The Independent S.B. Questionnaire: Talking Kenya and Bicoastal Life with the Founder of DIANI Boutique
By Roger Durling
Photo by Paul Wellman
“I love it all,” Caroline Diani tells me. “I love helping people choose everything, selecting clothing and furniture.”
She is the owner and creative force behind the DIANI style empire, which includes a multi-brand women’s clothing boutique, a shoe store, and a home/lifestyle store, all located in Arlington Plaza on State Street. Caroline is also becoming the go-to person for home designing, remodeling, and interior decorating, as she is passionate about collaborating with customers who want to bring genuineness to their homes.
In person, she is down-to-earth yet sophisticated, very much exemplifying Santa Barbara’s beautiful fusion of casual elegance and worldly flair. And she’s blessed with an accent that combines SoCal and British tones.
Caroline was born in Kenya, where her English father worked for a British paint company, and lived there for five years. She recalls her mom being a free spirit in Nairobi, working for the British High Commission. “My parents flourished there, and my heart is still there,” she says.
Even her name and business reflects Kenya, as it is the same as Diani Beach, a resort on the Indian Ocean coast. “My love of nature started there,” she says. “My imagination always takes me there.”
When they returned to England, she had a pivotal and inspiring encounter with her mother’s friend, a fashion designer who’d just returned from Singapore. Though only seven years old, Caroline was encouraged to participate in a fashion competition, and was taught how to source fabric and put a design together.
She studied fashion design at Kingston University, and landed an internship at Patagonia in Ventura. It was her first time in California, and she learned how Patagonia created a business around a lifestyle. “It was effortless how they were able to convey their vision,” says Caroline, who lived in Seacliff at the time and was inspired to start her own business.
After returning to England, she freelanced and worked for Stephanie Churchill PR, which she called her “Devil Wears Prada moment.” Her dad was dying in 1998, and, at a vulnerable moment, a friend from Patagonia reached out to propose. They married in 1999 and bought a house in Mission Canyon.
“I wanted to start a business,” she says. “I was single minded about it.” She took odd jobs while she was waiting for her visa to come through. In the meantime, Mary Ellen Zemeckis took her under her wing.
In 2002, Arlington Plaza’s owner Robert Gilson took a chance on her. At the time, the plaza included a hearing aid store, a Pack and Post service, and a military recruitment office. “For the first three years, I think there were a lot of pity purchases,” she admits. “But I had to make this work.”
Her marriage ended in 2005, and both her parents were gone. In 2007, she expanded her business to include a shoe store and added the home and lifestyle store in 2014.
Along the way, she fell in love with Michigan-raised actor Jeffrey Doornbos, one of the original members of the Blue Man Group. They wed in 2013. He does payroll for DIANI and helps with e-commerce. They’re bicoastal, splitting time between Santa Barbara and an 18th century home they remodeled in New York’s Hudson Valley.
“I have to work on balance,” she shares of her busy life. “I love being creative. I love giving to people. I love creating something that is exciting.”
But Caroline is most appreciative of Santa Barbara, and she acknowledges the debt that she owes to our town. “This community has given me so much,” she says, gratefully.
Caroline Diani answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is your current state of mind?
I’m feeling more creative than I have ever felt. I’m reaching back into creative impulses I had when I was a kid, and also reaching forward into creative areas that are new to me. I’ve been painting, loving my interior design projects, and even currently working with my husband on a friend’s film project, “A Thousand Miles Behind.”
If you you change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I don’t say “no” often enough and cram my schedule too full. This goes back to the balancing act. I once heard Shonda Rhimes talk about “play” and how she has to carve out time to play. And if she can do it, anybody can. I’d like to get better at that.
Who do you most admire?
I admire so many people for so many reasons. I admire anyone who shows up to life each day giving it their very best, asking more of themselves each day and not settling. I tend to be a perfectionist, and am pretty hard on myself, so when I see people taking risks or being bold, people who are willing to fail in order to try and achieve something important, I stand in real admiration of them.
What is your greatest extravagance?
That we have a home in Santa Barbara and in Upstate New York. I’ve always dreamt of being bi-coastal because I could never pick one over the other and that dream has come true.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Perseverance. Life throws a lot of challenges at us, whether it’s in relationships, career, or one’s spiritual life. My father always told me to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to keep moving forward, and he would often say “just go for it” and I like to think I have been honoring that advice.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I’m really proud of the business I started and built. It’s been 16 years so far and the team and community behind it are a true blessing that I’m forever grateful for.
