Behind the Seams with Catherine Gee

The Santa Barbara-based fashion designer draws inspiration from her art-filled life—and Sewanee education—to create a line that’s a favorite among Hollywood A-Listers.

“I knew that Charlize Theron had my pants,” says Catherine Gee, C’07. “What I didn’t know was whether she had worn my pants.” 

To be clear, no one is suggesting the Oscar-winning movie star had raided the Sewanee alumna’s closet. Gee is a fashion designer, a favorite of A-list celebrities and acclaimed for her chic slip dresses and silk print blouses. That Theron was in possession of her white “Emma Tailored Denim Trousers” (made with high-quality Peruvian cotton and retailing for $150) was especially notable in 2018, because Gee had launched her business only two years before. But a sighting of Theron in said pants was confirmed only after Gee received a photo via text message from a publicist one day while driving to Los Angeles. The pic showed Theron strolling in front of Angelini Osteria, a high-profile LA restaurant, in a black Patti Smith T-shirt, brown fedora, white sandals, and Gee’s twill cotton trousers. The moment was a career coup, certainly, but it was also a valuable lesson in not texting while driving. Says Gee: “I was so excited I almost wrecked my car.”

Since then, Hollywood notables have flocked to Gee’s fashions—everyone from Halle Berry, Naomi Watts, and Debra Messing, to Mila Kunis, Sophie Auster, and Storm Reid. The celebrity exposure obviously serves Gee and her brand well. But she’s also thrilled that such highly regarded artists appreciate her creativity as much as she appreciates theirs. Gee very much considers herself an artist and loves being surrounded by creativity. Her 3,000-square-foot store in Santa Barbara is located next door to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and close to several theaters and the city’s opera company. She exhibits the work of local artists in her retail space, and one fashion magazine noted that her clothes themselves “are displayed similar to an artist’s exhibition.” One of the most compelling objects in her store is her floor-to-ceiling mood board, a collection of sketches, fabric swatches, photographs, and other images reflecting her latest inspiration. Customers typically don’t come across a designer’s mood board in a retail setting, but Gee loves sharing her creative side with the public.

“I love museums, I love movies, I love galleries,” Gee says. “I travel a lot for work, like to New York for trade shows, and I’ll always make time to go to MOMA and the Met. All art forms inspire me.”

The seeds of creativity were planted in Gee at an early age. “I basically grew up in an artist’s studio,” she says, referring to the workshop of her father, the landscape and wildlife painter Frank Gee. “I watched my father paint every day.” Frank worked in a 1,200-square-foot studio inside the family’s antebellum home in Gallatin, Tennessee, near Nashville (the house was used as a hospital by the Confederacy during the Civil War). Catherine’s mother sang professionally with the Nashville Opera Group and worked as a music teacher. Catherine grew up playing violin and traveling regularly to Belmont University, where she took lessons from the first chair violinist of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.One day, at age 11 or 12, Gee found herself nosing about her grandmother’s house, riffling through a collection of shiny silk kimonos, when a bolt of inspiration struck her. She would design clothes for a living. More specifically, she would have a silk line.

She followed her older brother to Sewanee and fell in love with the landscape. “The Domain is amazing,” she says. “There’s nothing like fall in Sewanee. It’s like God’s kiss.” She majored in fine art, and even though she already knew a ton from her father, Sewanee’s various art gurus honed her skills further. Edward Carlos refined her drawing, especially in terms of perspective. Sculptor Greg Pond, C’95, pushed her to be really precise and clean with her lines. And photographer Pradip Malde, in her words, “helped me see.” She also spent time studying European masterpieces at the University of Madrid the summer before her junior year through the Sewanee Summer in Spain program.

Gee considers herself lucky to have graduated in May 2007, a month before Apple’s first iPhone went on sale. “I was lucky to get out of college with no iPhone,” she says. “And I didn’t do Facebook, which had come out a couple years before. I had no distractions. I actually went to the library, used the Dewey Decimal System, and wrote papers from books.”

Gee’s first gig after Sewanee was a six-month internship at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, teaching art to kids. She next headed to Argentina, where she studied Spanish and worked as a translator. For a year she reveled in the cultural bounty of Buenos Aires—the international art fairs, the film festivals, the galleries and museums. “I was really loving the metropolitan life,” she says. “I was learning about fine art. I hung out in Palermo, which was a lot like SoHo. There was a lot of cool design.”

Gee returned to the States and landed a position at the Squire Foundation in Santa Barbara, where she played a key role in staging the annual Rumble Art exhibition, an event involving artists from around the country. She later worked as executive director at another Santa Barbara nonprofit, the Arts Fund, where she oversaw a thriving mentorship program between local students and accomplished career artists.

As satisfying and inspiring as this work was, Gee knew she was delaying her real calling. She figured if she didn’t dive headfirst into fashion, and soon, she would never do it. She enrolled at Santa Barbara’s De Marcos Fashion Academy and spent a year learning the technical aspects of the art from Jodi de Marcos—sewing, fashion illustration, pattern making. At the same time, she secured her trademark and developed the other business aspects of what would become her own company.

In 2016, having just started her business, Gee attended a trade show in Las Vegas and entered her new, mostly silk line—’90s-inspired slip dresses, halter dresses, tanks, lots of blues—in the high-profile Crème de la Crème emerging designer competition, sponsored by Women’s Wear Daily and the upmarket French department store Galeries Lafayette. She won. Galeries Lafayette flew her to Paris, where she met with buyers at the company’s flagship store, a Parisian art deco landmark. Gee was off and running. A few months later, Four Seasons Hotels decided to carry her line in seven of its boutiques in Hawaii, Mexico, and Costa Rica.

Today, in addition to her brick-and-mortar presence in Santa Barbara, Gee ships all over the country and around the world. As her business has grown, her designs have evolved. Her first award-winning line contained no prints. Now, she is known for her prints, everything from florals to paint swirls to quirky conversation prints featuring things like matchsticks and lips. “I have this art background, and at a certain point I said to myself, ‘Why don’t you dig into that background and do more prints?’ Now it’s a major part of my business.”