, and have that hint of casual coolness about them all men want but only few ever achieve. It’s like a mix of charm, arrogance, and knowing that you have the goods to back it up.
When they finally speak, I am genuinely surprised by the lack of an upper-class British accent. “I think people in Santa Barbara have a very cosmopolitan taste,” said Bebout. “They’re looking for something special, yet classic and relaxed. I like to think of it more as NY than LA style – Sarah Jessica Parker, and maybe Courtney Love, but definitely Angelina Jolie. What I see is that our clients are confident enough to want what no one else has. They don’t want to be followers. They want to lead.“
Both Bebout and Doucette emphasize that their customers are anything but fashion victims, blindly following trends or celeb style. The target audience is mature, confident, and in the 30-50 age range. “Unlike a lot of other stores, we’re not targeting teenagers,” said Bebout, “although they can have a lot of buying power. Especially around here.”
When looking around in their Blue Bee Luxury store, I see that buying power is essential, as some of the clothes cost more than my car. I instantly become enamored with a silky red D & G coat, and it’s all I can do to keep from calling my credit union and cashing out my 401K. Fortunately, there are some more general trends for those of us who want to look sharp without breaking the bank.
“This season it’s boots, boots, boots,” promised Bebout, “anything comes with a pair of boots.” I don’t dare ask if my brown, half-leg zip-ups qualify, but I feel encouraged when Doucette jumped in: “Floral prints, bright colors, and dresses are the big thing of the spring. The dresses for women definitely continue.” Surely, I can dig up a few of those for my Christmas bonus.
“Our biggest forte is that we’re very hands on,” Doucette explained. “We spend a lot of time on the floor listening to the needs and wants of our customers, something large department stores can’t possibly do. That’s what makes us unique: Our ability to understand what people want and an unparalleled level of service.”
And there’s no doubt that Blue Bee is unique. Having grown from one to five stores in less than eight years, and offering some of the most exclusive brands in the world, everything about the company exudes class. When asked if they sell any labels at “affordable prices” they both smile. “We try to include items at lower price points, but some of the things we sell best are admittedly specialty items,” said Bebout. “For instance, we carry Ralph Lauren Black Label, which is only sold in 11 stores in the country. That’s what our customers really want, a guarantee that not everyone out there is wearing the exact same suit.”
He mentions that men today are much more likely to spend money on apparel and appearance than just five years
ago. “They know what they want,” explained Bebout, “and they want to look good.” According to the Blue Bee owners, there also aren’t many men’s stores around to rival their status.
When walking away from our 30 minute chat, I fully understand how they got that status, and I silently applaud Blue Bee for doing such a convincing job as S.B. style gurus. Their stores are hitting that ever-winning combination of classic, modern, and sophisticated to a tee. Now, if only I could afford a slim-cut D & G coat:.