Fashionistas hit the road to follow their passion

BALTIMORE -- Following the surge in food trucks, fashion trucks are revving up their engines.

In 2011, there were just a handful. Now, there are more than 350 across the country, according to the American Mobile Retailer Association. Street Boutique founder Sharlia Lee is a fashionista in Washington who quit her marketing job to fully dive into her passion for fashion.

"I thought that D.C. was missing a little bit of the West Coast eccentric fashion, and I wanted to open it," she said. "But then when I realized that it was going to be way too expensive for what I had saved up and what I planned for, I was told to get creative."

Lee's dreams of a brick-and-mortar store fizzled after drawing up about 30 budgets; she was simply unable to achieve the bottom line she needed. But with lower initial investments and sustained payments, the fashion truck phenomenon is making it easier for entrepreneurs like Lee to break into the fashion business.

The idea came to Lee when she realized there was an uptick in fashion trucks in her home state of California. So in November 2012 she set out on a hunt, and it took her three months to find the perfect truck.

It turned up on Craigslist one night. It was a retired Washington Post newspaper delivery truck, and it didn't start, but that didn't give Lee any hesitation because everything else about it was "perfect."

"There was no rust. It had a radio. It had electricity, and I was like I can do this," she said with wide eyes, remembering calling her mom and shrieking with excitement. "And the price tag was amazing; it was a steal."

Lee paid $2,500 in cash and estimated that she spent about $18,000 in total on the truck. During that period of fixing it up, Lee also invested in learning some new skills not normally associated with the fashion world: She became a mechanic and a carpenter, singlehandedly carrying out the truck makeover, inside and out.

"It was all metal," she said, describing laying down the plywood floor, painting the walls, putting up shelves and a dressing room and putting in lights. It took her six months until the show was ready for the road.

Craigslist is a go-to for a lot of folks trying to break into the fashion truck world.

Ashley Duffy Grant started Gypsy de la Lune in 2011, which houses a treasure trove of vintage goods inside her 1974 Shasta Loflyte Travel Trailer. She collects from venues like thrift stores, churches and estate sales.

The hunt is "exhilarating," she said. "Seeing my clients make a personal connection with a garment that would be otherwise forgotten makes it all worthwhile."

These trucks allow the vendors to use social media in a highly effective way, telling their customers where they are traveling next or what the recent additions to the merchandise look like.

"Our product sells too quickly to maintain a feasible e-commerce site, so I often post photos of styles on Facebook, and customers can contact me to charge and send," said Shelley Sarmiento who started the Little White Fashion Truck two-and-a-half years ago. "This makeshift version of an online store has proven to be very lucrative, and my customers enjoy the personal attention."

Sarmiento, who is also a professor of fashion business at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, even texts her customers when new apparel arrives, making the whole shopping process a lot more individualized than walking into trendy chain stores.

The truck owners are not just in constant contact with their customers, but they also must receive permits from each state where they conduct business and pay close attention to the tax regulations that change from state to state and county to county.

As competition picks up, so does the space on the road because there are limited areas where the trucks can park. Trucks that have been around for years, like the Little White Fashion Truck, do not face troubles with these permits, but new trucks do.

"I fight so hard to get new regulation with the DC Fashion Truck Association to get more regulations written," Lee said, "because the more cities that we can open to change the regulations and get merchandise vendors to vend on the street, then the more people that do come along and want to start their own business there are places to go."

She wants to keep good relations with brick-and-mortar shops, and this means not having all of the fashion trucks in one place.

For many of these fashion truck owners, owning a store on wheels is a labor of love, so they are willing to work as hard as they need to in order to make a living and in order to build their brands.

"If it makes sense to do a proper retail space, then I will do it," said Lee. "I think it's whatever builds organically with the brand and really what the customer wants."