What do you wear to interview the woman who brought designer fashion to Santa Barbara? Unless you’re lucky enough to own a closetful of clothes from one of her boutiques, you basically punt and wear black. All black. (And pray she doesn’t notice your sweater is from Target.)
Wendy Foster sits across from me, dressed in one of her so-called uniforms: a black cardigan over a black T-shirt, grey wide-legged pants tucked into well-worn boots, a grey scarf around her neck. Her hair is an unfussy tangle of grey and black ringlets that stop short of her ears, from which dangle silver earrings. Her entire ensemble seems uncomplicated, simple even. But taking a closer look, I realize that each element is a marvel of design-the quintessential T-shirt, the iconic pair of trousers, the exquisitely made leather boots, the elegant scarf, the perfect earrings. Wendy Foster embodies Santa Barbara’s understated-yet-elegant style; after all, she’s the one who invented it.
I’m willing to bet almost every woman in Santa Barbara who cares about fashion has bought (or coveted) something at one of Foster’s four clothing boutiques: Wendy Foster and Sportswear in Montecito’s Upper Village, Angel on Coast Village Road, and Wendy Foster on State Street. Her retail empire-which she owns with her husband, Pierre Lafond-also includes two vineyards, a bistro, a gourmet market, and a home accessories store. Not bad for a local girl.
Well, she’s almost a local girl. Foster actually was born in New York City to a wealthy, prominent family.
From the beginning, Foster demonstrated a passion for fashion that she probably inherited from her mother, whom she described as a “big socialite” with a closet packed with designer clothes. She fondly recalls that when she was very little she would go into that closet whenever her mother was out. “I remember putting ‘Tico-Tico’ on the record player and dressing up in her clothes,” Foster said.
When Foster was six, her family moved to Santa Barbara, and her mother’s wardrobe choices became something of an issue. “I remember going to the opera at the Granada Theatre and my mother made us get dressed in evening gowns-can you imagine? -and we went there and nobody else was dressed up. That’s the way they did it back East, but not in Santa Barbara. It was a big shock to her.” Even so, Santa Barbara’s casual dress code never deterred Foster’s mother: “She’s 90 years old and she still dresses up.”
Foster’s own style emerged gradually as she adapted to life in a California coastal town. Though she attended Santa Barbara Junior High and High School, as a young girl she went to Montecito’s exclusive private school, Crane Country Day, and later to Marymount Academy, where school uniforms are the norm. Maybe that’s what triggered her preference for uniforms. “I’ve always been a uniform type of person,” she said, but one with her own unique twist. “I would buy a feedbag and use it as a purse. I would get hunting boots or skirts that were ethnic, or scarves. I always dressed differently than anyone else.”
The desire to be different was fueled by Foster’s travels with her aunt and uncle, who spent much of their time exploring exotic venues. “My aunt and uncle had a great deal of influence on me. They were world travelers. They were adventurers. So I guess I got some of that from them.” To many of her friends and clients, this seems a bit of an understatement. “She’s the most adventurous person I know,” said a longtime client who has accompanied Foster on buying trips. “She will exhaust you because she won’t stop.” Her assistant buyer, Jean Panelli, agreed. “Of all my friends whom I would want to go on a long trip with, the best one would be Wendy because she’s fearless. She’s led a really interesting life, and she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty.”
It’s not surprising to imagine Wendy Foster with dirty hands since she is a well-known and serious gardener who has created many beautiful spaces filled with living things. Her buying trips have not been limited to clothing; she takes “plant safaris” where she ventures up the coast to small nurseries in search of interesting plants, especially tall cutting plants. (Photos of her garden are posted on the Wendy Foster Web site.) Dirt figured prominently in her college years as well, when she studied anthropology. After stints at Monterey Peninsula College, Boston University, and Mexico City College, Foster picked grapes on a kibbutz in Israel, attended the Alliance Fran§aise in Paris, and worked at UNESCO.
Eventually, she made her way back to Santa Barbara and into the arms of her future husband, Pierre Lafond. A Canadian who studied architecture at McGill University, Lafond came to Santa Barbara with his father and ended up founding Santa Barbara Winery-the first winery in Santa Barbara County since Prohibition. He now owns and operates two wineries, and his work ethic matches Foster’s: “Pierre is so busy, I hardly see him. He’s just amazing. I get up at three in the morning and he’s already working.” (“Pierre works 364 days a year,” echoed Panelli.) Foster admits that, like most architects, Lafond has a rigorous aesthetic when it comes to home decoration. “You just can’t get away with anything,” she notes about his close scrutiny of items she acquires for their home (including even throw pillows). “You just have to be so strict [taste-wise]. Actually, I think I’ve beaten him down. I think he’s learned a thing or two from me.”
When Foster began dating Lafond in 1974, he already owned a small clothing shop in the Upper Village. But things really took off in 1977, when she took over the store, using herself as the template for her future customers’ fashion needs. “I went into my closet and I counted all the sweaters I had and blouses and pants and skirts, and that’s how I bought [for the store].” Later on, as she gained more experience, Foster discovered retail buying is based on very precise formulas. Before that, she relied on her instincts.
