Outside Wendy Foster‘s signature store in Montecito’s upper village, the tables were completely occupied, but I was lucky enough to find a spot under a tree dressed in the colors of the fall season. From my perch, I could appreciate the park’s green lawn, the tables nearby under which a few furry friends had made their home, and the comings and goings on the walkway. I must have looked like a shopper with my satchel because a tourist coming out of Wendy Foster carrying one of her signature bags approached me. “All I had to do was look in that window,” she exclaimed gesturing toward the shop with her free hand, “to know that every elegant piece of clothing inside and out must have been chosen by an artist with distinctive tastes and a grasp of international fashion, and what a surprise… right here in this small town of Montecito!”
Shortly after that enthusiastic encounter, Wendy emerged from her shop and joined me at the table, cup of tea in hand. “What can I say about myself,” she began, “other than I suppose I’m a traveler at heart?” A revelation true for Wendy’s frequent buying trips to New York, Paris, London, and Milan and other cities across the globe, but also for her life in general. “New York City is where I was born but my parents moved to Massachusetts, to Manchester by the Sea – like in the movie,” she says, laughing lightly. “Travel must have come naturally,” she continues, “because another move to a huge family farm in Palm Beach, Florida sparked my love of nature and gardening.”
When Wendy was five years old, her parents sold the farm and came to Santa Barbara, the start of a geographically stable period in her life. She attended Crane School, then Marymount, and finally Santa Barbara High School. “But I have to say,” she admitted, “that it wasn’t long after graduation I became curious as to what was going on in that great big world out there!”
The Travel Bug
From sleepy Santa Barbara, Wendy headed back to New York City. “I went to the City,” she says, “because it just seemed like the most exciting and happening place.” On the 15th floor of New York’s most iconic building – the Empire State Building – she landed work as a receptionist for a blue jeans company, where she was first exposed to the rudiments of the clothing business. But, her self-admitted “itchy feet” got the better of her, and she set off for Mexico, where she spent a year and a half studying anthropology. Then, it was back to the Eastern seaboard, with stops between.
“I finally settled in Boston working as a typist at the Harvard Medical School, but what I mostly remember was the Boston Strangler who had the entire city in a uproar,” she chuckled. “I stayed just long enough to earn the money I needed to travel to France, a place I’d always wanted to visit,”
In France, Wendy – now an excellent typist – was hired by UNESCO in the French-English written translation department. Surrounded by fashion houses, culture, and French cuisine, she stayed for over two years and readily admits that France left a lifelong mark on her sensibilities.
After bouncing around Europe for several more years, her journey took her to Israel living on the land in a kibbutz. Wendy’s travel lust was in full swing with trips around the globe then back across the ocean to Mexico where she added ancient cultures and fabrics to her repertoire, and eventually to Los Angeles working for the Walt Disney Company. A siren song carried, apparently, on a Santa Barbara breeze, lured the wanderer back to Santa Barbara, the home of her youth.
Enter Pierre Lafond
It’s not possible to think of Wendy Foster without Pierre Lafond – owner and founder of Santa Barbara Winery and Lafond Winery & Vineyards – coming to mind. Although a working architect in Santa Barbara for many years, Pierre’s main focus now is as a vintner, retailer, and restaurateur. Pierre’s early business ventures were wine and spirits stores in Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez Valley, and eventually San Ysidro Road in Montecito. Wendy, upon her return to Santa Barbara, also started a business of her own as a graphic designer and letterpress typesetter with business partner Bill Horton. During that time she frequented the wine and spirits store owned by Pierre Lafond. And there it was that Wendy met Pierre…
First as friends and later as a married couple, Pierre and Wendy were above all, entrepreneurs. Pierre’s Montecito wine and spirits shop began to expand with merchandise: wet bar aprons, kitchen items, fabrics, and a few eclectic selections. “The store continued to evolve eventually to expand to a delicatessen and market,” Wendy recounts. “There actually was no place to eat at the time other than Cafe del Sol, a Mexican restaurant (now Pierre Lafond’s Montecito Wine Bistro), so it seemed a natural next step,” she says.
The expanded wine and spirits shop and delicatessen took a great deal of work and it soon became obvious that additional help was needed. “Pierre was doing all the buying at that point, most of it on the phone,” she reveals. A buyer was hired to lighten the load, but with the opening of the sportswear shop directly adjacent to the deli, the buyer couldn’t handle the overload and left. At that critical juncture, Pierre suggested that Wendy take over as buyer for the sportswear store.
“There was nothing like that in Montecito so it was a hit in the beginning!” Wendy exclaims. “I put my entire heart into that job… all my strength, everything I had. I worked for free for six months, seven days a week and,” she adds, “I loved every minute of it.” With the passing of time, other Wendy Foster stores were successfully unveiled: Wendy Foster in Montecito, on State Street and in Los Olivos, Angel on Coast Village Road, and of course, Wendy Foster Sportswear.
For many years, Wendy continued to do the buying for the stores herself. “I used to travel six to eight times a year,” she says, shaking her head. “A couple of times to New York, to Paris, London, Milan, and other locations when necessary to develop collections for the various locations. It was a lot of work but,” she says with a laugh, “I do love to travel.”
Unfortunately, after a fall in Milan that broke her back and a lengthy hospital stay in Paris, Wendy was forced to slow down. She still travels and continues to buy, but at a slower pace. “I have to admit that after forty years, I’m very proud that the collections in the Wendy Foster stores in Montecito, Santa Barbara, and Los Olivos are now known and appreciated in cities worldwide.
Wendy and Pierre make their home in Santa Barbara. Their main focus continues to be their enterprises. “We’re passionate about our business ventures,” Wendy says. “They’ve become like our children… as a matter of fact, they are our children!” And the family has grown. Pierre Lafond’s successful Montecito Wine Bistro now occupies the restaurant space on San Ysidro Road and is a showcase for his wines with an excellent menu and plenty of ambiance. When not working, Wendy’s garden is her consuming interest. “I bought a lot downtown where cars were brought to die and turned it into a garden,” she says, smiling. “I’m there every day tending to my plants, a passion of mine since the early days.”
When indoors, it’s her piano. “I can practice – and it is a practice – for hours completely absorbed. I love that piano… it’s my therapy!”
As the afternoon grew to a close, I waved good-bye and Wendy returned to work. A last look at the display windows reminded me of the tourist’s insightful words: these tasteful and elegant garments had indeed been chosen by an artist with distinctive tastes and an international flair not often seen.
And, I should add, someone with a wealth of lived experience that has been woven into the fabrics, colors, and styles that bear her signature. And think about it: we don’t have to go through security at an international terminal for that kind of a selection; it’s all right here in Montecito!