Lost Girls Vintage on the Rewards and Pitfalls of Starting a Fashion Truck

Kyla Embrey and Sarah Azzouzi were independent vintage dealers who met while doing pop-up vintage markets in Chicago. Kyla was interested in opening a retail shop, but the two were inspired by the burgeoning fashion truck scene in other cities and the idea of not being tied down to a physical retail location. So in 2012 they decided they were starting a fashion truck, and started looking on Craigslist for a camper they could retrofit for Lost Girls Vintage.

Hey Little Engine: How did you even know what kind of truck to buy?

Sarah Azzouzi: I never even thought about thinking about what kind of truck to buy.

Kyla Embrey: We kind of just narrowed it down by what we couldn't buy. We knew we wanted to work together because we both sold vintage before we teamed up. We met selling vintage, became fast friends, and started doing our own pop-ups together with local businesses. And they were successful right off the bat. We realized we worked well together.

SA: I think I was in Maine when you sent me a message that said, "What do you think about opening a shop together?" And I was just like, "Ha ha. That's so crazy. This big dreamer over here!"

KE: Sarah didn't want to be tied down to a physical location. We'd both done retail before. This was a couple years ago, when the idea of a mobile shop was starting to become a thing. She's like, "What if we opened a mobile shop?" And I was like, "Okay, yeah! Let's do it!"

SA: Kyla was so game for it. So we started looking for a truck. Originally we had wanted a pull-behind camper because that's what we thought we could afford.

KE: But the only vehicle we had between us was my scooter, so we wouldn't really have been able to —

You didn't have anything to pull a pull-behind on.

SA: Bicycles.

KE: So we knew we couldn't get a pull-behind, we couldn't get an Airstream, because we couldn't afford both a car and a camper, and it was just problem solving from there. What else is out there?

SA: We started looking at older RVs. We didn't want anything too big because we wanted to be able to drive it, but we were never like, "I need a V-8 engine at least." We didn't even test drive Winnie when we got her. We were like, "Well, this is perfect! That's it! We believe you!"

KE: And the kicker, it was parked in a Salvation Army parking lot. Because one of the guys that owned it, his dad ran a Salvation Army.

So you guys felt like the right mojo was in place.

KE: It was a lot of things. We were just like, "This just feels right."

What was the make and model that you guys ended up buying?

KE: It's a 1976 Dodge Sportsman —the guts are essentially the same as the van version that they made in the '70s.

So did you basically learn what you wanted just by looking at tons and tons of Craigslist listings and then narrowing it down?

SA: I think we learned what we wanted by... finding it. Like, we went and we saw the size of the RV and we were like, "Yeah, this is it."

KE: We did have a vision going into it, too. We wanted a big window, which is hard to find in a lot of RVs. We wanted it to be almost like the window of a storefront so people could see inside.

SA: Or like a food truck.

KE: And we knew we wanted it to be small, wanted it to be manageable, we wanted to feel comfortable driving it. So we had some must-haves in mind for sure. But we just knew it when we saw it.

How did you figure out what kind of permits you needed to get for starting a fashion truck?

KE: We kind of lucked out in that we're in this gray area where no one else is doing what we're doing.

SA: In Chicago.

KE: We're similar to food trucks, but we're not a food trucks. We don't have the same regulations that they're held to and we're not scrutinized nearly as much as the food trucks.

SA: We realized that as long as we had permission from the businesses that we could set up on their patios. So we did patios for a while. And then we realized that we can get parking reserved through chambers of commerce. So we started doing that. We always make sure to work with a business. That, I think, is key. We're trying to bring more traffic to the area as opposed to stealing the traffic.

KE: We always try to work in symbiotic relationships. We don't ever show up somewhere unexpected and just open our doors. We never want to be a surprise to businesses that we're near. So for every casual pop-up that we do, there are weeks and weeks of back and forth communication with us and that business or, if they have people who run special events, with their special events team, and with their local chamber of commerce or their alderman. There's a lot of back and forth between us and the rest of the community whenever we're doing anything like that.

