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Alum Wears Terp Pride at Growing Startup

Route One Apparel Founder Opens First Shop

By Alex Stoller

Apparel

When the legendary Route 1 bar, the Thirsty Turtle, shut down in 2010 after losing its liquor license, “beer tub girl” and server Ali von Paris ’12 panicked.

It wasn’t just her way of supporting herself through her four years at Maryland. The bar was where she made some of her closest friends and fondest memories. The then-junior business major designed a “Turtle Survivor” shirt for her co-workers. (On the back: “Barely Remembered, Never Forgotten.”)

Von Paris (below) posted a version on Facebook, got requests from Terps asking to buy one—and then heard rumors about copycats. She stayed up all night in her South Campus Commons 7 apartment creating a website and PayPal account.Ali von Paris

“Overnight I made $12,000 worth of sales,” she said.

This was the first step in starting what became Route One Apparel, von Paris’s line of state-pride clothing and accessories targeted at young adults. She now has a customer base of over 100,000, 40-plus employees and partnerships with 15 stores across Maryland. Von Paris just opened her first shop in Cockeysville, Md.

“It will be a face-to-face way for us to really get back in touch with our customers,” she says.

She started out by recruiting her friends to help her organize events and sell her modest T-shirt line in Van Munching Hall and outside of the Stamp Student Union. A few years later, 25 Terps are on Route One Apparel’s “street team” using the same tactics.

In May 2012, von Paris entered UMD’s annual Cupid’s Cup business competition run through the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship. She was the youngest female and only undergraduate finalist.

Although she lost, the experience made von Paris stronger as an entrepreneur. “I was very motivated at that point to prove people wrong,” she says. “I realized I could be a really good business and I didn’t need someone else’s money.”

Elana Fine, director of the Dingman Center, says because Route One Apparel is so successful, the center doesn’t see many other young businesses trying to sell state-pride apparel.

“Ali was a fierce competitor,” says Fine. “She works tirelessly. [Over the years] she has matured as an entrepreneur and business owner.”

While von Paris is licensed to sell UMD-trademarked gear, she has expanded her product line to include dozens of other T-shirts (cartoon crabs spelling out “Maryland” with their claws, and a beehived woman saying “Only in Bawlmer, Hon”), a Maryland flag bikini and board shorts. She sold 1,000 bikinis in pre-orders alone.

“It was a huge risk, but it worked out,” she says. “At this point, my goal is to make really unique products that you can’t get anywhere else.”T-shirt

Customers have submitted over 300 new product ideas to her. If von Paris decides to use one of the ideas, she sends the customer who suggested the product one for free.

Von Paris says she sees herself expanding nationally. She wants to create state-specific apparel based on her most successful products, including a flag tote bag and scarves.

“If I went to Italy and I was wearing my crab shirt, people would be looking at me like, ‘Who are you and why do you have a crab on your shirt?’” she says. “Here, people have this feeling attached to a crab. Our brand unifies people in a certain region or a certain state. It connects people.”

Von Paris’ new store at the Pennsylvania Dutch Market at 11121 York Road is open Thursday through Saturday.

 

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.