Santa Barbara, Inc.

Posted online: January 2016

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Written by Katherine Stewart Illustrations By Donald Robertson

When I first moved to town more than 10 years ago, friends back East scratched their heads. “Santa Barbara… Is that a suburb of Los Angeles?” they’d ask.

“Oh yeah,” I’d say. I didn’t want to let the hordes in on what I thought of as my secret. Santa Barbara had been hiding in plain sight for decades. It had long been a Shangri-la to the movie stars, titans of industry, artists, and dreamers who came to get married, juice up, start over. But, cognoscenti apart, most people viewed Santa Barbara as a provincial backwater—and locals were all too happy to play along.

Well, it’s not a secret anymore. Bold-faced names such as Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe, Kevin Costner, Jeff Bridges, Ellen DeGeneres, George Lucas, Conan O’Brien, and Ashton Kutcher have made sure of that. With their help, Santa Barbara isn’t just a town—it has become a lifestyle.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 12.10.58 PMSanta Barbara’s fate was sealed when some of its best homegrown experiments turned into global movements. Channel Islands Surfboards, founded by Al Merrick, has evolved from a low-key company into a global powerhouse, merging with Burton Snowboards to capture a significant share of the market. From its original head- quarters in Carpinteria, has transformed online education and training. And let’s not forget the consumer electronics company Sonos, another homegrown initiative that has revolutionized wireless audio systems and applications around the globe.

Scott Anderson, Channel Island Surfboards’ general manager, says Santa Barbara and its environs are critical to their branding. “There is a definite parallel with the brand and the region,” he says. “Santa Barbara is held at almost mythological status in the global surfing community. With Rincon 0.8 miles from our factory, we use it as our testing facility. Santa Barbara literally helps shape our products.”

The “Jewel of the American Riviera”—as the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club describes itself—capitalizes on its brand of refined, sporty luxury through a licensing program that has penetrated markets in more than a dozen countries. A range of products—from leather goods to fragrance—all bearing the club logo sell briskly in the shopping malls of Milan, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Tel Aviv.

Santa Barbara has become a name that people and companies from far away want on their work, too. When the Italian luxury linens giant Frette created a bedding line with a Spanish-Moorish aesthetic, they called it Montecito. Pottery Barn has also bestowed the name on some of its products. Restoration Hardware’s Montecito collection of outdoor furniture has a midcentury look, tailored yet glamorous. Barclay Butera named a polished nickel round tray with bamboo handles Montecito, perhaps a nod to the enclave’s tradition of stylish at-home entertaining.

Fashion and personal-care companies have followed. As if living there wasn’t enough, Montecitans could wear the Tory Burch Montecito cover-up or Trina Turk’s Montecito dress and burn the Montecito candle—a blend of green jasmine buds, natural eucalyptus, and cedarwood—from Hudson Grace. San Francisco-based home fragrance company Agraria named a delectable array of scents the Santa Barbara Collection, “since it was our second most favorite California city (we did leave our hearts in San Francisco),” says Agraria president and CEO James N. Gentry.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 12.12.23 PMYou know that a place has become a brand when people start talking about how great it was before it became what it is. Incubrand Studios founder Brooks Branch, who has lived in Santa Barbara off and on since the 1970s, notes that for many years, Santa Barbara was off the mainstream radar. “It was a hidden jewel,” he says. “The Santa Barbara soap opera was the first time people looked in on the fantasy that is Santa Barbara.”

Mother and daughter Nancy and Caroline Law, who own The Santa Barbara Company, an online shop and boutique specializing in homegrown products, say a surprisingly large portion of their clientele is local. “There’s an old-school crowd that is proud to remember Santa Barbara when it was a little sleepier, slower, and quieter,” says Caroline. “These customers tend to be the ones who are passionate about supporting the artists and artisans that thrive here. Locals tend to care that the products are produced here, while visitors are more interested in items with the words Santa Barbara on the label.”

One of the secrets of Santa Barbara’s branding success is its history of proactive local governance. In recent years, Visit Santa Barbara, the official mouthpiece of the city’s tourist industry, has been aimed at defining a vintage identity. Thanks to Pearl Chase and other city planners, our town will never be dotted with billboards and high-rises that plague other urban destinations. But insiders know better than to imagine we’re frozen in time. New cultural resources are in the works, including the forthcoming Museum of Exploration and Innovation, which will bring science and technology alive for Santa Barbara’s youngest citizens. 

Certainly Santa Barbara’s profile has been raised immeasurably by films such as Sideways (2004) and It’s Complicated (2009), which were as much about the region as the stories. And on any given day, you’re likely to run into one of the stars of TV shows such as The Bachelor and Montecito around town. So, as Santa Barbara becomes a celebrity city, how does the collective fantasy shape our own behavior?

“You can carve out your private moments, find the little places you can get away to,” says Branch. For him, that means adjusting the timing of when he visits his favorite locales—strolling State Street on the weekdays, for instance, rather than weekends. “You can figure out how to have your own private relationship with Santa Barbara.” ?


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