“I did it by the gut, but then my gut started to bleed,” she said, meaning her buying got somewhat out of control. “I didn’t know; I wasn’t given a budget or anything.” Nowadays she follows the formula. “There is a proportion that’s very strict. I buy so many dollars in blouses, so many dollars in skirts and pants.” But the style in her stores is still based on her instinct and vision.
In the late 1980s, Foster’s instincts about the future of fashion inspired her to create Angel, a boutique in the Lower Village geared toward younger women. She was aided in this effort by Susan Pitcher, a fashion insider who was initially responsible for opening and managing Angel. (Pitcher later moved on and opened her own acclaimed Coast Village boutiques, dressed and ready.) Like all of Foster’s ventures, Angel was an immediate hit and remains extremely popular to this day. Indeed, it’s clear that the retail aspects of both the Upper and Lower Village have been influenced by Foster’s keen understanding of the way locals and tourists alike respond to the “Santa Barbara lifestyle.” In fact, it’s more than a lifestyle, it’s a branded vision, replete with its own eponymous magazine. But none of this could have happened without Wendy Foster.
Actually, it’s hard to imagine Santa Barbara without Wendy Foster. People tell me the sartorial landscape here was pretty bleak before she entered the marketplace. Women dressed in either a uniformly conservative style or in jeans, flip-flops, and beachwear. There was little else, and even young women could end up looking matronly. Fashion-conscious customers had to travel to Los Angeles or even New York to buy their clothes. The only exceptions were a store called Tweeds & Weeds, which carried beautiful old-fashioned cashmere twinsets, and a boutique called Diane’s, which offered some clothes Foster found interesting. In fact, the former owner of Diane’s currently lives in Montecito and shops at-you guessed it-Wendy Foster.
Even though she may be responsible for dressing other women in a fresh, chic look, Foster doesn’t see herself as a fashion plate. “I’m still ‘off’ from what the normal person wears in Santa Barbara, I think,” she said. Surprisingly, Foster’s theory about clothes runs counter to what you’d expect a retailer to espouse: “I’m against having a lot of clothes. I think it ruins your creativity. The fewer clothes you have, the more creative you can be.” (Whether she’d actually want her customers to adopt that theory is another matter.) Hearing this, my sense is that Foster expects the clothing she sells to stand the test of time. “There’s a quality and a staying power to [Foster’s taste], rather than just a trendiness,” said Panelli. In fact, one customer I interviewed admitted to me that the cardigan she was wearing was purchased from Wendy Foster some 15 years earlier.
Foster goes on buying trips to New York and Paris twice a year, usually accompanied by Panelli. Although the prospect seems glamorous, the two are often gone for a month or more at a time. And the pace is intense, with appointments at high-powered designer showrooms all day long, every day. The two women use the subway in New York and the metro in Paris, since it’s faster to get around than taking cabs. And because their orders aren’t finalized until several days or weeks after the buying appointments, Foster and Panelli take detailed notes and digital photos at each showroom. They do this to remember what they’ve liked (or disliked) and to determine how clothing lines from different designers will look when combined “back home” in the boutiques. Foster stays focused by keeping specific customers in mind. After all, the ultimate buyers are here in Santa Barbara, not Paris or New York. “You need a handle on reality; you’re not just in Paris, you’re back in Santa Barbara,” she said, a fact Foster never lets herself forget.
This technique is part of what pulls together a Wendy Foster store. Even the most knowledgeable customer would have a hard time identifying “looks” by specific designers in any of her boutiques. That’s not to say Foster doesn’t have her favorite designers; she’s especially fond of the Belgians (Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten). But her talent is buying things from designer collections that work well with her other designer choices. It’s as if Foster is a deejay who samples musical phrases (items of clothing) from existing compositions (designer collections) and plays them together to create her own fashion symphony.
Overall, the “Wendy Foster style” is sensual rather than overtly sexual- not desexualized, but subtle and sophisticated, the kind of femininity that is not afraid to venture into Katharine Hepburn’s tailored menswear. Or, like Foster’s muse, Diane Keaton. Panelli told me, “Whenever Wendy sees a new [clothing] collection and she’s kind of baffled by it, she says, ‘What would Diane Keaton wear?'” Foster uses Keaton as a touchstone because she believes Keaton’s personal style has evolved throughout time, something Foster feels is critical for women as they age. “Otherwise, you start looking like your high school reunion,” she said with a shudder.
It comes as no surprise that Foster encourages her customers to try different looks and gives her opinion freely-even when it’s unsolicited. “Wendy has very strong opinions about what she thinks looks good : and she constantly is pushing me to be less conservative,” said a longtime devoted client, who adds that, according to Foster, “Just because I am an old lady, doesn’t mean I have to dress like one.”