Catherine Gee’s Bricks-and-Mortar Evolution Builds Upon Santa Barbara Foundation

A little more than one year has passed since Catherine Gee moved the location of her Santa Barbara, Calif., retail shop—her first space, where she built her eponymous brand—from a low-key, 600-square-foot space on Haley Street to the center of it all on State Street. The new Catherine Gee location occupies 3,000 square feet of space with 2,400 square feet dedicated to the retail environment.

The former space was an unassuming trove of the designer’s treasures, yet the State Street location is her showcase, where Catherine Gee designs are displayed similar to an artist’s exhibition. This makes sense since the shop is adjacent to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. While Catherine Gee, the brand, continues to evolve at a quick pace, the designer remains connected to the city in which her label grew and continues to flourish.

History in the making

Nestled away within La Arcada Plaza, the Catherine Gee store is housed in a historic area of Santa Barbara, a city that is hugged by the Pacific Ocean and Santa Ynez Mountains.

“We’re in the heart of downtown in the arts and theater district,” explained Gee. “Tourism is not slowing down.”

The atmosphere of this nook, which comprises restaurants, retail and attractions, is often abuzz with tourists and locals. Gee estimates that while the traffic at her former Haley Street location was mostly from local commuters, she now sees around 60 percent tourists and 40 percent locals. While the tourists who visit Catherine Gee might be exploring Santa Barbara, many are already familiar with the brand from the local retailers who sell it in their hometowns.

“If they are tourists from Telluride [Colo.], they’ll say, ‘Oh, I know this brand. I shop at Sublime,’” noted Gee. “That happens with a lot of people from Dallas as well. They’ll come in and recognize the brand.”

As the holiday selling season draws near, Gee expects the ratio of tourists to locals to shift. “In November and December it’s more locals because of the holidays. There are a lot of novelty shops around us, so they go for gifts.”

However, the designer has identified new opportunities that are specific to Santa Barbara. “The Santa Barbara International Film Festival is an interesting time of year at the end of January, beginning of February,” Gee said. “There are a lot of film aficionados who live here, and they go every year. A lot of people fly in, and it’s a huge economic boost. The film fest is spectacular, and last year we were fairly new, only here for four or five months and we had an incredible week.”

Relying on successful retail elements

Although Catherine Gee moved to a larger space on the central shopping destination in Santa Barbara, she recreated some of her design elements from the former shop and developed a similar welcoming atmosphere.

“The old space felt intimate and one on one like you were walking into a designer’s extended closet and home. It was very much a haven, and it felt warm but it was small,” explained Gee.

With its high ceilings and soaring windows, the new space needed little work. Gee simply needed to make it her own minimalist atmosphere with pops of exciting features such as pieces by local artists sprinkled throughout.

“I had a contractor build a shelf under the staircase. We put in dressing rooms with shimmery, beautiful velvet, a few couches and chairs,” said Gee. “We brought in a lot of beautiful, huge glass tables and a 500-pound piece of marble, which is on wheels. It can be moved around with mannequins on it.”

The old shop also featured Gee’s beloved mood board, which displayed her swatches with sketches, allowing customers to see her process. Gee’s accessibility of often being present in the store also remains a benefit to her customers and her business.

“I am privileged to see all angles because a lot of designers don’t,” noted Gee.

The store’s natural light and airiness gives Gee’s designs room to be admired and attract customers. These pieces are showcased with plenty of room for customers to fully experience the collection.

“This is more elevated, clean and beautiful, and it’s because of the extra space,” Gee said. “There is way more space now, and the designs, prints and colors are able to breathe better and sing.”