By  on July 5, 2007

MILAN — Since its debut in the Forties, the three-wheel car the "Ape" (bee in Italian) has been spotted careening around streets of small Italian towns selling fruit, fish and flowers. But Valeria Ferlini has taken a different turn: She's converted the iconic Italian vehicle into a mobile fashion boutique.

Ferlini dreamed up the idea of mobile stores while lying on the beach on vacation.

"I was thinking, wouldn't it be great if someone came up to me right now and offered really cute objects and clothes — not the market rubbish that everyone sells," she recalled.

Curious to see if the idea would work, Ferlini found an Ape, fitted its rear with a frilly canopy and filled it with linen caftans and cotton dresses from her own women's line, Malandra, which she had wholesaled to retailers from her showroom on Via Montenapoleone here. She then spent summer 2003 puttering around the Tuscan beachside town of Forti dei Marmi selling her wares.

"I was bored with the idea of selling clothes through a showroom and I was convinced there was a way you could sell fashion on the street and give it a chic atmosphere," said Ferlini.

She was right, considering that on average each Ape drives home annual sales of $893,000.

Ferlini secured permits from the councils in Milan and Rome to operate her Ape boutiques, which she dubbed "Moving Shop." Not long after, she signed a deal with Piaggio — the car's producer — to make customized awnings and printed plastic covers that can house as many as 400 garments, stored in rose-decorated rattan baskets.

Last year, Ferlini diversified Moving Shop's offer by signing on other Italian brands, such Bellora for bed linens and Sobimila for trendy young women's and children's wear. The Ape cars are decorated according to the merchandise, from candy-pink stripes to cartoon-ish girls.

Knitwear label Punto Cashmere was created specifically for Moving Shop, and Italian manufacturer Miroglio-Vestibene relaunched a fashion-forward women's line called C'est Comme Ca, which is sold exclusively from five Ape cars.

"Everything is made in Italy and costs 20 percent less than it would in the store. Customers are attracted to the Ape cars because they are cute and different, but the product makes them come back," said Ferlini.She recently rounded out her offerings with a namesake label of printed linen, cotton and silk dresses, tops and pants manufactured by female prison inmates in Milan. A tunic dress retails for $200 and can be customized at no extra cost.

Today, Moving Shop's fleet of 30 Apes operate across the peninsula, hitting 17 Italian cities and towns. The cars park in key locales, in front of universities, popular restaurants and in pretty piazzas. Traffic wardens pose no threat, thanks to an all-areas parking sticker bestowed to Ferlini by the local city councils.

But Ferlini has her eye on the future, and she's keen to export her quirky on-the-go boutiques across the pond, using a mix of American and Italian brands. "I can see them in Miami and New York City. The Apes are fun and really unique. I really think they'll appeal to trendy, young American customers," she said.

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