At one time in the South, most shopping took place at the side of the road. Eudora Welty–era salesmen covered vast stretches of ground, their shops consisting of whatever they could carry. Today, a new generation of entrepreneurial Southerners are channeling that traveling tradition in retrofitted trucks and trailers—and doing it in high style.
Bootleg Airstream, which launched in Austin, Texas, in 2010, has one of the most enviable, exclusive shoe collections in the state, if not the country. Its founder, Sarah Ellison Lewis, scours style hubs such as New York, London, and Milan for limited runs, one-offs, and resales from couture labels like Proenza Schouler and LD Tuttle, which she then sells, literally, in the street.
Born on a ranch in East Texas, Lewis left home after college to pursue fashion in New York, working as an editor and a stylist for more than a decade. “I got to the bottom of the top,” she says. “I could see over the ladder but still couldn’t sustain a savings account.” Lewis found herself retreating to Austin for weeks at a time to recharge, and began searching for ways to pursue fashion on her own terms there. She settled on the idea of a mobile store with a small, focused inventory and chased down a listing for a gutted 1968 Airstream Land Yacht in Houston. When Bootleg opened, people came out of curiosity and to shop, then lingered in the tiny space to swap stories about boots, trailers, returning home, and taking risks. Capitalizing on the unexpected community the trailer engendered, Lewis moved to Texas full-time and expanded Bootleg into a mini–style empire that now includes an online market, a styling service, and a biannual fashion newspaper.
The mobile retail concept isn’t unique to the South: Stores on wheels have appeared in Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco. But it’s a model perfectly suited to the opportunities Southern cities offer a young creative class.
In Durham, North Carolina, Stella Wingfield Cook and Donna Orr launched Dear Hearts—which carries a mix of vintage finds and new inventory such as fragrances and jewelry—from a Shasta trailer last spring. As with Lewis, the pair had started their careers outside of the South—Los Angeles, in their case—but felt restricted. When Cook decided to move back to North Carolina to be closer to family, Orr helped her with the cross-country haul, then ended up putting down roots of her own. “We had all kinds of ideas for businesses that we might open together, but none felt doable in L.A.,” Orr says. “Once we got to Durham, we were able to reach back into that bag of ideas again.”
While some see trailers as incubators for more traditional retail models, others, like Abigail Franklin of the Trunk—a 1986 Chevy Step Van in Nashville, Tennessee, flush with wall-to-wall cases of jewelry and accessories from local designers—are in no hurry to trade in their wheels for brick and mortar. In fact, Franklin, a former stylist for Bon Jovi and Lady Antebellum, is partnering with other fashion trucks in the area to create a pop-up mobile market.
From a distance, shopping out of the back of a truck doesn’t sound particularly glamorous. But these stores, defined by close quarters, offer a noticeably more personalized shopping experience—and judging from the growing number of trailers cropping up, the model seems to work. Fashion blogs throw around terms like “high curation” to describe the scaled-down approach, but Lewis says it all comes back to one thing: good old-fashioned Southern hospitality.