The Cynthia Rowley mobile store. (Michael Robinson Chavez…)
Fast fashion has taken on a whole new meaning lately, with designer racks rolling into driveways; truckloads of athletic shoes, fitness experts and treadmills, touching down at food festivals; and full-fledged runway shows staged on the backs of flatbed trucks.
Taking a page from the gourmet food truck playbook, apparel and accessories brands are increasingly opting to barnstorm the highways and byways 21st century style, putting their products in front of people nationwide, supported by social networking tools that help get the word out and hoping to reconnect with customers where it counts — in their own backyards.
"On many levels it's the ultimate in customer service," says fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, whose "mobile style unit" — a converted courier truck that serves as a boutique on wheels — has been on the road for the last year. "It's more convenient, more immediate, and more of an experience than buying online to actually bring the store to our customers."
The concept is hardly novel — mobile shops of one kind or another have been around for years (think of the old milk trucks and dry-cleaner delivery services of the last century) — but so many clothing brands climbed behind the wheel this summer that a sartorial SigAlert seemed imminent.
In addition to Rowley's rolling storefront, Skechers recently wrapped a 20-city, three-month, coast-to-coast "Shape-Up America Tour" in New York City's Times Square. Fashion designers Sam Shipley and Jeff Halmos spent August promoting their Shipley & Halmos label (and compiling a limited-edition photo book) by meeting up with customers at Barneys Co-op locations across the country. And women's contemporary label Alice + Olivia spent the summer touring the Southern United States in a revamped Airstream mobile home that served as a combination pop-up shop and makeover wagon.
Fashion Los Angeles, a group that hopes to stage its first fashion week events in Los Angeles in February 2011, plans to use the back of a flatbed semi as a catwalk to take fashion shows to high-traffic areas such as malls and college campuses around the city.
"It's an idea that's absolutely ripe for exploitation at the moment," says David Wolfe, creative director of the New York trend forecasting firm the Doneger Group. "Shoppers are exhausted by the traditional venues, the whole world is 'over-retailed' to beat the band. It's not like the merchandise is any different, but the setting is unexpected, funky, weird and young. And definitely not serious."
Rowley sees it as part performance art. "It's an experience," she says. "I've had people tell me they thought it was just cool to be able to buy a fashion piece from a truck."
But to hear Rowley tell it, her inspiration was as much serendipity as strategy, motivated by the announcement that DHL was planning to end its express domestic shipping service.
"I had one of those smack-on-the- forehead moments," Rowley said. "I'd seen the taco trucks around and thought there would be this plethora of leftover DHL trucks — so why not try to put one to good use?"
The New York City-based designer quickly scored one (via eBay) and spent a couple of months tricking it out with boutique touches: cutting a storefront window in one side, laying down a dark hardwood floor, sectioning off a fitting room and adding a sound system, Lucite fixtures and a striped awning.
At first, the truck was used for private parties and events. Then in October 2009, loaded with just about one of everything from the Cynthia Rowley collection (clothes, shoes, bags and accessories as well as pieces from Rowley's Roxy collaboration) it left New York City and has been on the road ever since.
In early August, the truck rolled in to Fashion Island in Newport Beach and set up shop — meaning that for the first time, going to the closest Cynthia Rowley boutique didn't require Southern Californians to fly to Chicago. The blue floral-patterned truck has been popping up in So Cal locations ever since, most recently with appearances in Los Angeles last week. Eventually, the truck will work its way up the California coast.
Somewhere along the way, it could very well pass another merchandise-laden motor home — this one headed from San Francisco to Miami — loaded with limited-edition products from Hello Kitty and friends to celebrate the 50th anniversary of parent company Sanrio.
"It's going to be stocked with 50 special items to signify the 50th anniversary," explained Janet Hsu, president of Sanrio Inc. "And being mobile will allow us to be flexible about how we interact with fans. For example, if we hear of a music festival along the way, we can add a stop."