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Judy Foreman: Embracing Change, Caroline Diani Positions Her Boutique for a Digital Future

At the forefront of fashion, businesswoman blends world-class designers and high-level customer service to meet an ever-evolving opportunity

Caroline Diani browses the latest styles in New York City during a September buying trip for her downtown Santa Barbara boutique.
Caroline Diani browses the latest styles in New York City during a September buying trip for her downtown Santa Barbara boutique.  (Rebecca Dale photo)

[Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery.]

With Christmas only hours away, the frenzy of the high season for retail merchants is winding down. Most business owners are sprinting to the finish line or, more important, their bottom line.

For the past 11 years, one of the superstars of the women’s fashion landscape in Santa Barbara has been Caroline Diani, owner of two stores, DIANI Boutique and DIANI Shoes. located in Arlington Plaza across State Street from the historic Arlington Theatre. In spite of the challenges of Internet shopping and big-box stores over the last decade, she has survived and thrived.

A beautiful, petite blonde, Diani was born in Kenya and earned a degree in fashion design at Kingston University in England. She first came to California in 1994 as an intern at Ventura-based Patagonia. After a couple of months with the company, she returned to Europe but relocated to Santa Barbara permanently in 1999.

With her only prior retail experience being a Saturday job starting at age 15, in 2002 she sold her future landlord, Robert Gilson, with two "mood boards" instead of a formal business plan.

Illustrating what DIANI’s merchandise would look and feel like, and the interior design that inspired her from her time in Kenya, she convinced him that "she cared deeply about how a customer feels when they are shopping at DIANI, and the presentation is integral in that feeling and experience."

After talking his ear off, Gilson told her, "I like to bet on the jockey and not the horse,” and he took a chance on her. She vowed not to let him down.

Grabbing a cup of tea at neighboring Renaud’s Patisserie & Bistro, we played a little catch up with our lives, which, for me, now includes a baby granddaughter, a new home and a weekly Noozhawk column.

Diani is juggling a career that involves two stores plus an e-commerce business, a blog, two dogs and regular trips to Paris and New York. Earlier this year, she married Jeffrey Doornbos, an actor, writer and former Blue Man of Blue Man Group fame. He's also a photographer and had his first exhibit in Santa Barbara last year.

Since its opening, DIANI has been an important fashion resource in Santa Barbara. The boutique is one of the most sought-after shopping destinations on the South Coast and appeals to a wide range of fashion-savvy women of all ages.

Diani herself is passionate about local businesses and how they make communities unique and contribute to the local economy. On Small Business Saturday, she used her blog, Diani Living, to encourage her clientele and friends to shop locally.

"Small is beautiful," said Diani, who is also committed to supporting many local nonprofit organizations, especially the Dream Foundation and Soles4Souls, for which she has helped collect more than 3,000 pairs of shoes annually. She also holds fashion shows in her store and dresses girls for National Charity League's annual fashion show.

Diani's first 10 years in business were about discovering what she had to offer, what made her store unique, and finding a work flow that did not kill her but allowed her to be in for the long haul. To prove herself to her customers, she knew she had to pay her dues, gain respect, brand her business, build her cachet and create a team that complimented her visions.

She also was simply growing up at the same time. She started her business at age 28 while she was still defining and refining her own style. She spent many of her early years finding the right mix of designers, and balancing price points with quality and exclusivity.

"It’s a dance," she said. "When you first start out, most designers won’t even meet with you.”

Diani is certain her next 10 years will look a lot different than the first 10. At the very least, she foresees a digital future.

She's worked diligently to create an assortment of world-class designers and high-level customer service, and she has the confidence that the local, personal touch will translate to consumers outside of her bricks-and-mortar customer base downtown. Diani has become well-versed in online retail and creative marketing and all the nuances in between.

"E-commerce is a very different animal," she said. "It’s global, and it means one has to speak a lot louder and the message has to be a lot clearer. ... You have to prove yourself, pay your dues and earn the cachet all over again.”

Whether e-tail or e-news, we both agreed that social media’s impact on business is massive. If you choose to ignore it, your business will be ignored. With her brand, her boutique and her blog, Diani is using social media to relay her messages in live time. Customers can find out the minute Diani gets a shipment from one of their favorite designers such as Isabel Marant and can jump on the size they want.

While buying online took some getting used to, I admit I can now shop DIANI right from my home office. Customers can also see and be jealous of what Diani is up to in New York City and Paris and what looks she is buying for the store. It’s a virtual trip of sorts, economical for sure but not as much fun as being there with her.

On her blog, Diani generously shares bits and pieces about her personal life and even allowed her fan base to weigh in on possible choices she was considering for her wedding ensemble, including her ring, dress, shoes and flowers.

"I want my customers to know the person behind the business and be more transparent," she explained. "More than just a store, it is becoming a conversation and a collaboration with my customers, and creating a larger community of like-minded people. I love that! That’s what business is to me as we approach 2014.”

A model of humility, considering her accomplishments, Diani insists she doesn't have things all figured out.

"It’s the very nature of the process of building a brand and finding a unique voice," she said. "At some points along the way, there are new projects that need addressing because of the changing facets of business.

"It feels like climbing a ladder and not all the steps are the same height and level of difficulty. Sometimes it seems impossible to get to the next one, but I have found, that if I just keep at it, I have always gotten there."

DIANI Boutique is open daily at 1324 State St. Click here for more information at DianiBoutique.com, or call 805.966.6116. Click here for the Diani Living Fashion & Lifestyle Blog.

— Judy Foreman is a Noozhawk columnist and longtime local writer and lifestyles observer. She can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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