First published in the Montecito Journal Magazine, Fall/Winter 2020
Wendy Foster wears black low-heeled boots, a black cashmere sweater, and white linen pants with her salt-and-pepper hair gathered loosely at the nape of her neck. She embodies her signature style, what she describes as “soft and strong, practical, with a foot in handmade.” It’s a style that didn’t really exist in Santa Barbara until she opened her first store in the ‘70s. Now, it’s iconic, and many would say the same about Foster. Outside her shop in the Upper Village, people sitting at iron tables peek up from their lunches to watch her pass by. As we enter the Montecito Coffee Shop, a woman sitting near the register claps and yelps, “Yay, it’s my favorite person!”
Foster nods hello then leads us to a table tucked in the back. Though many know Wendy Foster as a pioneer of Santa Barbara fashion, few know the woman behind the brand. I have lots of questions, but before I can get one in, Foster beats me to the punch. As soon as we’ve settled into our seats, she asks, “Have you taken anyone to the Frog Wall yet?”
Foster refers to our first encounter five years ago when I interviewed her for a small feature. She asked if I’d been to the Frog Wall after a few minutes, and I shook my head. Next, we were in her white Prius driving out of Montecito, circling the roundabout to Alameda Padre Serra and up into the hills of the Riviera. During the ride, she spoke of trips to Paris for wholesale merchandise marts, and I conjured an image of her after a long day, reclining in a chaise lounge framed by tufted silk curtains in a Parisian suite.
Once parked curbside on Paterna Road, we climbed out of the car, and in just a few steps we were, in fact, in front of the Frog Wall, a shrine to frogs, accumulating since 1989. I asked if she’d mind posing for a picture for the Santa Barbara Sentinel, where I was an editor at the time. She agreed, somewhat bemused, wondering why anyone would care. I gently reminded her, “you’re kinda famous around these parts,” and she flashed a humble smile.
Back at the coffee shop, Wendy opens up. “I hear that people are scared of me,” she says. “People tell me, ‘When I first met you, I was scared of you.’ I don’t know…”
She leaves the thought lingering, but I get where it’s coming from. Foster’s quiet reserve can be disorienting to people who don’t know her. They’d probably never guess she spent her girlhood days parading around the house in her mother’s clothes.
“I lived in Palm Beach. My mother was a socialite, and she used to go out every night,” Foster explains. “I would sneak into her closet, I guess I was four or five years old, put on her gowns, drag them around in her high-heeled shoes, and dance to ‘Tico Tico.’”
Her family relocated to Montecito when she was six, and they lived “on top of that hill there,” she says, pointing to the land across from her shop. “And we owned all the property to the YMCA and over to the next big house.”
Foster attended Crane Country Day School and Marymount School, and she says growing up in our elite enclave gave her a sense of what women want out of fashion, especially in Montecito.
“Real life” started, she says, when her parents divorced, and her father moved to Mazatlan, Mexico. Foster attended Santa Barbara Junior High at her stepfather’s request and then graduated from Santa Barbara High. She says that was a tough time, socially, and her weight also became an issue. Once a size eighteen, she credits her family for taking her to the Sansum Clinic to help get her weight under control. “If you have that problem when you’re young and address it and learn to control yourself, then you have that gift your whole life,” she says.
Though body conscious as a teen, Foster still loved clothes. Her passion for quality fabrics began in her mother’s wardrobe in Palm Beach and never stopped. After stints at Monterey Peninsula College and Boston University, Foster moved to Mexico City and snagged her first job in fashion when a few friends started a clothing line of Mexican designs, and Foster joined in. She stuffed her VW convertible to the brim and traveled up and down the California coast, selling their designs to every store she hit. “I didn’t know how unusual that was,” Foster says, using her napkin to wipe mayonnaise from her lip after biting into her tuna fish sandwich. “They were fabulous, just shirts I was selling.”
The Montecito Coffee Shop is not quite full. Families are seated at a few tables. Nearby, a couple politely leans in our direction, stretching to hear Foster.
Foster explains that her drive up the coast was a precursor of things to come. One small lead-with-your-gut move that helped form the woman we know today. There were others. For example, while in Paris working for UNESCO, the 26-year-old Foster decided she wanted a vacation, maybe to work on a farm. Inspired by Leon Uris’s Exodus, she traveled east to Israel. “There weren’t any Jewish people in Santa Barbara, and I found out about them when I read this book,” explains Foster, adding that she was drawn to the closeness of Jewish families and to being part of a tribe. “And when I went to Israel, boy, did I belong,” she says. “When I went over there, I found my worth. I wasn’t afraid of anybody. I could just go right up, and I was an equal.”
After a car accident that put her in the hospital, she linked with the Rothschild family, and they offered her the opportunity to start a restaurant at their country club. So, she did, running an Arab-American restaurant from 1963-1967.
In the beginning, she did most of the cooking while also studying at the Hebrew language school, Ulpan, for seven months while still in a cast. Unfortunately, according to Wendy, the staff she eventually hired began to steal, and the business fizzled out. “My Hebrew was pretty good,” she laughs. “But how do you say, FU?”
It wasn’t all bad. She met a man and fell in love, an Israeli who grew up in a Russian Gulag. His background made a big impression on Foster and helped inspire her work ethic. Even today, Foster is tightly bound to her work. She hardly ever goes out and prefers it that way. “I’ve worked so hard my whole life, just worked like a dog for that place, and I was always too exhausted to go to dinner after.”