I’m also really proud of my marriage to my husband. For me, being able to show up every day and be as supportive as I can be for him and his pursuits has been relatively easy.
The hard part for me has been to ask for help when I need it. I’ve always been so self-reliant and independent. But over the past several years, I’ve gotten better at being vulnerable enough to ask for the help. And that feels like a great achievement.
What do you like most about your job?
It’s different every day and I have a hand in all aspects of the business so it’s very diverse. On any given hour during the day, I might be designing some proprietary item, sourcing inventory, chatting with the team, or working directly with customers.
Recently, I’ve been very excited about exploring where the DIANI brand goes next, and I love that challenge. It suits my personality well…I like the creative process and having lots of irons in the fire.
Mentoring team members and watching them grow is a wonderful gift with my job too. I really love building up young women so that they can feel empowered to create the life of their dreams and many girls that have come through my business have gone on to start their own businesses. I like to think that I had a small hand in inspiring that entrepreneurial spirit.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I’m most happy when I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot at work, have spent quality time with my husband, gotten the dogs out in nature, and have given myself some time for self care. I wake up every day with that intention, and sometimes I achieve it, and oftentimes I fail miserably! I don’t think I’ll ever perfect it, but I give it my best shot.
What is your greatest fear?
That I will look back on my life and feel like I didn’t slice the pie into the right proportions between my marriage, friendships and family, work, play, and diving into new challenges. When I feel that fear, I take it as a sign that some proportions aren’t right, so I try to determine which part of my life needs more love and attention. But fear’s a beast. I’m about to take a meditation course, so hoping that helps.
What is the quality you most like in people?
I love simplicity, clarity, and authenticity. I’m really drawn to people who do what they say and say what they do. I like straightforward and direct communication. These are all things I strive for in myself as well.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
People who aren’t good listeners drive me a little crazy. And people who give up easily or are flaky — .that’s hard for me to work with.
What do you most value in friends?
The twists and turns of life pull people in so many directions and sometimes I lose touch with a friend of many years. But when we reconnect, it seems that no time has passed, and we pick right up where we left off.
And then I have other friends who I communicate with regularly, and have done for decades. In both cases, there’s an ease of connection, and we haven’t had to struggle to stay in touch or haven’t felt any weirdness at being out of touch.
I value that organic commitment to staying connected through thick and thin. At the end of the day, having lived in three different countries so far, I just want to feel connected, and good friendships wherever they are in the world give you that.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I think a phrase that I might overuse a little is “I wish…” I don’t always use it in that exact way, but the spirit of it sometimes gets verbalized in other ways. I think that phrase comes up when I’m feeling wiped out, or slightly defeated or at a loss for what to do, and “I wish” something would just happen. But the best things can’t just be wished into existence.
So, when I think it, or say it, I treat it as a sign that I just have to dig in, get creative, and find a way to accomplish whatever it is “I wish” I could just wish into existence.
Which talent would you most like to have?
Being in three places at once. That would be my superhero power.
Where would you most like to live?
Wherever my husband is. And if that was a split between Santa Barbara, Northumberland, England, New York, Kenya — that would be pretty sweet.
What is your most treasured possession?
I have a lot of pieces handed down from my parents that I love, but I tend not to treasure them in the sense of protecting them. The way I like to honor their memory is by using those pieces in my daily life as they had used them. Having said that, I have a long chain necklace that I have my parents wedding bands hanging from with a lion’s tooth they gave me from my birthplace, Kenya. It’s a constant reminder that they’re with me.
What makes you laugh the most?
I have to say, I like good slapstick. Being a Brit, I’ve grown up around it. Over the years, I’ve liked people like Dave Chappelle, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy. I also like people like Eddie Izzard, Ricky Gervais, and Ellen DeGeneres.
What is your motto?
A quote my friend shared with me that’s along the lines of, “Why wait for the light at the end of the tunnel when you can light it up yourself?”
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
There are so many, but Beatrix Potter has always been close to my heart. She bought a huge parcel of land in the Lake District, England, and turned it into a conservancy for wildlife to flourish. Turning wildlife into art through illustrated characters in her books has inspired generations of children and captured their imaginations. That will go on into infinity and the source of the inspiration is so pure and simple: animals in nature. To me, that makes her legendary.
On what occasion do you lie?
I’m not a very good liar, so when I do lie, it’s pretty transparent. But when I want to plan a surprise party or something like that, I’m really good at it.