Fashion truck comes with changing room
WILMINGTON, Del. — The most frustrating part of owning a ladies clothing and accessories boutique is parking it, says Emily Durán.
The 25-year-old from Wilmington drives, stocks, styles and sells out of the Passionista Fashion Truck, a converted pretzel truck that has popped up in Newark, Greenville and Wilmington during the last two months.
A diesel-powered mix of Charlotte Russe-type club wear and Free People romantic Boho, Passionista carries rhinestone head wraps, silky pashminas, bodycon dresses in tribal prints and fair-trade gemstone necklaces, among other finds.
Items are priced from $8 for a bottle of Essie nail polish to $115 for an eclectic tote produced by an emerging designer — all carefully selected from wholesalers by the self-described clothes horse.
Durán, who sunk her life savings into the venture, believes she is the only Delawarean to operate a boutique on wheels, the modern version of the Avon lady. Her only competition is the Little White Fashion Truck, a Severna Park, Md.-based operation that has appeared at Delaware events.
Last summer, the co-owners of a Philadelphia boutique launched the Smak Parlour Fashion Truck, which is believed to be the city’s first fashion truck.
After opening in mid-November, Durán’s pale pink truck has appeared at the Wawaset Holiday Market, Ambitions Salon in Newark, an open house at the Delaware Military Academy in Wilmington and at private parties and charity events.
But don’t expect to see Passionista’s ponytail silhouette on a Wilmington or Newark street corner. Both cities generally prohibit commercial vending on public streets and sidewalks, apart from sponsored events.
Tailcoating on the food truck and pop-up shop trend, mobile boutiques have exploded in popularity over the past year, according to the American Mobile Retail Association, with nearly 100 members nationwide.
The fad began in 2010 when designer brands like Alice + Olivia and Cynthia Rowley took their collections on the road. Later, discount chain Marshalls featured a fashion truck on its television advertisements.
Combining the convenience of online shopping with the ability to try on clothes before you buy, the concept is popular in urban centers from coast to coast.
There are about 400 non-food-related, park-able stores now operating, says Stacey Steffe, Mobile Retail Association co-founder and president. That number could double by the end of this year, she adds.
Truck entrepreneurs are recent design school graduates and DIY women in their 40s. Many can’t afford the hefty down payment for a storefront, so they spend an average of $20,000 outfitting retired library bookmobiles and shipping trucks purchased off Craigslist.
They usually make that money back within six months to a year, says Steffe, who co-founded L.A.’s Le Fashion Truck in 2011, when there were only a handful of competitors. Recurring expenses include vendor fees, auto and liability insurance, vehicle maintenance and gas.
Today, mobile boutiques sell everything from yarn to shoes to “Mad Men”-inspired frocks. One truck in Salt Lake City, Utah, specializes in healing rocks and crystals.
Despite the industry growth, many cities still regulate mobile boutiques based on peddler permitting rules dating to the 1950s, according to Steffe. St. Paul, Minn., and San Francisco have pioneered new rules.
“It takes a confident person to shop out of a truck,” Steffe says. “Most are savvy shoppers who have a flexible income and enjoy a smaller boutique atmosphere.”
Passionista Fashion Truck’s next stop is the Claymont Ballroom Bridal Expo Sunday.
Durán limits her activity in the winter, since the truck is only equipped with a space heater and already has 230,000 miles on it. Some customers will brave 30-degree weather, however, to try on clothes in the mini dressing room.
Inside, the truck is cozy, not claustrophobic. Durán, a former accounting assistant, renovated the 18-foot aluminum box with a sage runner, wood floor, track lighting and a molded ceiling that resembles antique pressed tin. Her original budget was $15,000, but that quickly skyrocketed.
Roughly a dozen racks and scattered shelves beckon 10 customers at a time. Fleece-lined leggings are a huge hit. Sizes range from small to 3X. Her target audience is women from college-age to 35.
“If I wouldn’t wear it or give it to someone, I won’t carry it,” says Durán, who regularly plays style consultant for her customers.
On the other coast, Le Fashion Truck specializes in vintage and locally-sourced clothing, along with handcrafted jewelry. On Jan. 10, it celebrated its third anniversary at the W Los Angeles hotel in Westwood, where it makes rounds every second Friday of the month.
Routine stops are more profitable, says Steffe, 36, noting that impulse buys are “only as good as somebody’s pocketbook on that day.” The exception: During the holidays when customers, particularly men, appreciate the convenience and complimentary gift-wrapping.
Catering mostly to women ages 25 to 54, Steffe stocks her truck with about 1,000 items priced under $100.
Like Steffe, Durán uses social media like Facebook and Twitter to clue people in about the truck’s whereabouts. When it warms up, she hopes to be at the Wilmington Flower Market and the Old Fashioned Ice Cream Festival at Rockwood Park. A permanent storefront could be down the road.
For now, her 15-year-old sister helps her steam clothes in exchange for Starbucks.
Truck-hopping is “a fun, stress-free way to go shopping with your girlfriends,” notes Dur￡n.