FOR EIGHT YEARS, besties Abby Kessler and Katie Lubieski successfully grew their fashion brand, first with a line of T-shirts and later a popular boutique on the 200 block of Market Street.
On Thursday, the co-owners of Old City's Smak Parlour will take their clothing business to the streets, literally, when they open what's believed to be Philly's first fashion truck.
Taking a cue from local food-truck entrepreneurs who sell everything from homemade cupcakes to gourmet coffee, Kessler and Lubieski, both 34, will open a retail store inside an 18-foot-long converted box truck that is pimped out with French doors, hardwood flooring, track lighting, air conditioning and even a dressing room. "It's, like, a mixture of girlie and punk," Kessler said of the new Smak Parlour Fashion Truck. "It's a bad boy."
She and Lubieski paid the city $2,950 for the annual privilege of parking the 2006 GMC vehicle on 40th Street between Locust and Spruce. But first they paid their dues as bootstrapping retail entrepreneurs.
Back when the two women attended North Penn High School and later Drexel University together, they were budding fashionistas with dreams of opening their own boutique. After graduating in 2001 with degrees in design and merchandising, the pair headed to New York City's garment district but moved home after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"It was terrifying. We had bomb scares and evacuations almost every week in our building," Kessler recalled. "It got to the point where we couldn't do it anymore."
While holding day jobs at the Nordstrom store at the King of Prussia Mall, the friends in 2002 started a line of embellished, deconstructed T-shirts, which they got into about 15 stores.
But they never gave up on their dream of opening their own boutique. By 2005, they'd taken the plunge and rented a storefront for Smak Parlour in the 200 block of Market Street, using their personal credit cards and about $5,000 from the T-shirt line.
"People were banging on our door before we even opened," Kessler said. "People were curious. They wanted to get in. Right away, people were excited.
"There was the whole shop-local movement starting to happen. We made all of our clothing at that time and people wanted our clothing. They thought it was really cool."
Four years later, the partners had paid off the $60,000 they'd rung up on their credit cards to open Smak Parlour and had begun thinking of expanding.
"We decided against it because it takes a lot of effort to have a second boutique," Kessler said. Instead, they used a $30,000 Small Business Association loan to create a website, smakparlour.com, and expand their inventory.
In 2012, Kessler was getting her hair bleached when a stylist handed her a page torn out of a magazine containing a story about fashion trucks in L.A. "She was like, 'This is your future,' " recalled Lubieski.
"I brought it back. I was just like, 'Abby, this is what we are going to do,' and she said, 'Yeah, it is.' It was just kind of, like, a cool, new idea."
By going mobile, Smak Parlour hops on a trend that's already popular in a couple of other cities outside Los Angeles.
L.A.'s Stacey Steffe opened her mobile vending business, Le Fashion Truck, nearly three years ago and says it's always a popular attraction at fundraisers, private parties and street festivals.
"There's just a variety of ways that you can do this," said Steffe, who's also the founder and president of the West Coast Mobile Retail Association, representing about 200 retail-truck owners.
The local fashion truck's owners hope to drive it to the city's popular roving street-food festival Night Market, to other outdoor festivals featuring food trucks, to the Jersey Shore and even to the Piazza in Northern Liberties. But first there's the matter of learning to drive the thing.
"How many wheels does it have?" Kessler asked her partner last week.
Lubieski responded, "I want to say six wheels but I'm not sure."
When they showed me a photo of a big, old generic box on wheels, my eyebrows shot way up.
"It looks ugly, right?" Kessler said. "There's nothing glamorous about it. But you have to have vision. Wait until you see it. When we saw it today, it was already looking fabulous and like a boutique."
When it hits the street Thursday, it will be manned by one of two new employees - who have experience driving trucks.