Ottawa fashion entrepreneur really truckin’ along

Every entrepreneur knows there will inevitably be a few bumps on the road to success. But Lainie Towell is feeling them a little more tangibly than most.

The 44-year-old Ottawa native has spent the summer selling dresses, bracelets and other items out of a 25-foot former Purolator courier van that she has converted into the city’s first mobile clothing store.

Ms. Towell makes regular appearances around town, parking her van in various lots that have been zoned for retail use. Since her travelling fashion outlet, called Voguemobile, first hit the streets in June, it has attracted plenty of social media buzz and has already begun to amass a loyal following.

The self-proclaimed “fashion trucker” also takes her motorized store to major events, such as the Ottawa Jazz Festival, and does private showings at occasions like bachelorette parties. Typically, she has about 200 items in her inventory ranging from evening dresses to scarves and other accessories.

“Why would a woman want to buy a dress off the back of a truck?” the affable entrepreneur says with a grin, already anticipating the obvious question. “Seriously, why?”

Part of the answer, she says, is pretty simple. To stand out in today’s increasingly fragmented retail marketplace, a new business has to offer customers something a little different.

If shopping at a fashion truck doesn’t fit the bill, what does?

“That’s exciting, that’s an experience, that’s a story,” Ms. Towell says. “And that’s what people want. It’s like when you go travelling somewhere, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I got these great shoes at this little boutique in Strasbourg that was off the beaten path.’ It’s the whole story around it.”

A former professional dancer who took a leave of absence from her marketing job at a non-profit agency to give her entrepreneurial dream a shot, Ms. Towell started out by selling bracelets made from fragments of old licence plates at craft shows.

She initially wanted to carry on the vehicle theme by setting up shop in a vintage trailer. While doing research online, she stumbled across a growing trend south of the border: mobile retail outlets.

Before long, she was in touch with a Californian named Stacey Jischke-Steffe, the co-founder of the American Mobile Retail Association, who helped guide her through the process of getting her business on the road.

With financial backing from a friend, she bought a van and spent several months refurbishing it into a dress shop on wheels. By early summer, she was ready to try her luck.

“Everything about this project feels like it’s been a challenge because everything’s so new,” says Ms. Towell, who required a special itinerant seller licence from the city.

Learning to manoeuvre a remodelled delivery van around Ottawa’s streets was no small hurdle for someone who normally drives a Fiat. Then there was the question of where to park her four-wheeled boutique.

Through trial and error, she discovered a couple of spots – one next Kunstadt Sports in the Glebe, another across from the Mayfair theatre in Old Ottawa South – that seemed to catch fashionistas’ fancies. The ByWard Market? Not so much – too many tourists who aren’t interested in buying, she says.

“At least I can get up and go to another parking lot if one doesn’t work,” she notes. “I haven’t signed a lease for five years somewhere. That’s very appealing.”

If she’s having a slow day, she adds, she can just pack up her truck and head home or hit the beach.

“If I was in a store, I couldn’t do that,” says Ms. Towell, who comes by her entrepreneurial instincts honestly – her father, Garv Towell, was a well-known Ottawa retailer whose ventures included Rocket Records on Wellington Street and House of Nostalgia on Rideau Street.

That flexibility and freedom are big drawing cards for mobile entrepreneurs, she notes.

Ms. Towell plans to return to her marketing gig part-time in the fall, but will keep the truck fuelled up in case she decides to do pop-up appearances. She is also starting to land a few online sales, shipping dresses to customers as far away as Saskatchewan.

“I think that, for somebody like myself, I really wanted to go into business, but I also want to be able to pay my mortgage or afford my car payments or whatever it is that we need to do in life,” she says, explaining that she can keep the Voguemobile enterprise going while still earning a steady paycheque at her day job.

Ms. Jischke-Steffe, whose organization now has about 100 members including Ms. Towell, agrees. She says mobile retail is an appealing option for owners who want to keep startup costs low and are wary of being tied down to one specific location.

“Location is key for any small business,” says the Los Angeles resident, who opened that city’s first mobile dress store, Le Fashion Truck, with a partner almost six years ago.

“You really get to take your store to the areas that are most desirable for you. And you’re able to have more flexible hours.”

She estimates there are between 800 and 1,000 mobile retailers in the United States and Canada. Most sell women’s clothing, she explains, but there are trucks, vans and trailers that offer everything from records to paintings – and even one called “Napify” that travels to college campuses, providing sleep-deprived students with a place to grab 10 minutes of shut-eye for $5.

“Going mobile is becoming very popular amongst businesses in general, whether it’s food or retail,” Ms. Jischke-Steffe says.

For Ms. Towell, it’s already been quite a journey.

“There are times when I ask myself, ‘What the hell am I doing?’” she concedes with a hearty laugh.

“For a while, I was like, ‘I’m in the fashion-truck business.’ And, then I was like, ‘No, you’re not.’ The truck is just the container. And, then I was like, ‘You’re in the fashion business.’ And, then the other day, I thought, ‘No, you’re not. You’re in the originality business.’”

Whatever happens, she says, it’s been worth it.

“If things really boom, then great. And if they don’t, then I’ve got this funky part-time business. I’m going to figure it out as I go. There’s so many different scenarios that you can create with this. There’s a lot of possibilities.”