On a recent outing to do some early holiday shopping, I headed to Arlington Plaza in downtown Santa Barbara.
With longtime tenants such as Carlitos Café y Cantina, Blossom Salon, Treat and Renaud’s Patisserie, and new shops like Folly and Marisa Mason Jewelry, the lifestyle shopping center at 1324 State St. is thriving.
My favorite go-to shop for the latest in fashion still remains DIANI, a popular beacon for women’s fashion and, more recently, home and wellness goods.
Caroline Diani, the eponymous owner, is celebrating her 20th year in business, and I’m proud to say I’ve been a customer since she opened her first boutique in 2002.
While some of my clothing needs have changed — no more micro mini skirts or 5-inch stiletto heels — what has not changed is knowing Diani will always carry the latest in women’s fashion.
We sat down for tea at Renaud’s next door, where I asked her about all the changes she has seen in the retail world over the last two decades.
Born in Kenya but raised in England, Diani came to California for a design internship at Patagonia while she finished her fashion design degree from Kingston University London. She discovered Santa Barbara and found her way back a few years later after graduation.
She pitched a retail concept to Montecito resident Robert Gilson, who had recently acquired the complex, and opened DIANI with very little financial resources but a clear vision.
“During the early years, growth felt agonizingly slow, but my determination and ability to connect with a client through my fashion and customer service background, helped keep my dream alive,” she told Noozhawk.
Fast forward to 2022, with her husband, Jeffrey Doornbos, whom she married in 2013 at the historic Presidio Chapel, Diani now has three stores, a vibrant online business, social media channels, and a highly accomplished and dedicated team.
“The pace is exponentially faster and days are longer” she said. “From updating social media with fresh content daily to getting all our new goodies online, to creating weekly blog posts to stay connected to customers (even when I’m traveling or spending time on the East Coast), it’s an added layer of the day to day of running retail stores.”
Buying remains a major part of her day.
“What started out as buying clothes for DIANI, has evolved into buying shoes, bags and accessories for DIANI Shoes and now home and wellness goods for DIANI Living,” she said. “I’m constantly searching for new brands and elements that add to the storytelling of DIANI.”
She also continuously re-evaluates her personal and professional goals to keep herself energized.
“This pace comes with some work/life imbalances that I have to keep figuring out,” she said, adding that her getaway is a circa 1750s stone farmhouse in New York’s Hudson Valley that she and her husband are renovating.
Does she have a secret to her longevity?
“Over 20 years, I’ve seen a lot of change, not only in our corner of Santa Barbara in Arlington Plaza, but on State Street, too,” Diani said. “Nordstrom and Macy’s have gone, as have several local boutiques.
“I don’t have any secrets when it comes to success. I just know that for me it’s vital to be willing to adjust my strategy in the tough times, without giving up on the vision.”
Even without the specter of COVID-19, the retail industry has had its share of challenges. The internet has been one of them, but Diani has found a way to make it work for her.
“Expanding DIANI to having an online buying channel made perfect sense when it became clear that what I was buying had appeal beyond Santa Barbara,” she explained.
“We were getting calls from New York, Chicago, England, Los Angeles, Australia, and it was clunky emailing photographs and sizing. So dianiboutique.com was born.”
She has retooled the website several times to keep it evolving and user-friendly.
“It’s exciting to see all three stores (DIANI, DIANI Shoes and DIANI Living) in one place and also having my blog there, too,” she said. “It’s my place to share what’s on my mind, what current projects I’m up to, favorite things for a wardrobe, home.”
When asked how she decides what to buy, Diani said she has “the global traveler in mind.”
“Our Santa Barbara customers like to travel, whether domestically or internationally, and we also have customers all across the U.S. and overseas, so it allows me to think expansively when buying,” she said.
“I buy for all weather, climates, city and urban dwellers alike. It makes buying a lot of fun when you don’t have constraints.”
Diani was reflective about her longevity.
“It’s all too easy to go into high-speed overdrive only to find the years evaporating, realize that you’ve lost sight of yourself, and put off much-needed opportunities to reset the priorities,” she said. “If I’m a shell of myself after accomplishing my goals, I haven’t succeeded …
“I never imagined I would be part of something continuously for so many years — same career, same level of dedication, same amount of love for it.”
With a clear appreciation for what’s in front of her, Diani repeatedly expressed gratitude for her family, friends, and the DIANI team and customers.
“When I was able to strip away so many feelings of doubt, my needs became very simple,” she said. “Get up and show up for everyone I care about, even if I don’t have all the answers.”
— Judy Foreman is a Noozhawk columnist and longtime local writer and lifestyles observer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.