Bringing beauty to people is what draws her to fashion. She flatly admits, however, that her career has been based on a fear of failure. “When I opened that store [Wendy Foster Montecito, next to Pierre Lafond Market & Deli], a man came in and said, ‘What are you doing opening this store? You’re going to be out of business in six months!’”
She says that fear still drives her. When I mention that, considering her presence in Santa Barbara County, people would be surprised to hear this, she looks up from her tea and shrugs. “We all have something,” she says.
After Israel, Foster returned to Santa Barbara and became a letterpress printer for seven years, printing mostly stationery and posters, a trade taught to her by her boyfriend at the time. “Now that I look back on the things that I did, I wasn’t as bad as I [thought] myself to be. I can’t draw, only stick figures. I got this book at Chaucer’s… that reminds me, I have to go to Chaucer’s today,” she says, pulls a notebook from her purse, takes my pen from across the table, and adds to a To-Do list.
Note-to-self accomplished, she continues with the anecdote. “I bought a book about drawing every kind of animal. It’s for children, but I thought I could do it,” Foster says, reflecting a kind of buoyancy in her need to learn, a spirit of inquiry that keeps her young at heart. Her unpretentiousness is just one of Foster’s most defining traits.
She says the graphics business was a stressful time, trying to create art while managing things such as taxes and payroll. Around that time, she met Pierre Lafond. Lafond was older and married then, so she dismissed the thought of a romantic relationship. Plus, he intimidated her. But when they both became single, he called. “And when he walked in the door, I was so happy. I knew I was saved,” she says.
Not only had she found a life partner, but a business mind to help with operations. I ask if associating her business so closely with her husband’s is a challenge or benefit. “It’s a great benefit,” she says. “He sheltered me.”
Foster says her husband turned 90 last year and is “amazing.” When I ask what she admires most about him, she slices the air with her hand and says, “The straight line. The direction… He’s such a steady compass.”
Since they met, Foster has built a five-shop empire that includes the original Wendy Foster and Wendy Foster Sportswear in the Upper Village, Angel on Coast Village Road, Wendy Foster on State Street, and a rustic high-end boutique of her namesake in Los Olivos. The “soft and strong” style defines each location, though set to slightly different temperatures as her buyers respond to their clientele’s tastes. Foster is turning 80 next year and admits jetlag is much harder than it used to be – one of the reasons she hired her much-loved buyers years ago.
I ask if she’s experienced ageism in the fashion industry, especially at markets in New York City. “No, no,” she says, the corners of her mouth lifting into a smile. “I’ve been in it so long, I’m the queen of the hop.”
Off the Clock
Lafond and Foster live a quiet life in the former Clinton Doyle Hollister residence on El Caserio Lane, a miss-it-if-you-blink road in downtown Santa Barbara denoted by a rusted metal sign off East Canon Perdido Street. It’s a private street lined with historic houses adorned with Spanish red tile, worn wooden fences, and manicured gardens of lemon trees, brightly colored succulents, and flowering vines.
After work, they enjoy dinner together – which Lafond brings home every night – the evening news, maybe a movie. And each morning before work, Foster practices the piano, something she’s done every day for almost five decades. She took her first lesson at age 33 while renting Robert Mckee Hyde’s house, the founder of Montecito’s bohemian community on Mountain Drive. “They had a grand piano and I started playing jumbo notes, very easy songs.”
She’s now a classical musician or “classical practitioner,” she’s quick to correct, currently working on Chopin’s Ballade No. 1. “You go into somebody’s heart when you listen to them play,” Foster says and she should know: she’s hosted a weekly piano club at her house for 30 years. “We’re all kind of into a Tango thing right now,” she explains. “Somebody comes in playing the Tango, and we all sort of get inspired.”
Circling back to fashion, I ask about her closet. “It’s very small. Not even as long as that,” she says, gesturing to the wall across from our table, about six feet wide. “My theory is, the fewer clothes you have, the better it is because it forces you to be more creative.”
How she chooses outfits each day is simple. “I wear the pants that I can fit into,” she laughs. “And these pants,” she says, kicking her leg to the side to show me a wide-leg, high-quality linen, “I even wear them in New York in the winter.”
Her personal color palette is black, white, grey, and brown, which is an easy match with her new fashion favorite, a Patagonia puff jacket or “puffers,” as she calls them. She once owned an extensive collection of handmade Mexican jewelry, but she’s since sold it, preferring a simpler look. “But I like jewelry on people.”
When I ask what else makes her happy besides fashion, Foster brings up a past illness that left her in bed for months on high doses of the steroid Prednisone. She was eventually tapered off, milligram-by-milligram, “and I got into this zone where I was so happy, I was ecstatic.”
The elevated mood swings had her skipping down State Street and singing at the top of her lungs. “Once you’ve been that happy, you can go back and be that happy again,” she says.
Foster, though, doesn’t need a drug to get there now, only green grass or plants. “I can get myself into ecstasy by looking at palms. It reminds me of Florida because I grew up around them.”
In Foster’s backyard on El Caserio, she has spent almost 50 years cultivating a tall flower garden in a 45 x 90 plot in her backyard. Every Friday, someone comes to cut fresh roses, dahlias, and camellias from her garden to fill her home. “We’re living in such a fantastic thing here. This world is just…”
The conversation drifts to space, dark matter, the magic of evolution, and, well, the wonders of existence. “All those millions of years, we’ve evolved to who we are, and it’s all around us. It’s an amazing thing,” says Foster.
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