What did you guys spend on the camper and what did you end up spending renovating it?

KE: So the RV itself was $1,500 and we probably did spend at least $5,000 gutting it, renovating it, repairs —

SA: Initial repairs!

KE: And with additional repairs and maintenance —

SA: We probably have another $5,000.

Did you have money saved up for that? Or did you just scrap along as you repaired it?

KE: Pretty scrappy! We both had some money saved up from sales that we had been doing before we started Lost Girls.

SA: But you never really anticipate how much it's going to cost until it happens. And we didn't have any financial backers. Obviously.

KE: Didn't take out any loans or ask for money from anyone else.

Had you considered doing a Kickstarter?

SA: We both feel the same way about Kickstarter: that it should be used to bring something that's missing from someone's life or to be helping a community or —

KE: Yeah, like a specific project. We didn't want to just ask for money —

SA: For our for-profit business.

KE: "Hey! We're doing this thing! Give us money so we can make money!" If we're going to ask people for money we wanted to be in a position that we really have something to offer them for that. Something to give back. There have been times that I have been invited to donate to people's Kickstarter and it just... it didn't feel very genuine to me. It didn't feel like they were bringing something bigger or were landing on this great idea that they needed help getting to the marketplace or an artistic project that they were going to share with the world. It just seemed like, "Hey! I want money! And I don't feel like working for it." So that's been a dialog that we've had from the beginning and it's still ongoing.

SA: Especially since we've had to put so much more work into the RV recently. We'e been trying to figure out how to have a Winnie budget, I guess. And Kickstarter has come up, but I don't feel okay with it.

KE: We still haven't figured out exactly if that would be right for us.

You're doing a combination of selling on the truck, at pop-ups and markets, you have this studio space, and also you're selling on Etsy.

SA: We also do private sales and parties. The next one that we're doing is for a burlesque troupe. We're going to their rehearsal, setting up two racks, bringing some champagne, and they get to play dress-up and shop.

What's the most lucrative of all the places you're selling?

KE: It's interesting. In just the little over a year that we've been in business it's really shifted. Because last year the vintage markets were always guaranteed to be our biggest payday. But now I don't know if it's oversaturation with the markets or if it's just a general change in trends and what people are looking for, but they haven't been nearly as lucrative as they were last year.

SA: After every market we self-analyze. Not only our sales, but how the overall market went — the feel of the market, the traffic flow, the type of people — and we break that down to see if we're connecting with the right people.

KE: What contacts we made from that market, what that's going to lead to, who we need to follow-up with...

SA: Because we definitely see each market as an opportunity. If we make a strong enough connection at a certain sale or a pop-up event, that is enough. Because who knows where that's going to take us?

What's an example?

SA: We did a pop-up with Glossed & Found and we didn't sell almost anything. But we met the owners of Camp Wandawega. They invited us there this summer. Since last year we've wanted to go. And it's not the fact that they're going to bring us more money but it's just the experience of going to camp is something that we've wanted to do and that brought forth that experience.

KE: One thing always leads to another thing. Even if we don't get the desired result or maybe what we were anticipating getting out of a certain pop-up or a certain event... there's always something to be found and something to be made of it, something to be learned. And a way to go forward if you're open to the opportunity.

SA: I think that speaks a lot to how we approach everything. We try to be really positive no matter what happens. I mean, we do have our down times. But! We try to be very positive. Because you don't know who you're going to meet. You don't know what is going to happen because of where you are. I feel like that's really helped us and our business.

I think sometimes we look at other business owners and we go, "Oh man, they have it together! They know what they're doing." I think there are probably a lot of people who look at you two and think, "I'll never be them!" Do you have those feelings yourselves and how do you feel about people feeling that way about you?

