Take a clapped out, almost fit-for-scrap van. Scrub the insides well. Add some shelves, good lighting, hardwood floors and a brightly coloured exterior. Now you have the makings of one of the hottest new trends in Los Angeles: the fashion truck.
The concept is simple – a mobile boutique that delivers style to the masses wherever they congregate: on the roadside, at craft fairs, art walks and farmers' markets. Their unofficial motto? Have truck, will travel. For the sartorially conscious Angeleno, anything that increases the opportunity to enjoy a spot of retail therapy without sitting in nose-to-bumper traffic is most welcome.
Recycling old vehicles for mobile business use is nothing new in southern California. Food trucks have graced the streets of the City of Angels for over five years, serving fusion dishes such as Korean BBQ tacos, Japanese fried chicken and bacon infused waffles served with ice cream.
Not surprisingly, food trucks have provided the inspiration for many store-on-wheels owners, including Stace Steffe, co-founder of LA's first mobile boutique, Le Fashion Truck. For a number of years Steffe sold vintage bags at craft fairs and had investigated the possibility of opening her own store when she spotted a food truck at an event. "It arrived and people just lined up, really excited about being part of this new movement. I was looking for an easier, fun, more creative way of doing business and could see how going mobile could work just as well for fashion."
Steffe and her business partner, Jeanine Romo opened the door to their mobile business in January 2011. Now, almost thirty fashion trucks operate in Los Angeles. It is, says Steffe, a very female oriented affair. "Around 95% of mobile boutiques in southern California are run by women, selling women's clothes."
Heels on wheels
LA is not alone in the expansion of the fashion truck movement. There are now over 300 mobile stores across the United States. This led Steffe to create the American Mobile Retailers Association, a trade body that offers training and advice to would-be truck entrepreneurs.
This growth has caught the attention of veterans in the style trade. "Fashion trucks are changing the way retailers think about their business" says Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association. "Trucks won't replace brick and mortar stores but they have a strong following in the fast fashion crowd. If you're looking for high-end designers, you won't find them in trucks, but anything that encourages people to try new trends is a good thing."
But getting into the fashion truck business isn't cheap. Updating a commercial truck and launching a mobile venture can cost between $20,000 and $30,000. This includes the cost of inventory, truck and liability insurance, refurbishment and licensing. Even with an initial budget running into the thousands, opening a mobile store is still cheaper than renting space in a shopping mall, which could cost as much as $10,000 per month.
Some new truck owners have successfully cut costs, like Monique Cruz, owner of Selvedge Dry Goods, an eco-friendly fashion truck based in Los Angeles. "I bought my truck from a man in the desert, so it was full of oil and sand. Once it was clean, friends helped to install shelves, flooring, lights and a fitting area. The total start-up cost was $10,000. Little girls love it. They want to live in my truck!"
With a background in children's clothing design and merchandising, Cruz has been able to tackle one of the biggest obstacles to running a successful truck retail business –marketing. With no fixed abode, mobile retailers rely on social media, blog posts and word of mouth to let customers know where they will be on any given day, a challenge in a city where finding a parking spot is the equivalent of winning the lottery.
"Facebook and Twitter are integral to our business, but we've also made it inviting for walk-in customers. I set out a 'Welcome' sign, along with a few items to let passersby know it's safe to come in, especially men with their wives or girlfriends. But our brightly coloured exterior is one of the best marketing tools we have." says Cruz.
Bright, over the top and so eye-catching, the truck designs are so distinctive you may find yourself admiring the outside of the vehicle rather than stepping inside to peruse the merchandise.
"Wherever you are, you have to be seen. Your truck is your brand, and you have to stand out from the crowd" says Jordana Fortaleza, co-founder of JD Luxe. Created in 2011, the JD Luxe team started with a bright yellow 1976 electric truck, then upgraded to a tomato red wrapper before settling on a crisp white design complete with a palm tree decal and neon pink writing. There's no way you can miss the 20ft truck.
Like any new trend, the fashion truck has its downfalls. Older vehicles can be tempermental and often break down. "I worry every time we head to an event that's a long way from home," says Monique Cruz. "If you break down in an unknown area, it can be really hard to get out. And expensive."
There's also the issue of permits, parking and staying on the right side of the law. In some parts of southern California, there are no regulations in place for fashion trucks. "It's all so new," says Stace Steffe from Le Fashion Truck. "Officials at City Hall in Los Angeles recently admitted they'd never heard of fashion trucks, nor did they know so many were on LA's streets. So for now, in some parts of Los Angeles, trucks are restricted to private events and parking lots. This really changes how we do business."
In other areas such as Santa Monica fashion truckers are welcome to trade from the street, but they have to abide by parking regulations, feed the voracious meter and make sure they get a peddler’s permit.
"I love the quirkiness of the fashion trucks and it feels a lot more personal than going to a traditional store," says shopper Pamela Dickson. "I thought the trucks would be cramped inside, but there were around four of us in there, and it was fine – even a space to try stuff on."
So, fashion trucks are a hit with customers, they provide flexibility for owners and even celebrities are intrigued by their existence. But is the fashion truck a movement? Or a moment?
"Fashion trucks are here to stay" says Ilse Metchek from the California Fashion Association. "I see it more as a stepping stone to a brick and mortar store for many entrepreneurs, but there are some who are making a viable business out of being strictly mobile. It will be interesting to see how the movement evolves."
The appeal of the fashion truck is evident among three groups of entrepreneurs: first-time business owners; traders who lost their stores due to the economic downturn and are now reinventing their brand; and traditional brick and mortar operations who now use fashion trucks for promotional purposes.
"Every day I get calls and emails from around the world asking, ‘How do I start a fashion truck business?’" says Stace Steffe from Le Fashion Truck. "If the number of enquiries we receive everyday is an indicator of interest in this form of running a business, then the fashion truck movement will only continue to grow."
So, if you're thinking of going mobile with your business, just remember it's not for the faint hearted. "Do it!" says Monique Cruz. "Just find a good truck. And a great mechanic!"