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Lifestyle

First food, now fashion trucks take to the road

Fresh from unveiling the new Hobo International accessories truck, Koren Ray is ready to take her fashion show on the road.

In a couple of weeks, the owner of the Annapolis-based firm plans to cruise through the Mid-Atlantic to her most loyal retailers, using the truck as a mobile showroom. Inside, she displays handbags and leather accessories amid the same rustic, contemporary decor of her flagship store — right down to the live-edge wood shelving and lit plexiglass walls. Eventually, she will use the truck to sell merchandise from sites such as festivals and the curbside of college campuses.

And she's only the latest local entrepreneur to study and pursue the mobile fashion movement.

"We've watched closely. It seemed like such a great fit for the brand," said Ray, who until now had focused on selling the 22-year-old company's products online and through department stores and boutiques.

Following the same road as the food truck craze, fashion trucks are attracting a variety of entrepreneurs who are going mobile to sell apparel. They say they like bringing merchandise directly to their customers and not being tied down by store leases.

Within the past year, at least eight trucks have started operating in Maryland. Two of them, including Ray's vehicle, hit the road this month. Nationally, the handful of trucks that existed two years ago has exploded to about 300, according to the American Mobile Retail Association.

"I predict that we will have a lot more retail trucks in the next year," said Stacey Steffe, president of the American Mobile Retail Association and an entrepreneur who opened her business, Le Truck, in Los Angeles when she knew of only two other fashion trucks in the nation. This past year, her organization has consulted with 200 potential truck owners.

Sally M. DiMarco, associate professor and fashion-design program coordinator in the School of Design at Stevenson University, has seen the trend balloon the past year.

"It's not just here in Baltimore. More and more, my Facebook site is lighting up with trucks popping up nationwide," she said. "I think it promotes the industry in general. It promotes small business. It is hard for these businesses to grow in malls."

For the mobile business model to work, prices must be low enough to attract a younger audience, according to DiMarco. Most trucks offer apparel priced less than $100.

"I would be a little leery to put designer fashion out there," said DiMarco. "People don't want to spend a lot of money on clothes. With high-end clothing, you see an older population. I don't think they would like to go to the trucks."

Shelley Sarmiento, owner of Little White Fashion Truck, considers herself a "dinosaur" in the burgeoning field. This week, she celebrated her one-year anniversary in the business. In that short time, she has expanded to three trucks — she just purchased a fourth — and operates in Maryland, Northern Virginia and Nashville, Tenn.

The Severna Park resident, formerly a co-owner of White House Black Market, said the secret to her success is keeping costs low on her stock of casual, trendy apparel and jewelry.

"Nothing is over $79 in the truck," said Sarmiento, who also works as a professor of fashion business at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. "As long as I stick to my brand, I will be successful. This will work for us very well."

Alexa Kunowsky, a Severna Park resident who attends Vanderbilt University, shops at Little White Fashion Truck in Nashville and when she's home in Maryland.

"It's fun to be able to go in there," she said. "[The owner's] awesome with all the customers. She's really good at piecing outfits together. I like going in there for her input. … It's also really cool that there is a truck near Severna Park, which is near my house. I really like the whole concept."

The pricing works for Kunowsky, who said she's purchased staples for her own wardrobe and Christmas gifts for her mother.

"It's all really affordable, which is the best part about it," Kunowsky said.

Like many other fashion and food trucks, Sarmiento's company uses social media to connect with customers and inform them of the truck's location on a given day. Sarmiento's truck has a mobile application that alerts customers on Facebook when the truck is within 10 miles.

"It will even give you directions to us," she said.

Startup costs for a fashion truck can range from $10,000 to $150,000, according to owners. By comparison, Sarmiento said, "You'd be hard-pressed to open a brick-and-mortar store for less than $200,000."

She said a retail boutique would typically pay rent ranging from $30,000 to $80,000 annually, plus utilities and other costs. That's considerably more than a truck owner would pay for permits, fuel, insurance and maintenance.

She spent $35,000 to get her first fashion truck on the road a year ago. That truck paid for itself within 10 weeks, she said. But she spent more on her second and third trucks, both of which cost upwards of $60,000.

"Now that I have a little more cash flow, I'm investing in a better truck," Sarmiento said of her vehicles, which are old FedEx and bread trucks. Her trucks each have hardwood floors, a dressing room and a generator that allows for lighting, air conditioning and heat.

"We run 365 days a year," she said.

Ray, the owner of Annapolis-based Hobo International, paid $50,000 to buy and retrofit an old delivery truck. She added solar panels to run the air-conditioning and lighting and enlisted the help of artisans to mimic the feel of her flagship store. The truck is painted the same signature blue used for her business' logo.

"We really wanted [the inside] to reflect the flagship store as much as possible," said Ray, who hosted a launch party Wednesday for the truck.

The trucks in the Baltimore area typically target women. Among the varieties are Go-Go's Retread Threads, where Stacey Chambers deals in thrift and vintage wear, and FashN Stop, several trucks operated by Richard Sarmiento, Shelley Sarmiento's ex-husband and a former co-owner of White House Black Market. A new arrival is Lyn Boone, who started her fashion truck, Urban Pearl, this month.

Boone's mobile outfit sells "contemporary, trendy and a little boho," or bohemian, clothes and jewelry — priced from $29 to $125 — out of a Freightliner step van. She drives the 22-by-10-foot vehicle in the Harford County area.

She found the transition to a truck easy to manage.

"There's no additional licensing required to drive it," said. "I don't find it any more difficult to drive than the van I used to have to drive the kids in."

Boone, who used to operate a trunk-show business years ago, worked in promotional sales for the past 12 years.

"I always wanted to get back to something like that," said the Fells Point resident. "It just seemed like the perfect fit. This made a lot more sense. You just drive to people's doors. We absolutely love it."

The regulation of fashion trucks varies by location. Generally, they are less restricted than food trucks, according to Shelley Sarmiento, who operates trucks in three states and Washington.

"You have to do your research," she said. "It's a tri-jurisdictional — state, county, local — thing. Follow the path and get appropriate permits."

Boone said she is mindful not to park her truck near competitors.

"We don't want to park in front of a retail store selling women's clothing," she said. "There's common courtesy with that."

Stevenson's DiMarco sees a lot of promise in the fashion-truck business.

"I call it an online, mobile service," she said. "I think it's better than an online business because it's a very personalized service. That is not a feature you can find online. … Plus, the overhead is not as much as having a brick-and-mortar building."

But she also warns of overexposure.

"Hopefully," she said, "they don't saturate the market with too many all over the place."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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