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Fast fashion

First came the food trucks. So why not a truck that sells T-shirts and sneakers?

Derrick Cheung (left) and Howard Travis, co-owners of Green Street Vault. The two sell limited-edition clothing and sneakers from their truck. Derrick Cheung (left) and Howard Travis, co-owners of Green Street Vault. The two sell limited-edition clothing and sneakers from their truck. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Liza Weisstuch
Globe Correspondent / September 8, 2011

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They snapped pictures with iPhones. They texted, tweeted, and updated Facebook. People walking past hurriedly craned their necks, then stopped to take a look and bought hats. The lime-green truck parked on Newbury Street was attracting a lot of attention. Exclamations of “whoa,’’ “so cool,’’ and “I’ve never seen anything like that before,’’ were, obviously, audible.

Borrowing a page from the food-truck playbook, Green Street Vault takes standard clothing retail and shifts gears. When Vault owners Derrick Cheung and Howard Travis park the truck, they slide open the window, arrange an assortment of sneakers on the ledge, and set up fluorescent lamps to light up the display of T-shirts - all created by local designers - hung from the track of the roll-up door.

Hip-hop streaming through waterproof speakers draws people like an urban siren’s song. The name is emblazoned on the side of the truck in retro graffiti letters. A video screen embedded in the exterior wall flashes the product menu. Not a bad makeover for an NStar service truck.

“It’s bringing streetwear back to the streets,’’ Cheung said. “It’s about talking to the people, finding out what they want, and making it about them.’’

Indeed, a mobile fashion outlet became an obvious solution when Cheung and Travis, who met working at clothing stores on Newbury Street, talked about opening their own shop. Both are committed sneakerheads, perpetually on the prowl for new limited-edition kicks. (Travis, 33, has a Nike swoosh tattooed on the back of each ankle.)

They figured a truck where they could sell special releases would be a clever add-on to a brick-and-mortar store. But when they realized the expenses of launching a storefront, a street address began to seem superfluous. Why not just put the entire enterprise on wheels, they thought?

Cheung, 21, is a senior at Emerson College, organizing his fall schedule so his classes are finished by noon each day. Afternoons will be spent with the truck. He developed the full-fledged business plan for Green Street - complete with financials, market research, and an LLC number - through Emerson’s Entrepreneurial Studies program, or E3, a yearlong immersion in starting your own business. At the school’s year-end E3 Expo, Green Street scored first prize, which comes with $5,000 startup cash.

“Having their own truck was relatively cheeky - their fixed overhead is next to nothing,’’ said Martin Lowenthal, an angel investor and financial adviser for the Bulfinch Group who served as a judge at the Expo. He became Cheung and Travis’s sole investor.

“It’s very attractive to get into a business that can be almost profitable on day one,’’ Lowenthal said. “With limited edition goods, they create scarcity and exclusivity. They can restock in 24 hours, and in fashion things change overnight. Likely when you own a property, you can get caught with extra inventory.’’

A Twitter account, the company’s virtual tracking device, was already set up. Cheung and Travis obtained the necessary hawkers and peddlers license, a mandatory permit for anyone selling wares on the street. They would soon obtain commercial plates, which allow them to park the truck in commercial loading zones. (If they park at a meter, they have to feed it like everyone else.)

They began scouring Craigslist for a van. After a month, they found the NStar truck. Committed to a keep-it-local credo, they enlisted Tommy and Paul Bletzer, brothers who typically remodel homes through their company Household Helpers, to help remake the truck.

“In one day we unzipped and unbolted everything from the sides and took out 2,000 pounds of scrap metal. We went to the scrap yard, put on gloves and threw everything out,’’ Cheung recalled recently.

Left with a shell, they cut out a window with an electric saw. They installed laminate flooring and wood wall panels inside. The cold, steel space took on the aspect of a warm 1970s-era rec room. They spray-painted dollar signs on 300 burlap sacks, which they give out as shopping bags, obtained limited-edition sneakers from Puma and Nike, and loaded the truck with T-shirts from local designers. Howard sees it as an “homage’’ to Boston designers, many of whom previously only sold their clothing online.

“A big positive is brand exposure. They can take the truck to places where people might not know about our brand,’’ said Matthew Elijah O, cofounder of Annie Mulz, a local design company. Green Street carries his brand. Having sold T-shirts at tables around town and run a pop-up store on Newbury Street, he appreciates the benefits of mobility.

“It’s so relevant - people are impatient nowadays,’’ he said. “If you have a product they want, and you bring it closer to them, it’s better than their having to track it down.’’

It also doesn’t hurt if shoppers just happen upon the truck. On a recent Friday, Monique Levenson, whose family owns Safar Coiffure, dug her phone out of her Louis Vuitton bag and snapped pictures of canvas Vans sneakers for sale.

“I have a 14-year-old son and they have things here he won’t find anywhere else. He’s always looking for original and different,’’ Levenson said. “Boys and sneakers - they can’t have enough.’’

Of course, original and different is the truck’s modus operandi.

“There’s a shock value - especially at night,’’ said Travis. “People walking past slow down and come back. There’s a lot of impulse buying because they’ve never bought anything off the back of a truck before.’’

Then he looked at the parking meter. “We gotta move!’’

Liza Weisstuch can be reached at