Looking at the multilayered grime that's sunken into the creases of Jeanne Landau's hands, one would assume she makes a living laying asphalt or mining coal, not designing and sewing clothes.
But converting a vintage Airstream trailer into a shiny new mobile fashion boutique requires a lot of manual labor-and Landau still has the hands to prove it.
Parked outside the Beauty Bar in City Heights one Saturday night in early April, hipsters of both genders eagerly climbed aboard Hitch Couture to peruse the clothes, purses and accessories on display. Landau, looking strangely fashionable in a puffy orange vest and black-and-white polka-dot skirt, hopped on and off the Airstream, hanging out at the bar with potential customers and relishing in the success of her new business.
But when CityBeat caught up with her the following Friday afternoon at her house in South Park, she was once again elbow-deep in black polish, hard at work waxing the Airstream in preparation for Hitch Couture's next journey.
It seems fitting that Landau's latest business endeavor would be a traveling fashion wagon. It appears to be a rather natural synthesis of her life experiences, as the nomadic 39-year-old has not only spent her entire adult life designing clothes in many different countries, but also lived out of a trailer in London for almost five years.
“About 40 of us who lived in our trailers and trucks squatted in unused lots from industrial sites and stuff like that,” Landau explains. “Our last place was an old tire business. [There were] millions of tires everywhere.... Most everyone was involved in some art.”
More than just a vagabond with a sense of style, Landau is also familiar with the business side of fashion retail. After owning and operating Catwalk boutique in downtown San Diego from 1990 to 1995, she hired someone else to run the shop and moved to Prague to open another boutique. She came back to San Diego briefly in 1997 to close Catwalk, and then headed back to Europe, where she met and married a French software engineer.
“No one would ever guess that's what he does,” Landau chuckles, when asked how she wound up marrying a computer dude. “[But] he's supported my self-employment habit for almost eight years.... Luckily he doesn't mind.”
The couple returned to San Diego once again a little more than a year ago, looking for a change of pace from the London trailer-park scene. Landau kept on selling her clothes at local boutiques-her newest label is I Hate Labels-until she finally felt motivated to open another place of her own.
“When I quit Catwalk, I turned into a completely different person.... Now I'm ready again,” Landau says. “It's different because it's mobile. The concept is a lot more fun than straight retail.”
Landau found the Airstream on craigslist in February and told herself she'd have it ready to go by April. Two months of gutting, stripping, building, painting and hard-core polishing later, Hitch Couture was ready for business and has since begun making the rounds at local farmer's markets and private parties. Though it hasn't yet traveled any farther than La Jolla, Landau hopes to eventually install a bio-diesel engine in the truck that tows the Airstream, a development she predicts will make it cheaper to travel longer distances.
Though Hitch Couture will be the first mobile boutique to tour the streets of San Diego, the trend is evidently spreading fast. Landau says she's heard of a Winnebago that cruises streets near the New York Stock Exchange selling high-end gowns, while many smaller-scale operations can be found on the Internet, including one RV in Portland, Ore., that brings clothing and home accessories to private parties and corporate soirées. Even Target has recently caught the fever, revamping a double-decker bus, stocking it full of a new clothing line and sending it around the streets of Manhattan for two days this spring.
Landau's crazy old neighbor strolls by and notices the Airstream is once again half-covered in wax.
“At it again, huh?” he jokes, before pointing his cane down the street in the direction of some of his favorite dumpster-diving locations.
“I see people throw away a lot of good stuff,” he says, suggesting she might like to incorporate some used merchandise into her collection. “Children's clothes, shoes-almost like new!”
Landau humors him kindly but later says she isn't interested in taking the vintage route.
“A lot of our stuff is re-constructed vintage, which is cool,” she says, adding that she prefers to feature emerging designers and new, one-of-a kind styles.
Eventually, Landau says, she'd love to get friends involved and start a traveling mall, made up of a caravan of designers, stylists and DJs that would travel from place to place, bringing all manner of goodies straight to the customers.
But until the day when Landau's traveling mall rolls down your street, you'll just have to keep your eye out for Hitch Couture. You can't miss it-it's the hippest, shiniest, most immaculately polished Airstream in San Diego.
You can find Hitch Couture Sundays at the La Jolla Farmers' market and Wednesdays at the Ocean Beach farmers' market. Visit www.hitchcouture.com.