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October 19, 2017
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Trailblazing: Emily Benson of The Fashion Truck

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Found at the SoWa Open Market and other locations around Boston, The Fashion Truck is a two-year-old mobile boutique that sells women’s clothing and accessories. Photograph by Briana Palma.

On Sundays in the summer, South Boston's SoWa neighbourhood buzzes with activity for the weekly Open Market, which joins the year-round Vintage Market. Food trucks gather at 540 Harrison Avenue, serving up goodies like Italian ice, crepes and hot dogs. Moving south along the street, the farmers' market comes next with its fresh produce, and then on the other side of the SoWa Artist Guild Building - home to 15 galleries and more than 70 studios - you'll find the arts and crafts section of the market set up in the parking lot.

At the far end of the lot, two large, colourful trucks are parked facing each other. No, they're not food trucks that have gotten lost; the two vehicles are part of the growing trend of fashion retailers on wheels.

Related: Boston's year-round SoWa Vintage Market.

Related: Meet the entrepreneurs who are rejecting the traditional retail model, instead choosing to make their mark on the road in their mobile fashion trucks.

Space is maximised inside the 100-square-foot Fashion Truck, as each rack displays multiple styles. Photograph by Briana Palma.
Space is maximised inside the
100-square-foot Fashion Truck, as
each rack displays multiple styles.
Photograph by Briana Palma.

One of the trucks is Emily Benson's The Fashion Truck (the other is Lola's Urban Vintage). Benson was one of the first on the retail truck scene - nationally - when she opened her business in June 2011. Two years later, the 30-year-old's mobile boutique continues to be a popular stop for SoWa shoppers and women around Boston, as she also parks at Dewey Square Plaza every Wednesday and at the Greenway Open Market on Saturdays. Benson also brings her truck to private shopping events organised among girlfriends - a new, fashionable take on the Tupperware parties of the past.

The truck Benson cruises around town in is actually her second - a replacement for the original, which she admits she crashed. The Fashion Truck's blue and black logo adorns the sides of the truck, while the doors at the back are open and wooden stairs lead inside. The walls are painted a variation of Tiffany blue, the floors are made of hard wood and above, there's even crown moulding. These are all details Benson considered when she and her father designed and built the new truck's interior, practically erasing the vehicle's past life as a potato chip delivery van.

"I don't want you to think that you're shopping in a truck," she explains. "I want you to think that you're shopping in a store. I'm in a truck but I'm not trying to play off that idea; I'm trying to play off the idea that I have great style, that I'm always going to be around and that I'm always going to keep improving so you want to come back and see what's next."

Indeed, Benson credits her style - she describes it as "comfy chic" - as one of the main reasons for her success. Inside her 100-square-foot mobile boutique, she sells a colourful selection of clothing and accessories for women. And don't let the truck's small size fool you; Benson is a master of maximising space and can display up to 500 accessories and 100 pieces of clothing - all under US$100 - inside.

As you enter, to the right you'll find shelves with necklaces, and below them, scarves and small handbags. To the left, next to a glass door, wooden racks jut out from the wall, each one holding a variety of tops and dresses. Most of the hangers are pale orange, but you'll also spot some blue ones, which signify plus-size items. There are even two small fitting rooms at the back, which is the end closest to the driver's seat, although that remains hidden behind a wall.

Owner Emily Benson’s attention to detail is evident in the neat displays, hardwood floors and crown moulding. Photograph by Briana Palma.
Owner Emily Benson’s attention to detail is
evident in the neat displays,
hardwood floors and crown moulding.
Photograph by Briana Palma.

The sense of style and attention to detail that have helped Benson establish The Fashion Truck as an industry leader come from her years working in retail for companies like Abercrombie & Fitch, Club Monaco and Henri Bendel, with the latter having the greatest influence on her fashion sense. "I was there for three years," Benson says. "I was doing development and design for handbags and jewellery. We were looking at Chanel and Louis Vuitton and Dior, so I got this really fantastic eye for super high design."

Benson also credits her experience at the New York-based chain with developing her entrepreneurial skills. She is now passing this knowledge on by teaching "How to Run a Profitable Mobile Retail Business," a web-based course with the American Mobile Retail Association, an organisation founded by the owners of Los Angeles' Le Fashion Truck.

"I do think it's an industry that will grow if people are educated and stay professional," Benson explains. "That's one of the biggest things I teach too: be a professional business. Don't be this fly-by-night U-Haul truck that pulls up on the side of the street and never comes back. Have a website; have a logo; have brand colours - all those things I learned at Bendel's when we were building that brand, the brown and white stripes. I follow all those rules in my tiny little business."

While Benson's past experiences have proved invaluable in her present venture, she now relies on her customers for insight, whom she greets and chats with throughout the day. "I know their names; I know that they have kids; I know that they were going to a wedding last weekend and needed an accessory for it," she says.

"It's wild. I never thought about that with starting a business - that your customer is your best resource. They're the ones that are going to say, 'I need a dress for a wedding but everything in here is too casual.' OK, then I need to go find wedding dresses that women feel comfortable in."

That's one of the biggest things I teach too: be a professional business. Don't be this fly-by-night U-Haul truck that pulls up on the side of the street and never comes back. Have a website; have a logo; have brand colours...

For example, the idea to carry plus sizes came from customers' requests. Although she says "it's really hard to find nice stuff in bigger sizes," Benson puts in an effort to find items that she loves - and that's the key - which happen to come in larger sizes.

Related: Chatting with Tanesha Aswathi, from the blog, Girl With Curves.

Regardless of the size, much of The Fashion Truck's clothing stock comes from Los Angeles-based distributors who make small runs of items, about 600 to 1,200 pieces, according to Benson. For jewellery, she visits showrooms in New York City to hand pick her stock. "I think where my value comes in as the owner and buyer is my eye," she says. "I have all that training. I have that ability to walk into a huge store that's literally a block long in New York and decipher it all and say, 'OK, this will work for my girl.'"

In fact, Benson says she's feeling more confident than ever in her ability to capture and challenge the style of Boston's women, both young and old. "I'm surprised by the fact that my style is what's holding up and it's not about the truck," she says. "If I went out and opened a store in a good location, I think girls would find me there."

But no, Benson doesn't have plans for bricks and mortar, at least not yet. She says she has many ideas for expanding her business but for now she is focused on making her one woman's fashion truck a great success. And, it certainly appears to be, at least if the flood of positive comments from new and repeat customers on a single morning at SoWa Open Market are anything to judge by.

"I'd rather sell less and hear that [positive feedback] from every girl than sell a lot of stuff and never have people come back in and tell me they love [what they bought]," Benson says. "At the end of the day, I just love helping women feel good. Those girls - did you see how happy they were when they walked out?"

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