MOBILE FASHIONISTAS are putting the pedal to the metal to get the DMV up to speed on a trend that is sweeping the nation.
And just like that, one-stop shopping has a brand new meaning. Just think–you need something chic and trendy stat, and a boutique on wheels comes rolling around the bend to set up shop in your driveway. Or you put a new spin on the party bus and invite friends over to shop. Marylanders visiting the Bethesda Farm Women’s Market on “Women on the Move Wednesdays” can leave with fresh produce and a fabulous new outfit. Virginians have Fashion Truck Fridays in Rosslyn.
If any of this invokes the same sense of childlike giddiness it does in me, you’re in for a treat.
For these visionary entrepreneurs, the start-up costs of a mobile store were a mere fraction of their brick-and-mortar counterparts, and, with the exception of vehicle maintenance, considerable less overhead. But don’t let that fool you. Take in every inch of the few hundred square feet–from the hardwood floors and dry wall to the lounge chairs, dressing rooms and racks of stylish goods–and you’ll forget you’re in a truck altogether.
When Donna Hundley, owner of Curvy Chix Chariot, heard that Cole Haan was selling shoes out of a fashion truck, she reached out to the West Coast Mobile Retail Association, where the trend has been going strong for a few years.
“I entered a contest and won the opportunity to be sponsored by them–100 people donated $5,000 to support my business idea–and I only knew 13 of them,” Hundley says proudly.
Hundley caters to a niche market–plus-size clothing–a $26 billion industry that she says is sorely lacking in the accessibility department.
“I got frustrated when I’d have a last-minute event, I couldn’t just go out and find something,” Hundley said. “It’s not that easy for us plus-size women; we have to order stuff a few weeks in advance. Department stores may say they carry plus sizes, but when you get there they really only have up to size 14. So I wanted to open a boutique that stocks the creations of some phenomenal designers I’ve found, and I figured it would be the fastest and easiest way.”
Fashion-wise, she’s found that while designers want their plus-size creations to look like their traditionally sized counterparts, many of them aren’t on spot with using the right material–or they’re simply not adding the extra material to the right places.
“It’s still very much a challenge to find unique pieces. Plus-size clothing retailers are popping up everywhere, but I’m seeing them all selling the same thing,” she says.
So Hundley is on a mission–she’s communicating with designers all over the world to build her network and support smaller designers who don’t yet have a presence in the retail world.
“Sometimes I luck out and get a phenomenal designer that nobody knows about, and customers are thrilled with my finds–they’re well-made, they fit and they’re striking,” she says proudly.
Elizabeth Mason’s fashion bus, Pink Armoire, was primarily an effort to promote her website. Mason is the founder of the women’s boutique Periwinkle, and she ran two locations–in Alexandria and Arlington–before her leases were up and she decided to embark on a new venture. Combining her love for fashion and knowledge of active women to create a one-stop shopping destination, Mason, a former politico, hit the road with her bright pink bus in the fall of 2013.
“I owned a brick-and-mortar store for 10 years, where I sold designer merchandise. I wanted to focus on my online store while finding a new location. Then, in trying to find a lower price point, at market I found all these great lines that looked like $300, $400 pieces but were $50 to $60.”
As a result, 90 percent of the Pink Armoire’s merchandise is under $60, and it’s in line with the signature feminine, classic look that Periwinkle provided.
Laura Layton had a business plan for a traditional brick-and-mortar boutique specializing in fair-trade or ethically made clothing, but found the start-up costs to be out of her budget.
“So I started thinking about other options, then discovered mobile retail, so I hired a consultant with the American Mobile Retailer Association. She sold me on the concept and helped me re-write the business plan for a truck, and my boyfriend helped me build it.”
Layton named her truck Tin Lizzy after the Ford Model T and gave it an aluminum front wrap.
“Everything in stock is fair-trade or ethically sourced–I buy from organizations that work directly with artisans in impoverished regions ( India, Nepal, Uganda, Guatemala)–and ensures that the actual trading of the goods is treated properly and the production of goods is sweat-shop- and child-labor-free,” Layton says. “This creates a sustainable situation for the artisans, and they are able to send their children to school and reinvest in their community. I’ve also started carrying a small selection of locally based goods.”
Running a mobile store does come with its own challenges. Vehicles break down, which can throw a curve ball into the plans for the day.
But, free from the confines of a brick-and-mortar, they are enjoying their freedom to roam, and as locals see them out and about more often, they are starting to embrace the idea.
“At first, because the concept was so new, people were very hesitant to support,” Hundley says. “We’d have people walking around looking confused, thinking we were food trucks, even though we had signs and balloons. So educating the public was one of the big challenges. We also had trouble getting venues. There weren’t a whole lot of people who knew about the trucks, and they didn’t want us. But now they want the attention we bring to their events.”
And, as more mobile retailers hit the streets, these pioneers are glad to have paved the way for future fashion trucks.
“They now have people like us who have gone through the obstacles, whereas we didn’t have anybody to really tell us what we needed to do,” Hundley says.
No matter where you find a fashion truck that suits your taste, there’s one thing for sure: Don’t expect to find anything that you’ll find anywhere else.
“I had someone say to me, ‘When are you going to get that top that I see everywhere, with the sash on the side, all sassy,’ and I say ‘never, ‘ ” says Hundley. “Why would I? If everyone else is selling it, I don’t want it. Go get that top, then come find the pants to go with it in my store.”
–Mía R. Cortez
“Women on the Move Wednesdays,” every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Bethesda Farm Women’s Market, is a sure bet for finding most of the mobile boutiques interviewed in this story. But they’re constantly on the move! Find out what’s on their trucks and where they’ll be this week by visiting their websites and social media pages. To locate fashion trucks across the country, go to Find a Fashion Truck.