Boutiques on wheels push against city regulations

A clothes rack inside Street Boutique. Photo courtesy of Sharlia Lee.
A clothes rack inside Street Boutique. Photo courtesy of Sharlia Lee.
Sharlia Lee is hopping on a new mobile vending trend in D.C.: Instead of food, the 26-year-old entrepreneur is selling clothing and accessories out of a truck.

Fashion trucks are on the rise in D.C., as Lee and others renovate old vans to make room for racks of clothing and shoes. Customers typically enter through the back of the truck, where they find rows of items and even full dressing rooms.

Between February and July last year, Lee independently designed, renovated and even engineered the electrical work for a van that would eventually become Street Boutique, a fashion enterprise on wheels. But she didn’t predict the challenges she would face to run the truck.

As the number of fashion trucks has grown, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and Department of Transportation have cracked down on vending, with rules that restrict the trucks’ size, layout and parking options.

Robert Frommer, a D.C. attorney for the Institute for Justice who advocates on behalf of vendors, said many of the new rules for fashion trucks stem from hypothetical problems rather than actual concerns. He said the departments have claimed that customers could be injured if another vehicle hit the truck while people were inside.

“Yes, that theoretically could happen. It’s not impossible, but it could happen at any point. It’s nothing special about the fashion truck,” Frommer said.

Frommer argues that this “risk-averse” mindset prevents the District from seeing the opportunities that fashion trucks provide.

Lee said the strict regulations pushed her to create the D.C. Fashion Truck Association, an organization that advocates for what it calls fairer rules for fashion trucks in D.C., Virginia, and Maryland.

The association, which now includes seven members, has petitioned for looser regulations and for the government to make fashion trucks a separate category from food trucks.

So far, Lee said the association has convinced DDOT to allow fashion trucks to park on private property and submit one-day, $50 permits for special events, when they can take up to four parking spaces. But the event cannot be recurring, and the trucks must meet the size and layout requirements before they can park.

Lee and other fashion truck operators, such as Becci Badillo, owner of Nollypop Boutique and a member of the D.C. Fashion Truck Association, said many businesses have shot down their offers to work with them.

“I’ve had a lot of places that I call, like wineries and places like that, and they’re like, ‘Well, we just don’t know what to do with you. We don’t know where to put you. We’re afraid you’ll come out and then nobody will want to come in,’” Badillo said.

But Frommer and the members of the association say they are optimistic and hope that in time the city will be more friendly to fashion trucks. Food trucks also fought against regulations last year, when the D.C. Council weighed new rules that would have restricted the number of available parking spots for the vendors.

“The more experience that regulators have with these other types of vending, with these fashion trucks, the more comfortable they will become over time,” Frommer said. “But because the fashion trucks are so cutting edge, they’re getting some initial resistance.”

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