KE: I think that's a really common misconception for people who are in that place of wanting to do something or wanting to start a business but then feeling like they can never be in that position. Or feeling like you have to know everything before you start a business. The truth is you really just have to focus on what you do know. Not on what you don't know. And trust that what you do know is enough to move you down the road and you can continue to fill in the gaps of what you don't know as you go.

Put that on a t-shirt!

SA: So long.

KE: Well, it'll be a tunic, obviously.

SA: I don't believe that anyone should feel that way about us, because we're a mess! Well, we're not a mess. But we're a mess. We're constantly just trying to get our feet ahead of us. We're in constant motion, but trying to catch up at the same time. Yesterday we interviewed an intern — our first employee! And I am just blown away by that. Because I'm still not there. I mean, we need an employee so we have to hire one, that's where we're at. But it still blows my mind that we've gotten to that place and some other people — LOTS of other people — want to work for us. And that is crazy to me. Even weirder, we've gotten to the point where we're recognized on the street. Last year Kyla was walking down the street after Renegade Craft Fair and this girl goes, "You're her! Lost Girl Kyla! You're Lost Girl Kyla!"

How did she recognize you?

KE: I assume it was Instagram, maybe Facebook.

SA: Looking in my window every night.

KE: Most of our followers are from Instagram. And we post pretty regularly about our business, but also about things that are cool in our life. You know, if you're going out to a fun dinner or getting drinks together... that whole platform is about is who you are as a person, not just your business.

SA: I always thought that people would recognize our RV. And they do! I never thought they would recognize us, I guess. I feel like the business and the RV is its own entity and then we're just the things that make it work. Like, we are the RV's workers. We're Winnie's employees and she just tells us what to do.

Such a good point you bring up that you're at the point where you're hiring somebody and you never thought you would be there. I think a lot of people spend prep time before they even start a business reading information about "how to make your first hire," and yet, a lot of those things just happen naturally. One thing leads to another and even before you think you're ready, you're expanding and you realize you don't have time to handle the shipping.

SA: It's really nice to hear that from someone else. Because I don't feel like we're ready, but we don't have enough time to do everything we need to do and in order for us to get everything done we need help. And admitting that you need help is always a big step. We always ask for help from colleagues and friends, and everyone's been so wonderful and so helpful, but there's only so much we can ask for from other people. But if we had an employee then they would have dedicated time to help us.

And it's not like you have a business plan that has set forward, "Once we get to this level of revenue, then we'll..."

SA: Hah, yeah. "Revenue."

Are you good at spreadsheets? Do you make projections or anything like that?

KE: No. Terrible at spreadsheets! My sister is an accountant so she's helped a little, trying to get everything up to speed and do more of that forecasting type of stuff. We have an idea going into a market of how much would be a decent amount to make. And we've gotten better at sourcing our inventory for better prices, so we're improving our margin that way. But we're really kind of having to reconsider depending on markets for our main revenue stream. So that's why we're so focused on doing pop-ups, doing private events, and hiring an employee to help prepare for all of those markets and help expand our Etsy shop.

SA: Because we need to prepare for winter right now, too. The vintage markets have gotten — not that they've gotten bad but — because they were so great last year, or they were so great for us, maybe because it was our first year and everyone was really excited about us... the revenue has decreased. So we need to fill that gap somehow. And we're always doing that. We're always analyzing better ways to sell. Better ways to approach people. Better ways to get to more people more often. So not only are we going to focus on doing weekend sales but we're going to start doing stuff during the week. So we already have a couple of things planned. We want to do a weekly pop-up in one location — the same spot every week for the summer.

KE: We started working together in the first place because, when we were both selling vintage independently before we started Lost Girls, we realized, "Hey, we're going to have a few free weekends open, there's no markets going on. We don't have to wait for someone else to produce an event to make this work." So that's when we started approaching some local businesses asking to do pop-up sales with them.

