Fashion retailers in the Carolinas and beyond are following in the footsteps of the food truck trend, putting their wares on wheels and serving up clothing and accessories out of converted trucks and buses that roam the region.
Fashion trucks are a growing nationwide trend, as some small retailers choose to forgo the high overhead of brick-and-mortar stores for rolling boutiques that can make sales at private parties and public events. Mobile shops mean lower operating costs and the ability to target locations and times most likely to see sales.
Others are adding the mobile boutiques to supplement sales out of their regular stores.
Jaws drop when Karen Mangeney, owner of Jordanos mens and womens boutique in Ballantyne, rolls up in her 40-foot-long Motor Couture converted tour bus. The sleek bus is wrapped in images reminiscent of fashion hot spots like Miami, Los Angeles and New York.
Once parked, one side of the bus pops out to make room for more clothing racks. On the other side, a canopy extends, allowing for chairs and a party atmosphere outside. Inside, a stereo plays music and the custom-designed décor includes wallpaper, accessory shelving and a spacious dressing room in the back.
Mangeney, a longtime Ballantyne shop owner, opened Jordanos in the Stonecrest shopping center in 1999 (it has since moved to the Ballantyne Quad shopping center). When sales were lean after the 2008 recession roared in, she took on two nighttime jobs one as a cocktail waitress at the Mens Club strip club, and another doing loan modifications for a financial company to avoid laying off staff or closing her store.
For two years, she worked daily at the store until 6 p.m., then reported for her shift at the Mens Club from 6:30 p.m. until 3:30 a.m. When she got home from the Mens Club, she would work on loan modification paperwork.
I was not going to let this dream go, she said.
She says she picked the Mens Club as a second job because she wasnt required to show up until after 6 p.m., unlike other waitressing jobs. And she knew that even in a down economy, strip clubs do well.
Chatty by nature, Mangeney would strike up conversations with customers (she kept her clothes on, wearing a uniform skirt and corset top), who were often impressed by her work ethic. Three of my top current customers (were men) I met at the Mens Club, she says.
Starting in February, Mangeney will close the Jordanos storefront in Ballantyne Quad and open a showroom in the Ballantyne Corporate Park that will be by appointment only. She is starting a new e-commerce system at www.shopjordanos.com.
She says shes been dreaming of opening a boutique on wheels since 2005, but it wasnt until November 2012 that she was able to invest in the bus, valued at more than $100,000.
Customers hire her to cruise up to their homes for parties, or Mangeney rents space in business parking lots and holds themed events.
She takes the bus to Florida several times a year to team with businesses in cities spanning Miami and Boca Raton for special events and busy seasons like spring break. Mangeney says a portion of her motor couture sales go to the nonprofit Project Reover, which supports children with autism and their families.
She says her favorite aspect of having a mobile boutique is that the fun, close-quarters atmosphere promotes socializing. Shes had singles mixers and other theme parties, and wants to do more of them. I want it to be about more than just shopping, Mangeney says.
Lisa Saia of Ballantyne hosted an event on Mangeneys truck on a warm November evening. She invited her friends to sip wine and shop on the truck in the parking lot of Aloft Hotel near Ballantyne Corporate Park. Instead of receiving free merchandise as a thank-you for hosting the party, she elected to have Mangeney donate her proceeds to Project Reover.
I love this idea, and I wish we could have more events like this, said Saia, 39, a New York City native who came to Charlotte after living in Las Vegas. I feel like if I would have seen this in (Las Vegas) I wouldnt have been surprised. ... Its so refreshing to have something like this here.
LeeAnn Little, who owns the Mooresville boutique L Squared, bought a 20-foot-long Lance Cracker delivery truck last February and outfitted it to mimic her stores style, with dark hardwood-style floors, white walls, chair-rail molding and bookshelves for display space.
The Style Truck, as she calls it, seemed like a natural progression of her business. After being asked to host several trunk shows, a mobile boutique made sense. She opens the truck to shoppers two or three times a week, pairing with local businesses or doing private parties or ladies nights.
The whole notion is still catching on here, she says. Its still very fresh and new to the area, so a lot of people have a hard time understanding what it is.
Little says she hopes her mobile boutique will help her avoid having to work so hard to cultivate sales via the Internet. Online sales are growing for clothing, and I really am fighting tooth and nail, Little says. Small boutiques today have to work really hard to generate sales on their website. I really wanted to avoid going that route.
Another Charlotte fashion truck, Circa 360, launched in September and does business online and out of a fashion truck that pops up at city events, festivals and private parties.
Model and stylist Jaya Muldrew had opened an online boutique in July 2012 and was struggling to find an affordable location for a store when she saw a magazine article about mobile boutiques while sitting in the dentists office.
With help from family and friends, she bought a 30-foot bread truck off Craigslist and outfitted it with cherry floors, white ceiling tiles, a Tiffany-blue wall and a seating area.
She took the Circa 360 truck out for the first time in September and spent all fall selling at street fairs, fashion shows and parties. She takes it on the road every weekend.
Food can be so easily accessible, why cant fashion? Muldrew says. Its really important to me that my customers feel like they are getting the same experience that they would have in a normal brick and mortar storefront.
Nationally, mobile boutique owners are banding together to establish mobile retailing as a legitimate form of commerce.
Stacey Steffe, a mobile fashion boutique owner in Los Angeles, co-founded the American Mobile Retail Association in 2011 with five members. Now it has 85 members nationwide, and the regional chapters help boutique owners navigate challenges such as city permitting, proper licensure and insurance issues.
Steffe believes 350 to 400 mobile boutiques operate in the U.S., and she expects that number to double in 2014.
Elle Johnson, editor-in-chief of Charlotte Street Style, plans to host a semi-annual Fashion Truck Saturday event around Charlotte to attract shoppers to the fashion truck scene. The first event was scheduled for last Saturday in NoDa, but was canceled due to bad weather.
Johnson invited all the style truck operators she knew across the Carolinas, and five agreed to take part two from Charlotte, two from Wilmington and one from Winston-Salem.
I felt they were not getting the same push as regular retailers, Johnson said. Then it dawned on me Style Truck Saturday. When you wake up on a Saturday morning, people are in a mindset to shop.