Fashion trucks roll out across the Washington region

Most women have an understandable aversion to getting into unfamiliar vehicles. Which explains why Donna Hundley has watched as people circle her business — once, twice, three times — as they decide whether to stop and step inside. Some have snapped pictures.

“I will stand outside and wave people in and they still pull up and say, ‘Uhhhh, can I come in?’ ” she said.

Hundley owns Curvy Chix Chariot, a gray fashion truck with sparkling red letters and a chalkboard bumper that often reads, “Come see what’s inside.” Her truck, specializing in clothes for plus-size women, is one of the mobile retailers — the sartorial cousins to food trucks — that have taken to Washington area streets over the past year and a half.

At last count, there were a dozen fashion trucks rolling around, including a former FedEx carrier, a one-time church van and an old delivery truck for vending machine refills. “When I was cleaning it out, I found $23 in change,” Hundley said of the first small return on her $2,200 truck investment.

Will there be a point when the fashionista descendents of food trucks are as commonplace as the banh mi and bibimbap sellers around Franklin Park?

While the fledgling fashion truck industry already has its would-be Gap (See: Shelley Sarmiento’s Little White Fashion Truck) most of the local sellers are more like do-it-yourselfers: Nearly all have kept their full-time jobs and most struggle with everything from convoluted regulations to harsh weather.

Georgette Littlejohn, who runs the G Truck (new and vintage “fashion that hits the spot”), still works nights as a police officer in the District. Over at the Thread Truck (bohemian styles for less than $75), co-owner Brooke Jordan spends most of her day as an executive recruiter, while business partner Stacey Kane has kept her job as “global director of buzz” — that’s her real title — for a large restaurant company.

Most opened their shops on a whim. Myss Stephens, who owns the Glamourholic Curbside Fashion Truck, full of accessories and jewelry, was saving up to buy a Porsche convertible when she came across New York’s “tricked out” StyleLine fashion truck. Instead of a Boxster, Stephens plunked down less than $5,000 and bought a van once owned by the Loudoun County school system.

For these women — and all of the proprietors thus far have been women — trucks are a way to dip a toe into the business world. There is some overhead: Truckers have to buy commercial auto insurance on top of standard business liability insurance, and it costs between $100 and $200 to fill the gas tank every week. But it’s still a fairly cost-effective way to sell clothes, even if it’s not exactly what some had in mind.

“I visited National Harbor properties, and [then] I thought I was going to open it right in the heart of Georgetown,” Sharlia Lee said. “And then financial reality set in.”

Instead, she generally parks her Street Boutique — a former Washington Post delivery truck now selling ear cuffs and fashion harnesses — in Clarendon and Court House and other high traffic locations around lunchtime and happy hour.

The response from bricks-and-mortar stores has been mixed. The Thread Truck started a partnership with Gossip on 23rd, a shop in Crystal City, and both merchants source their inventory from many of the same sellers. But when Lee tried to open for business at National Harbor, she didn’t exactly get a warm reception.

“They said that I couldn’t be there, because there were people paying rent to sell the same things that I do,” she said.

The rules are complicated, and Lee recently started the D.C. Fashion Truck Association and enlisted the libertarian small business advocates at the Institute for Justice to help. Arlington is fairly hands-off for mobile retail vendors, while Prince George’s County makes it nearly impossible to sell anything except ice cream out of trucks on public land. And the District Department of Transportation is in no rush to amend regulations they just made for food trucks, which bar streetside sales from vehicles larger than 18 feet. Most fashion trucks are larger than 20. One alternative is festivals, although those can be competitive to get into and often charge hefty entry fees.

There are also the more eccentric challenges. Last summer, Stephens’s truck had a stinkbug infestation; and the women have noticed that maneuvering a van full of hanging garments often results in a pile of crumpled clothes on the floor. Jordan once had to have the truck towed because she thought it had broken down. Really, she just didn’t know how to work a diesel engine.

One fashion trucker seems to have avoided the common problems. Shelley Sarmiento bought a 16-foot bread truck a year and a half ago to keep her inventory manageable, which coincidentally allowed her to bypass the regulatory headaches of longer trucks. She laid down a wood floor and lined the ceiling with crown molding. Two strips of track lighting spotlight seven rods of eclectically patterned blouses, pants, dresses, purses and skirts, six shelves of on-trend sweaters and jeans and a framed sheet of chicken wire displaying brightly colored jewelry. Almost everything is in the $19 to $79 range. In one corner, a small dressing room is cordoned off by a curtain of yellow fabric, and on the front seat a generator powers the lights, outlets and, when necessary, air conditioning or heat.

Looking at Sarmiento’s business model for Little White Fashion Truck, it’s not hard to imagine an era where the clothes come to you, the boutiques are side-swiped and no more than a dozen people can shop at once. Sarmiento has had success in the fashion industry before. She once owned the clothing chain White House Black Market, which she and her then-husband sold to Chico’s FAS in 2003. She’s approaching her business with industry knowledge, and she’s now up to four trucks and three part-time employees. One truck rolls around Severna Park, Md., where she lives; one travels around Northern Virginia; and another wends its way through Nashville. She also uses an old landscaping truck as a pop-up shop she can park at festivals, such as Bonnaroo and Firefly, for days at a time. On an average warm weather weekend, Sarmiento says she brings in about $5,000 per truck, and replenishes the 500 hangers of inventory every two to three weeks.

“We’re coming in with a chain mentality,” she said. “It’s set up so we could have 150 trucks. That’s way too much, but I don’t think that 10 is out of the realm of possibility.”

On a recent Saturday, she was parked in a gravel lot outside Gypsy Faire in Lothian, Md., a once-a-month vintage furniture emporium. Business was booming. A steady stream of customers, who were there to spend money anyway, didn’t seem put off by the sight of a boutique on wheels.

“I’m supposed to be buying horse feed,” admitted Kim Gomoljak as she browsed, “but this is so much more fun.” She was driving by when she noticed the Little White Fashion Truck in the lot.

“I just had to stop,” she said.

Why does a fashion truck make a driver pull over in one part of Maryland and invite confusion in another? Consistency has been key for Sarmiento. People recognize her truck now, making them more inclined to take a peek inside.

A number of the other entrepreneurs are hoping to do the same by teaming up with the Rosslyn Business Improvement District for Fashion Truck Fridays. With a bunch of mobile businesses in one place, they might look less like novelties worth photographing and more like shops worth visiting. It worked for food trucks, after all.

“Think about the history,” Hundley said. “It used to be that the only food truck was the hot dog stand on the corner, and I’m not eating from that thing. And now look at them.”

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
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