I think it's really interesting how people come up with different revenue streams when they realize that things are not as lucrative as they used to be. One thing that you think is a sure thing, after a while everyone gets that idea and then you can't do that anymore. I think what you guys have done that's really smart is you've retained the same aesthetic. Whereas a lot of people panic and branch out into something that doesn't make sense for them. Have you made any mistakes? Have you ever thought you shouldn't have gone down a certain road?

KE: All the time! Of course. And that's a part of it. But I think we welcome that, because we're always analyzing what works, what doesn't work. Like, for a while we were trying to sell kids clothes.

SA: I think someone gave us a bunch of kids clothes.

KE: We had a few pieces, but it wasn't anything that either of us are passionate about. It wasn't our demographic. Neither of us have kids. So it just didn't really ring true to who we are or what we're doing and we kind of realized, "That's probably not Lost Girls Vintage."

And that's so hard when you're doing vintage. You have to learn to leave it.

SA: I know we all have problems. Because there's a little bit of a hoarder in all of us. So we have to draw the line.

You have to learn to tame it.

SA: Yeah.

How good are you at doing that?

KE: I think we've gotten really good at that together. Because we will keep each other in check. Yes! That is a beautiful, amazing black dress. But we have 20 black dresses. We don't need another black dress right now. Or, holy crap, that's the craziest fringe leopard jacket I've ever seen, but it's in a size 5XL. We don't have any customers in that size.

SA: I'll send Kyla a text that's like, "Crazy, or cool?"

KE: Crazy cool, or just crazy crazy?

SA: So we try to check in with each other a lot. It's nice to have someone else verify what I'm thinking.

KE: I think especially on those pieces where you're kind of on the fence and it would be more of a risk, it's nice to know "Will someone else respond to this risk in the same way I do or are they completely averse to it?" Because if it's on the fence, that's the deciding vote: okay, I'm going to put that back on the rack.

SA: We've noticed that sometimes it takes a while for people to "get" it. Example: we had swim trunks last year and they didn't go over very well. Men did not buy them. But the last sale we did I think we sold more swim trunks than anything else.

KE: More swim trunks at one sale than the entire year combined before. It just caught on.

Why do you think?

KE: Well, men are more comfortable shopping vintage markets. And it's just a look that has become more popular now. So sometimes it's a matter of knowing you have to wait it out.

SA: Kimonos are also a good example. Kyla bought kimonos two years ago and then last year I was like, "What's up with all these kimonos, Kyla? Are we really going to keep taking them everywhere?" And then my sister, who is actually really good at trend spotting, was like, "I really want kimonos." And this spring they exploded.

KE: People were asking for them.

SA: And we can't find them fast enough. Every single time we bring new ones they sell.

How do you manage paying yourself for your time, or being careful about how much time you can spend doing it because you enjoy it? How do you make sure that you're not frittering away time... shopping?

SA: To be honest, we haven't shopped in a really, really long time.

KE: And we're getting a lot more private appointments now. A lot more people are coming to us and we can pre-screen inventory that we're going to see. We'll ask them to send us photos or describe what they have. And if it's not stuff that we're looking for we won't even bother.

Do you feel like the truck has helped in getting those appointments? It kind of legitimizes the business.

SA: Yeah. We have gotten a lot because of the truck. Not only through customers but through other dealers. We get emails from other dealers all the time that are like, "We went to this estate sale, they have a lot of clothes, you guys should go. Hope to see you at another market!" And we're like, "Who is this person?"

They think of you because you're one of the easiest things to think of. It's the orange zig zags!

SA: We get a lot of things from older dealers who are leaving the business. And they see us as a business that is growing very quickly and we're not going to stop selling. They see us as the beginning and they think we have the money to buy this stuff... which is a story on its own.

Are you still working other jobs to do this? What have you given up, in terms of your personal lives?

SA: I've given up on the word "I." Everything is "we." Kyla bought a car? WE bought a car. It's hard to separate a lot of things.

HLE: You don't live together though, do you?

KE: No, just practically live together.

SA: We vacation together. We have finances together. We have a vehicle together.

