RIVERVIEW — Zakia Carter prefers fashion in the fast lane — as in cruising down the road in a 37-foot RV loaded with dresses, shirts, pants and accessories. ¶ Carter owns White Tent Runway, a mobile boutique for women that operates out of a motor home with a dressing room, mirrors and clothing racks. ¶ The 40-year-old fashionista from Lithia's FishHawk Ranch started the business a year ago after hearing about the concept in big cities like Los Angeles. She liked the idea of bringing fashion to people's driveways and figured it would do well in a car-centric place like Tampa Bay. ¶ Food trucks certainly have.
Carter joins a growing number of entrepreneurs who are taking their fashion sense on the road. Some don't want the expense or responsibility of owning a traditional store. For Carter, it was about offering something new and different than the regular mall experience.
"A mobile boutique was an opportunity to come to women,'' she said. "I heard so many people say, 'I just don't have time to shop.' ''
Like most other mobile boutique owners, Carter offers clothing shoppers won't see in local stores — or on their friends. She buys only a few of each item from specialty designers in Los Angeles and other fashion hot spots and once they're gone, they're gone. Nothing costs more than $100.
Carter plunked down her savings on a 1985 Pace Arrow recreational vehicle she bought from a man in Ruskin who had used it to house victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Driving it for the first time, she remembers seeing the curious stares of motorists watching her crawl along at 30 mph on the highway.
"I'm so not a camper girl,'' said Carter, a divorced mother of two who has a doctorate in theology and does public speaking for women's groups.
Carter spent six months gutting the interior and transforming it into a sleek, and actually roomy, boutique. She kept the skylight and original wood ceiling and decorated the exterior with an eye-catching wrap showing cityscapes, fashion models and her logo/contact information.
Total investment: about $15,000.
She takes the RV to festivals and trade shows throughout west-central Florida. More often, she rents it out for girls' night out parties and other private events. The bus starts at $300 for four hours — about the cost of one tank of gas — and includes wine and hors d'oeuvres served from a white tent Carter sets up outside the RV. A generator powers the lights, and a WiFi card runs the paperless credit card transactions.
"You get girls together and have a few drinks, and it's a party,'' said Tynisa Hawkins, 36, who rented the bus last month. "The ladies had a really nice time. It was a great experience.''
Mobile boutiques started popping up in 2010, first in Los Angeles where Stacey Steffe and Jeanine Romo launched Le Fashion Truck. They wanted a venue for selling women's clothing from emerging designers but didn't want the lease and monthly expenses of a permanent store.
As interest grew, the partners founded the West Coast Mobile Retailing Association, which evolved into the American Mobile Retail Association. The group has nearly 70 members nationwide, including two in Florida: White Tent Runway and the Trendy Truck, a mobile clothing store run by a mother-daughter duo from Coral Springs.
The association's members are almost all entrepreneurial women who were intrigued by the concept or owned a brick-and-mortar store that went out of business during the recession. Trucks sell everything from vintage fashion and shoes to handmade jewelry and swimwear.
"It's kind of picking up everywhere,'' said Steffe, co-founder and president of the association, noting that interest in mobile stores has come from as far away as Nigeria and Argentina.
Food trucks helped pave the way. Once considered lowly "roach coaches,'' food trucks have become all the rage, serving gourmet hotdogs, vegetarian dishes and cupcakes at festivals and events everywhere. Mobile boutiquers figured that if people would buy a sandwich from a truck, maybe they'd buy a shirt, too.
Gaining customer acceptance takes time. Not everyone likes trying on clothes in the corner of an RV or buying from the back of a truck.
But Carter said that once people see the boutique and experience the concept, they quickly become at ease. For many who stress going into public dressing rooms, the intimacy and privacy of the bus come as welcome relief.
"We've lost a lot of the customer experience,'' Carter said. "This really brings it back. We're here to cater to you.''
Aside from insurance and storage rent for the RV, the cost of maintaining the bus is minimal. Strong sales, in fact, helped Carter take on another challenge: opening a traditional store not on four wheels.
The White Tent Runway boutique opened in late February in Winthrop Town Centre in Riverview. It's not doing the sales of the bus yet, but it's open more hours and gives shoppers who liked the merchandise in the mobile boutique a permanent place to shop.
Carter hopes the store will boost business for the mobile boutique as more people hear about the trend and want to hop aboard.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.