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Maryland Strong: How Route One Apparel pivoted during the pandemic

Ali von Paris

Ali von Paris

Whether they grew up or moved here, many residents love to show their pride for the state of Maryland. One of the most popular ways to show their affection is through clothing. Maybe it’s wearing a Maryland flag scarf around their neck, a Natty Boh’s T-shirt or an Old Bay face mask.

Many have turned to Route One Apparel to find a wide variety of merchandise to show off their crabby love for the Old Line State. The idea for a clothing company began in 2010 while Ali von Paris was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. After losing her job at a popular bar, she created a T-shirt for her friends. Others wanted the design after seeing them on social media, so she began selling the T-shirts online.

The project, which began in her dorm room, turned into her career with her company selling thousands of products online and at retailers throughout the region.

“We like to focus on making very unique, very original apparel that you can’t get anywhere else,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, gave the company its largest test to date. Von Paris discussed the journey her company has taken during The Maryland Daily Record’s online Women’s Leadership Summit on April 23.

2020, a year of change

2020 was going to mark the company’s 10th year in business along with von Paris’s 30th birthday. But tragedy struck early. Her grandparents family farm home was lost due to an electrical fire.

“I’m naturally an optimistic person and I always look for the good in everything, but I also had this new perspective about how fragile life is and how materialism doesn’t matter,” she said.

March is one of the busiest times for the company. Maryland Day is celebrated statewide on March 25, but the business has a month-long celebration. She was hiring new employees to gear up for the uptick in sales.

Then, midmonth, the COVID lockdowns occurred. Since her company is a fulfillment center, it was allowed to stay open, but sales plummeted due to many residents being laid off. Von Paris saw an 80% drop in Maryland Day sales from 2019 to 2020.

“That is a really strong event for us usually and it is something we really rely on for just keeping our business functional and it was not looking good.”

Changing focus

She decided to change her focus on how her company could remain viable. The design team created a free digital download of a Baltimore coloring book, which had a couple thousand downloads in the first week. They also released lockdown-themed T-shirts such as “Warsh Your Hands” and “Stay Home Hon” with the Natty Boh mascot, which were hits.

When it came to launching masks, von Paris was initially unsure. As an apparel company, they knew how to make a quality product, and their business model focuses on making items about current events happening in the real world.

“I just didn’t want to have anyone think that we were profiting off a pandemic,” she said.

So when the masks launched, von Paris made sure there was a give-back aspect. For every mask sold, the company would donate one to a front-line worker.

A Baltimore television station ran a story about their donation, and Route One’s website crashed for the first time in its history. Two weeks later during a COVID press conference, Gov. Larry Hogan wore a Route One mask and mentioned the company’s work during the telecast. The website crashed again.

A year later, von Paris and Route One remain busy. Masks are still some of their best sellers. In addition to focusing on fashion, community work remains a critical aspect to the company.

“My business is heavily focused on local support,” she said. “It is a local brand, has a local identity. I didn’t want it to be a one-sided relationship where we are just designing stuff that people like to wear and then not do something for them.”

She doesn’t want the business to just sponsor an event, make a donation or give a gift basket for a raffle.

“We really try to tap into what the needs are of charities and what the needs are of different industries,” she said.

They created a BARCS Box to benefit the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter featuring unique items from several local vendors. All the items were donated so the money goes back to the nonprofit as well as providing exposure for area businesses. The company also bought gift cards from some struggling area restaurants and offered a giveaway online. People had to comment with their favorite menu item to be entered.

“We are trying to do things that are a little more unique,” she said. ”…It’s like we are all working together. I think it comes back tenfold.”

Women Who Lead This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Women Who Lead: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Women Who Lead (formerly Path to Excellence) magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Women Who Lead.