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Fashion trucks crisscross Anne Arundel County and beyond

Laura Layton has put hundreds of miles on the odometer of her used 1997 Chevrolet step van — all in the name of fashion.

Layton, one of three mobile fashion truck owners in Anne Arundel County, sells fair trade Bohemian dresses and locally crafted jewelry from the back of her truck. For a young entrepreneur with a fashion merchandising degree, this is her livelihood on wheels.

The interior has 65 square feet of selling space, including an area used as a dressing room when two curtain panels are pulled into place. Her boyfriend used his carpentry skills to retrofit shelves and racks.

She calls her rig Tin Lizzy.

Though Layton, 27, holds permits to park on residential streets in Eastport and West Annapolis, making a profit usually means hitting the road to places farther from home. When the customers don't come to her on Chesapeake Avenue, where she's stationed weekly, she heads to Baltimore to park at a festival or travels west to the Washington, D.C., area for a retail "truck rally."

On the road, the Edgewater resident has discovered new things about her target shoppers. Originally she thought she would be selling to college students. Instead, she has watched young and middle-aged moms climb the steps of her ride for suede flat shoes, leather bags and brass rings.

The customers vary depending on where the truck is parked. A shopper in one of her regular Takoma Park spots is affluent and has kids. A woman from a totally different walk of life may step inside when Tin Lizzy is at the Firefly Music Festival in Delaware.

"I went mobile to save on startup costs but quickly realized how great it is to travel to customers in different communities and not wait for them to come to me," Layton says. "It's an opportunity to try out different neighborhoods."

photo: cocktail dresses online

Driving trend

Fashion trucks began cropping up in the United States about six years ago, according to the American Mobile Retail Association.

Stacey Jischke-Steffe, co-founder of the AMRA, says the trade organization began as a networking tool for her and four other California-based retailers with mobile boutiques. Soon after, the group acquired a national membership of over 100 fashion truck owners.

The association estimates about 500 mobile boutiques are cruising streets nationwide, and that number is growing. Nearly 20 people exploring the idea of starting a fashion truck contact Jischke-Steffe on a monthly basis for advice, she says.

Fashion trucks are composed of a new frontier of entrepreneurs, striving for "validity" with an unconventional business model.

"Our goal is the same — to all get together on the same page," Jischke-Steffe says. "We all have the same issues in mobile retail, including strict state and local legislation and rules requiring permission to be at events."

Most fashion truck owners start small with the dream of one day owning their own brick-and-mortar storefronts. That's Layton's goal.

Koren Ray's venture into mobile fashion, on the other hand, has taken the reverse path. Ray opened a Hobo The Original store on Green Street in Annapolis in 2012. A year later, her family rolled out Mobile Hobo.

The truck was inspired by the beat-up van purchased by her mother, Toni Ray, earlier in the company's history. She'd load it up with her sample line of bags and accessories and travel to New York City. There she'd show her designs to fashion editors and retail store buyers.

Hobo is now an international wholesaler, but with that growth is the potential for a product to lose some of its personality, Ray says.

The vehicle, which was a FedEx truck in its former life, was gutted and retrofitted with an interior much like the Green Street shop. Four solar panels on the roof power the truck's lighting and air conditioning.

"We're cool and quirky, and wanted our space to reflect that," Ray says. "The truck is an extension of our messaging."

see also: cheap formal dresses