As you walk down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan’s Flatiron District on a Tuesday or Thursday, you may notice a stream of people climbing into the back of a giant tan delivery truck. On closer look, you’ll see that the truck, with “Nomad” painted on its sides, is a full-blown boutique fashion shop, complete with a dressing room.
Nomad is just one of what the American Mobile Retail Association (AMRA) tells us is approximately 500 fashion trucks spread across all 50 states. They began popping up four years ago, but the trend has exploded in the past year as new entrepreneurs learn from the successes and failures of the movement’s pioneers.
Nomad owner Jessie Goldenberg, 26, was voted “Best Dressed” by her senior class at her high school in Westchester, New York. It was around this time that she started to think about using her obsession with fashion to open her own small clothing shop sometime after college.
But after graduating from New York University in 2010, the prospect of opening her own store in NYC seemed impossible with the burden of student loans and little credit history, she says. She took her degree in film and television production and worked stints at CBS and Ogilvy’s Eyepatch Productions.
Then she found a new way to pursue her interest in fashion.
In 2012, she saw a “Today” Show segment on fashion trucks in the US. Young entrepreneurial women were taking the food truck craze and applying it to retail, and shoppers were loving it.
It didn’t take much mulling over to convince Goldenberg that this would be her entrance into the fashion world. “It was pretty instant,” she says, on how long it took for inspiration to hit. “I’m the type of person that as soon as I get an idea in my head, I go for it.”
She found an old clothing delivery truck on Craigslist. With help from family and friends, she spent six weeks renovating and remodeling the truck. She took out some loans, got some credit cards, and crowdsourced $US5,000 on Kiva and Indiegogo.
Goldenberg launched in April 2013 with a truck full of “funky and bohemian chic” clothing from small New York- and LA-based designers, all products under $US100. Today, Goldenberg says she has connections with anywhere from 30 to 50 clothing designers and 8 to 15 designers who specialize in accessories.
Part of the business idea’s appeal is the low cost of entry. Goldenberg tells us it took around $US70,000 to start her business, and she spends an average of $US1,000 each month for gas, maintenance, and parking. By the end of 2013 she broke even, she says.
If she had opened a traditional storefront in Park Slope, Brooklyn, she says it would have cost her $US100,000 to $US150,000 to move into a medium-sized corner on a high-traffic block and then $US10,000 to $US12,000 a month for rent.
In 2010, Stacey Steffe and Jeanine Romo, the owners of the popular LA-based Le Fashion Truck, were among the first to build a boutique women’s fashion truck.
Steffe got the idea while she was selling vintage clothes under the name Better Than Naked from a 10-foot x 10-foot booth at a farmer’s market.
“A gourmet food truck came to the farmer’s market, and I admired their eclectic menu, young followers, and brightly decorated truck,” Steffe tells us. “I thought setting up a store on wheels would be an easy and fun way to cart my vintage wares to the different markets I was attending.”
She hadn’t heard of the idea before but discovered through online research that the renowned designer Cynthia Rowley had recently applied the food truck concept to retail.
After Le Fashion Truck’s popularity took off in LA, Steffe and Romo noticed that it didn’t take long for other designers and retailers to take their business on the road, and so they established AMRA in 2012 as a way to keep the trend from being a craze that burned out after a year or two.
Today the collective has 103 members and offers business consulting to fashion truck owners across the US.
Lia Lee is among the many inspired by Le Fashion Truck’s owners. She launched her truck Street Boutique in October 2012 in Washington, D.C., and the database The Fashion Truck Finder the following year.
Lee tells us that fashion trucks did not necessarily create a new wave of entrepreneurs so much as give them an outlet they previously did not have.
“After the recession, we were looking for ways to be self-sufficient. And with fashion trucks, you can always exit quickly,” she says.
And of course there’s the cool factor of buying clothes from a truck, which creates a built-in “sense of urgency” as Lee says, since you may only have one chance to grab that cool dress before the truck goes somewhere else.
She tells us that the average life span for fashion trucks has been two years, with the truck’s owner either starting a different venture or converting the truck to a traditional brick-and-mortar shop.
Goldenberg falls into the latter group. She says she always wants to keep the Nomad truck, but aspires to have a full-fledged store to manage.
Nomad now brings in around 20 to 50 paying customers each day. “They come in waves,” she says.
On our visit, we saw what she meant. In typical New York-fashion, most people, heads down or directly forward, don’t seem to notice the shop on wheels. But when it catches the eye of one person, others follow, and a group of people start to file in. Soon the truck is filled.
Two trendy-looking women walk into the truck as another tries something on in the dressing room — a niche in the back with a curtain. They smile as they browse the clothes and accessories. One turns to us. “Isn’t this so cool?” she asks.