A Drive for Fashion: Trucks Filled With Style Rove D.C. Streets

Trucks aren't just for food anymore

Look at any unfamiliar 20-foot truck parked on the side of the road and you might hear the echo of your mother’s worried voice telling you to keep on walking. It seems a bit counterintuitive to stop, and even more so to step inside.

"There is a definite creep factor you have to get over," said Sharlia Lee, the owner of Street Boutique, just one example of the latest on-wheels trend driving around the D.C. area: fashion trucks.

Lee said she often watches people stroll by her colorful "we’re open" chalkboard sign once or twice before stopping to take a look. "But once they do, they go straight into shopping mode," she said.

Fashion trucks are similar to their pizza- and ice cream-serving cousins, but they offer up stylish dresses, jewelry and shoes, right out of the backs of their decorated vehicles.

As Brooke Jordan opens up the doors of The Thread Truck, she sets up racks of sale items and neatly arranges her table of accessories behind a bright white background.

She points a customer toward a dress "perfect for a Saturday afternoon," saying, "You must try it on!" One woman pushes aside a white curtain and frees up the dressing room space.

In other words, it's just like any other clothing store -- except its owners need to worry about gas mileage.

Jordan escaped the corporate life to try her hand at the mobile clothing store without a real idea of what she was getting into.

"I just tend to say yes to things and then think about them later -- this was one of those times," she said.

Her carefree perspective is infused into the items dangling on hangers inside her truck.

"I used to wear suits to work and then come home and have nothing but boring shirts and jeans to wear," she said. "These clothes are for that in-between."

As for Lee’s style, it’s all about channeling her West Coast roots -- she’s inspired by the culture shock she encountered when she first moved to D.C.

Lee and Jordan both grew up with an eye for clothes, and both still have dreams of opening up brick-and-mortar boutiques. But they ran into higher-than-expected price tags when looking for space.

"The more I looked, it became clear that it just wasn’t feasible financially," said Lee.

Roughly a year ago, she began scouring Craigslist for old church vans and used transit authority vehicles. She had no idea there were a handful of other women searching the same keywords.

Georgette Littlejohn is one of them. A D.C. police officer by night, she says her entrepreneurial heart is most happy while driving her G Truck , bringing designer labels with consignment prices to the streets of D.C.

"I tossed around a lot of ideas and with such a low amount of overhead, this option just really stood out," she said. "All you really have to do is put gas in it."

Together, these fashion truck owners are basically a superhero breed of that best friend you’ve always wanted nearby: They can tell you exactly what to wear on your first date, while also explaining why your car is making that gurgling noise.

But it wasn’t always that way. Lee once had the engine of her truck slow to a quiet death while driving on I-495.

"I didn’t think it needed oil and I just didn’t know what to do -- because I’m a girl," she said, adding she now keeps a stash of oil at the ready for when the truck needs a little extra juice.

And Jordan admits to borrowing traffic cones from a nearby construction zone in order to maneuver her truck through D.C. traffic.

"That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done," she said.

These women do have at least one form of kryptonite, and it’s a familiar one: parking

It’s not always easy to provide curbside clothing service when strict mobile vending laws abound in the DMV. Some counties limit the trucks to 15 minute parking thanks to an old "ice cream law," and others won’t even let them come close to their sidewalks.

Lee started the D.C. Fashion Truck Association in order to get the attention of lawmakers and to be allowed in the District. But she said that even though the D.C. Department of Transportation changed rules for food trucks, no similar legislation is in the works yet for fashion trucks.

In the meantime, truck owners rely on festivals and more welcoming areas, like Clarendon and Rosslyn, to set up shop.

Rosslyns Business Improvement District (BID) has championed the new trend, even creating a monthly "Fashion Truck Fridays" festival of sorts this summer, says BID president Mary-Claire Burick. 

"You’re always going to have a natural tension between the mobile vendors, whether it be fashion trucks or food trucks, and the brick and mortar stores," said Burick. "We believe you need to have a combination of both to have a really lively, vibrant downtown community."

It’s a line of thought that fashion truck owners -- and their bottom lines -- are happy with. They tend to do three times as much business in Rosslyn as other places, they said.

"If it’s one truck alone, it can confuse people, but when there’s a bunch of us, it creates a mall-type situation," said Jordan.

But when business isn’t booming, being behind the wheel can make Jordan feel a little stuck -- especially during the slow summer months, when "no one's making any money."

"Sometimes when I wake up, my mind is hoping that the truck is running today; I hope it's only 85 degrees; I hope the air conditioning doesn't shut the engine off and it goes on and on,” she said.

Every now and then, she gets caught up dreaming about a real retail space: "It must be nice to just walk into your store and turn the air conditioning on."

But on the other hand, Jordan, Lee and Littlejohn all share the excitement about getting to take clothes to where people are.

"It's so much fun and we develop a really personal connection with customers which doesn’t always happen in a regular store," Lee said.

And slowly, Littlejohn said, customers are cozying up to the idea of trying on clothes in the back of trucks.

"Once people realize who we are and actually take that step," she said, "they have the best time and absolutely love it -- it's really a win-win kind of experience." 

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