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In Their Own Fashion : Three Local Designers Answer the Question: Does Anybody Around Here Have Style? : Barbara Bowman : ELEGANCE IN OJAI

April 29, 1993

Meet Barbara Bowman, a pioneer of sorts into the funky but not so fashionable Ojai of nearly 20 years ago.

Oh sure, Bowman says, Ojai has always been beautiful, has always attracted an artsy, creative sort of person, has always had personality. But real style--the kind of simple elegance that can hold up anywhere, under any circumstances and over time--was something else.

It just wasn't there, she says.

"The bottom line to everything is good taste," says Bowman, dressed this particular afternoon in a simply-cut, cream-color blouse, finely woven tuxedo pants and three long strands of irregular pearls the size of peanut M&Ms.

"I don't think it's relative," she adds. "There is good taste, and there is bad taste. Simple lines and great quality fabrics are what it's all about."

Today, Bowman owns four Ojai clothing stores--two for women, one for men and one for children--that cater exclusively to people with an eye for quality and the willingness to pay for it.

"She designs about 40% of the clothes herself," says Julie Titus, a sales assistant in Bowman's stores for the last five years. "She has seamstresses in town who work for her." The rest of the clothes she sells come from New York and European designers.

Bowman says each of her stores turns its back on the fleeting fashion trends of the day, while also defying the common thinking of many shoppers.

"The problem with the American consumer is she wants lots of clothes, instead of being willing to limit herself to just high-quality clothes," Bowman says.

If that's true, Melody Taft, who works with the Ojai-based fund-raising group, Conservation Endowment Fund, is not a typical American buyer.

"I travel all over the world, I'm in Africa, Europe and all over, and nothing comes close to what I find here," says Taft as she writes a check for the three outfits she is buying. There are lots of numbers on the check.

"I don't shop anywhere else. Everything here has such style, such simplicity. And the clothes just last forever."

Fourteen years ago, Bowman says, local residents watched with skepticism as she decided to introduce the city to high-end European fashion.

"All the buildings were here, but nothing was like it is now," Bowman says from inside one of her women's clothing stores, both called Barbara Bowman's.

"On the corner, over there," she says, pointing, "was a greasy spoon (restaurant). And The Oaks, across the street, was nothing but a dilapidated hotel." With boots starting at $350, she says, "not everyone thought it would make it."

What made her think they were wrong?

Perhaps, she says, it was her intimate knowledge of Ojai, where she had attended high school before completing college and heading off to live in Europe. She had a vision of what Ojai could be: a town with style, class, taste.

In Europe, Bowman ended up in Milan, Italy, where she got a job as a shoe designer despite no prior experience. "You can learn technique," he says, "but you can't learn originality. The shoes did very well."

During that time, however, she also returned to Ojai intermittently, eventually purchasing a house and business property there, which she managed from afar. She opened her first store in Ojai while still living in Europe, traveling back to Ventura County only to restock and decide what new items to bring in next time.

What brought her back to Ventura County full time was simple: parenthood.

While visiting in Capri, an island in the Bay of Naples, Bowman met Sol de la Torre Bueno, a fashion agent and her future husband. After the birth five years ago of their son, Alexander David, Bowman says she wanted to set down more permanent roots. She persuaded her husband that Ojai could stand up to Milan any day.

"I know, my life does sound like a Danielle Steele book, doesn't it?" she says, smiling.

Today, de la Torre Bueno runs Bowman's men's store, True West/Alexander David, down the street from his wife's shop. The store carries silk trousers and shirts made in Ojai from hand-woven cotton imported from India.

And the clothes, residents say, fit the city's personality quite well.

"Unlike a lot of other places in the county, there is an element of dressing up here," says Marilyn Cambier, who describes herself as a "domestic goddess."

"People who live here already have an eye for something special. That translates into their clothes."

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