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December 22, 2014
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Stacey Steffe and Jeanine Romo of Le Fashion Truck. Source: lefashiontruck.com.

Whether in a parking lot or on a highway, a moving truck doesn't exactly conjure up images of a refined, high fashion shopping experience. But Stacey Steffe and Jeanine Romo set out to do just that when they opened Le Fashion Truck, one of the first mobile stores in Los Angeles.

Haberdash Vintage mobile shop. Source: haberdashvintage.com.
Haberdash Vintage mobile shop.
Source: haberdashvintage.com.

"While almost everyone was super enthusiastic and supportive, there was a small population of skeptics… most were boutique owners that [felt] threatened that their own business would suffer because we [would] come onto their block once a month," says Steffe, adding, "after two-and-a-half years in business, most of those skeptics have come around and acknowledged that we aren't just a novel act, but a full-fledged retail store here to stay."

The two women drummed up the idea in 2010 while promoting their own items at a local farmer's market: Steffe was selling vintage handbags, and Romo her own handmade jewellery. "A food truck rolled through with their loyal fan base, and I both admired and envied their mobility and thought, 'what if I put my merchandise on a truck and had a store on wheels?' I told Jeanine about the idea and her response was: 'I love it, let's do this!'"

Mobile boutiques like Le Fashion Truck seem to be a more attractive business platform than traditional stores for young entrepreneurs with an independent spirit. No lease (for land, anyway), lower overhead costs and the ability to drive directly to your geographically-targeted consumer base, have also put a new spin on the old real-estate adage: location, location, location. Even on the East Coast, where weather conditions aren't so dependable, parking for business has proven to attract customers. 

"You don't have to get in your car, find parking or deal with rude cashiers and long check out lines. All the things people hate about traditional brick-and-mortar shopping are eliminated," explains Jessie Goldenberg, founder of Nomad, a fashion truck based in Hoboken, New Jersey. In less than one year, the 24-year-old launched her business inspired in part by the cropping up of West Coast mobile retailers and the experiences she had while working at a dress shop in Brooklyn.

...most of those skeptics have come around and acknowledged that we aren't just a novel act, but a full-fledged retail store here to stay.

"Last year, when the idea for Nomad was in its really early stages, I went to a street festival in Park Slope… I found a fabulous vendor - Vibe Jewels - who designs unique, handmade turbans. I purchased one and said to myself, 'this time next year; I would love to have a booth here with something special like this.' I wore my turban all summer… This past May, I attended the very same festival with my truck… and now we carry the line of turbans on Nomad. It's exciting and humbling how everything has come full circle."

Buying and refitting a truck can cost anywhere between US$15,000-$60,000 according to Steffe, who is also a co-founder and consultant for the West Coast Mobile Retail Association. Founded in 2011, the organisation boasts an ever-growing membership, and has since spawned the American Mobile Retail Association. But even with collective representation, depending on where you live, lobbying for more flexible permits can be difficult.

In San Francisco, repurposed fashion trucks like Top Shelf have become a popular mainstay, despite the fact that running a mobile boutique in the city is technically illegal. Local officials are working to change legislation and make San Francisco friendlier to mobile retailers, providing a regulatory framework that can encourage small business growth.

Christian Murdock, a case manager at the San Francisco Office of Small Business was quoted in the SF Examiner as saying, "They're explicitly prohibited, and it's a legal gray area for anything else service-related that's not mobile food… but these folks are trying to do the right thing and come in and get their business vetted, regulated, so they can get up and running." If passed, the regulations would be the first of its kind in America.

Outside the Bay Area, retailers like JD Luxe in Los Angeles enjoy a more standardised legal climate. Launched by Jordana Fortaleza and Tyler Kenney, the edgy shop features a mixed range of bohemian streetwear along with distinct accessories like a silver ring cut in the shape of a wrench or a vegan leather studded satchel.

Floor space, however, is tight. Like many of its counterparts, JD Luxe can only take about six customers at a time, but Fortaleza believes the physical constraints can make for a more intimate experience. Traveling to different neighbourhoods allows the shop to cater to specific aesthetics, and on days when lines get long, Fortaleza and her team simply set additional racks outside.

"We have our permanent locations such as West Hollywood on Sundays and Hollywood on Thursdays. So we will always have product to cater to those clients. But then we'll occasionally do events in areas like downtown L.A. where clients like to dress a little edgier, so we bring in jewellery and tops [and dresses] that are a little more bolder than our usual inventory."

JD Luxe Fashion truck. Source: jdluxefashion.com.
JD Luxe Fashion truck. Source: jdluxefashion.com.

Unlike department stores or bigger retail chains, items that make it into the trucks tend to reflect more personal tastes; less inventory space demands more scrutinised curations. Vintage wear, handmade accessories and collections by young, independent designers give a rare feeling of inclusion. You're invited to sift through a treasure trove of one-of-a-kind pieces and learn their stories. Instead of going through racks of the same dress, searching for your size, you have a quasi-personal stylist by your side - the truck becomes a showroom, and you the star. Amy Chase, owner of Haberdash Vintage in Worcester, Massachusetts, reaffirms this view: "I have a strong sense of personal style and I just choose pieces I love and hope others will fall in love with them also."

Fortaleza recalls a day in Santa Monica when a woman couldn't pay for a maxi dress because she had to catch a flight. "When we packed up for the day, we drove to her place and made a home delivery to her. What brick-and-mortar can do that?"

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