KE: I think that would be enough to count as a domestic partnership.

SA: So we both have toyed with the idea of not having another job. I nanny right now, but I've been switched down to part-time, 1-3 days/week. It works really well, but there are weeks that I feel so bad because they email me asking if I can work and I have to say no. I don't want to disappoint anyone. And it helps keep my finances... it helps me budget myself.

KE: I have a part-time job. I was doing just vintage last summer when things started to get really busy for us. But looking ahead to winter and realizing things are going to slow down considerably when we can't do outdoor markets and pop-ups, I realized I should probably find another part-time job. So I'm working part-time at Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream which is the best ice cream in the world.

It is delicious.

KE: I work there 1-2 days/week, but now that it's getting busy again even 1-2 days I'm finding it really difficult to manage. I just got a car, too. So I'm thinking about joining ride sharing.

Driving for LyftSidecar, etc.?

KE: Yes.

I always found holding on to that part-time job allows you to budget, because you know a paycheck is coming at a certain point.

KE: It takes away a little bit of the guilt of those expenses that you spend on yourself, even if it's just a latte, even if it's just a little splurge. I feel guilty buying things for myself instead of reinvesting that money in the business. So to have an outside source of income helps to alleviate some of that.

But then you get to that point where the time you spend away from it, the time you spend working on someone else's business, if you would just invest that time in your own business... it's always that, "I can't let go of the hand. It's hurting me, but I can't let it go."

SA: Here's my thought: when we interviewed the employee yesterday, if she's working two days a week and we're paying her... I'm also working two days a week. I'm making a tiny bit more than she's making, but still! I could put the time that we're hiring the employee into our business. But would I? I don't know.

What you want to pay somebody for is the thing that does not take the expertise to do. Because you have the expertise now. What you're paying someone else to do is the grunt work.

SA: The thing is, sometimes work is a nice break from work. If that makes any sense. Sometimes I do just want to go hang out with a baby all day.

KE: Or eat ice cream!

SA: And not that I don't want to spend every moment of my day talking, thinking, doing Lost Girls, but it's nice to be forced to not think about it sometimes.

KE: Because when you're spending every waking moment focused on one thing, you really put yourself at risk for burnout. Going into year two of our business we've struggled with that a little bit. Which is when the idea of "Depressed Girls Vintage" came up. Because we were running into a lot of obstacles that we hadn't run into our first year: more mechanical issues with our truck, trying to understand the shift away from vintage markets, dealing with the winter that would not end to kick off market season this year. So there was a lot all at once. Mini burnout.

SA: Instead of being the positive people that we are, and we tried, we tried really hard to keep being positive, we were just... tired. Tired of trying to figure a way out of it. And we kind of settled into this "woe is me" — and it got really bad but... it's fine. We actually talked about it a lot this week and we realized that the only people that can help us get out of this funk is ourselves. And we needed to be more proactive. If the markets aren't working then we need to figure out something that is working. So we're doing a ton of pop-ups. We're filling the week days with things. We're getting an intern because we need help. These are things that we are doing because it's gotten to the point that the excitement has worn down and it's become a normal thing. And that hasn't gotten any easier.

Have you ever heard of that concept of, I forget what it's called, "the valley," or something? Seth Godin wrote a book about it. The "dip!" You get into this thing with your business when you're like, "Hell yeah, this is easier than I thought!" And then BOOM and you're like, "What the hell happened?"

KE: Yeah, we were in the valley.

SA: We were climbing up the hill from the valley to get to the other side. We were trying for, I think, three months. We didn't have the RV for a month! That was crazy. And the fact that we didn't have an RV for a month kind of made me feel really disconnected from the business. And ask much as I've tried to keep things going and tried to do our social media stuff it's hard. It's hard without...

KE: Pictures.

SA: And she's so happy! She's such a great reminder of how this little... this little vehicle brought so much joy and brought in such an amazing adventure into our lives. And without that, it's harder to remember.

photos by Brad Snyder