Facing regulatory pushback, fashion trucks change course | Crain's Denver

Facing regulatory pushback, fashion trucks change course

Three years after the mobile boutique craze first took hold, local entrepreneurs at the forefront of the trend are looking to prove they are here to stay.

Four Denver mobile fashion businesses – Meraki Moon, Denver Fashion Truck, Judith & Joe and La Lovely Vintage – made the jump to brick-and-mortar locations in 2016, and one more – Patterns & Pops – plans to join them in early 2017.

Back in 2013, the idea of selling clothes out of a truck was an untested proposition. Young chefs proved that a market existed for curbside dining with gourmet food trucks, but would enough people be interested in shelling out money for a garment sold from a truck?

It turns out, the market for fashion trucks is very similar to that of brick-and-mortar retailers. “It’s a typical store,” said Lindsey Trees, owner of The Street Boutique, “You come in; everything is on hangers. There are shelves with jewelry. We have a little fitting room. It is big enough for people to walk in.”

Mobile boutique operators have become a common sight on street corners around Denver. Many will also pop up at personal homes on request and attend events like the Denver Flea or The Big Wonderful.

Brandi Shigley, founder of Fashion Denver, an organization working to promote and cultivate the local fashion community, thinks the mobile boutique trend is here to stay. “With small boutiques, it’s easy to get stuck in your neighborhood and to only see the same people coming in,” she said. “Fashion trucks make local trends more accessible to a broader range of people because they go to where the people are.”  

Shigley has seen a handful of trucks come and go in and around Denver since the trend began. According to Trees, about 10 fashion trucks operate around the city now.

Trees opened The Street Boutique in August 2014 after a career in the corporate world. She says that she always dreamed of opening a shop, but the set schedule required of a traditional retailer was too big an obstacle. “I wanted something more flexible since I had two kids,” she added. “A fashion truck seemed feasible.”

Trees’ story is far from unique among the mobile boutique community. With rents for retail space going up across the city and shoppers increasingly choosing online competitors, the flexibility and low overhead inherent to the fashion truck concept made it seem like the perfect solution. “We live in a world of convenience and immediate satisfaction,” said Megan Timlin, owner of the now-defunct Whorl. “When you are in a bus, you can go to your customer. That’s a huge advantage”

Timlin opened Whorl in the fall of 2014. Like Trees, she dreamed of a place where the local fashion community could come together. But when a deal for a space near the University of Denver fell through, she hit the road. She says it cost between $9,000 and $10,000 to buy the bus that became Whorl on Wheels, approximately the same amount she expected to pay for a single month’s rent at a brick-and-mortar shop. Timlin later opened Whorl as a store at 3326 Tejon St., but high rents in Highland pushed her out of business in March 2016.

Not every truck is as cheap to set up as Whorl on Wheels, but the concept of a mobile boutique has indisputably lowered the bar for entry into the local fashion community. Judith & Joe co-owners Brandee Castle and Sara Graf paid between $25,000 and $30,000 to buy and convert a used shuttle bus from Snowmass into their shop in late 2013, including inventory.

In addition to flexibility and low cost, there is at least one other major benefit to joining the fashion truck industry, and Judith & Joe exemplifies it: a sense of community.

After a couple years on the road, Graf and Castle partnered with Tara Lovato, the owner and curator of the vintage clothing and home goods truck La Lovely Vintage, on a brick-and-mortar enterprise in RiNo. They split the rent 50-50 on a space in the new Backyard on Blake development at 3040 Blake St. “We decided that since we were both mobile boutiques, and because we share a mission, it made sense,” Castle added.

Regulatory troubles

In addition to the many other daily challenges of running a small business on wheels, some fashion truck operators say that a lack of clear regulations and disproportionate enforcement of traffic laws have stifled their industry.

Up until the summer of 2016, a growing number of fashion trucks frequented crowded areas downtown, selling to tourists and office workers on lunch break. Lindsay Naughton, co-owner of Patterns & Pops, said she regularly parked downtown twice a week after launching her truck in July 2015. “Sometimes we would drive a car down first to try to save a spot,” she said, “It was hard, but it was worth it to be near our consistent customer base.”

Naughton said that she and her co-owner Brittany Brennan reached out to the city when they first opened to see if they had to apply for any special permits. Had they been operating a food truck, the path forward would have been clear, but for a fashion truck, there was no established process. So they, like the other mobile boutiques before them, were told to simply follow the rules of the road. “We are pretty self-sufficient and harmless,” Naughton said, “so we flew under the radar for a long time.”

Because the mobile boutique operators shared a spirit of cooperation, when one figured out a game-changing innovation in early 2016, it quickly spread throughout the community. They figured out that the city allows citizens to reserve, or “bag,” meters for a full day if they filled out a form and paid $25. “We were through the roof,” Naughton said.

That all changed in June 2016. That's when “Right of Way Services started coming to our truck and making complaints,"  according to Naughton. "It was always about something different. One time they said our chalkboard sign was a right-of-way obstruction. One person said the city would be liable for the danger of pedestrians stepping off the curb into our truck. It was always something random, maybe four or five times.” She said that all the trucks downtown were getting similar treatment.

The absence of regulation, which they once saw as a boon, had become a liability. Naughton and her peers had no recourse but to comply with the letter of the law to the best of their ability. “We offered to pay for special permits and come for meetings,” she said, “but they gave us the runaround. It was a huge detriment to our business.”

Patterns & Pops was in the middle of negotiations to franchise their concept in San Francisco, Austin and Dallas when the hammer came down. “When we ran into these issues, we didn’t feel comfortable sending anyone else out in other cities without figuring out our own,” Naughton said.

Naughton and Lindsey Trees of The Street Boutique opened up a line of communication with the city to figure out what happened. “We found out that the problem was that some fashion trucks had made an occasional stop in Cherry Creek North. [Patterns & Pops] had been twice, on request from our followers, and apparently, some of the businesses there were upset. They complained to their city councilperson, Wayne New, and he got us banned from all of Denver.”

Wayne New, the councilman for District 10, which includes Capitol Hill and the upscale shopping district in Cherry Creek North, confirmed that he did receive a lot of complaints from business owners. “They said it wasn’t fair for the city to allow parking spaces for fashion trucks across the street from fashion retailers,” he added.

In response, New said that he worked with the police and the Department of Public Works to “make sure they knew it wasn’t allowed.”

The issue with fashion trucks, according to New, was twofold. By bagging meters near the brick-and-mortar clothing stores in Cherry Creek North, the trucks were taking up spaces in a parking-starved part of town and presenting unfair competition to the brick-and-mortar retailers that paid high overhead costs to stay open. “There’s no problem for them to be in an area where there’s no competition, but for them to go into areas where there are lots of retailers, that’s just not fair,” he added.

New also said that the trucks’ practice of bagging meters was based on a misinterpretation of the city’s rules.

But when Patterns & Pops tried to return to downtown without bagging meters, Naughton says that the check-ins continued. “The city will show up within 15 minutes to bring up the random issues again,” she added. According to Trees, “[Right of Way Services] won’t even let us park at meters downtown anymore.”

Heather Burke, a spokesperson for the Denver Department of Public Works, said that the city was only enforcing an existing ordinance dating back to the 1980s that bars “people from displaying goods for sale in the public right of way, without a permit or license to do so.”

Patterns & Pops lost around $40,000 in sales from not being able to park downtown most of the summer, their peak season, according to Naughton.

“I don’t think anyone is trying to eliminate anyone’s business,” New said. “For that reason, I’m glad to hear that some of [the fashion trucks] are making the transition to brick-and-mortar.”

Naughton and Trees have reached out to Albus Brooks, councilman for District 9, which includes downtown, but they haven’t seen results yet. “We appear to be on no one’s priority list,” Naughton said.

The City Council may be taking action sooner rather than later. New said that it should take another look at the regulations governing mobile boutiques. “I don’t think any new ordinance is needed,” he said, “It’s just a matter of looking at regulations and seeing if they need to be revised or not.”

With their franchising plan on hold and their right to operate on the streets of Denver in doubt, Patterns & Pops has skipped a couple of steps forward on its growth plan. Naughton and Brennan have signed a lease at 1620 Platte St. and are getting ready to open their first retail location in the spring on 2017, where Right of Way Services won’t be able to reach them.

January 11, 2017 - 4:53pm