Route One Apparel, known for Maryland pride apparel and accessories, had been branching out beyond flag-themed merchandise with brands such as Domino Sugar, Hershey and Old Bay.
Now, the Morton Umbrella Girl is joining the lineup.
The Towson-based online retailer signed a licensee agreement with Chicago-based Morton Salt Inc. and this week launched products featuring the salt brand’s nationally recognizable mascot.
“The Morton brand is such an iconic brand, and food and beverage for us has always been a strong category,” said Ali von Paris, Route One’s founder and CEO, on Wednesday.
Designing Morton Salt-themed apparel will allow Route One to continue expanding its customer base outside Maryland. And it fits with the retailer’s strategy of aligning with beloved brands that appeal to millennial and Gen Z consumers, von Paris said.
The now 32-year-old was a 19-year-old University of Maryland finance major in 2010 when she started Route One from her dorm room. She says she started the business by accident — designing a T-shirt to support the Thirsty Turtle bar where she worked at the time. She expected to sell a few dozen and instead sold 600.
When she took the summer after graduation to see whether she could make the business work, she hit on a winner with her first custom product. Route One’s Maryland flag bikini sold out of its first 1,000 units.
Morton’s licensing director reached out to von Paris in the spring after hearing about Route One’s success with Old Bay, the popular steamed crab seasoning owned by Hunt Valley-based McCormick & Co.
Morton has been working to re-imagine consumer products through fashion merchandise collections that “capture the essence of our Morton brand and the iconic Morton Umbrella Girl,” said Kristin Edstrom, Morton’s senior brand licensing manager, in an announcement.
Route One’s Morton merchandise, featuring both vintage and modern designs, includes a collection of short- and long-sleeve T-shirts, hoodies and caps, which can be preordered. The agreement gives Route One the rights to print copyrighted images and “take that and run with it and bring it to life,” von Paris said.
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Von Paris said she’s drawn to female brand mascots such as the Utz girl, who appears on a crab chip potato chips sweater, and now the umbrella girl. She relates to them, she said, as a female CEO who has struggled over the years to “prove our worth,” in a male-dominated space.
After focusing for years on Maryland-themed shirts, socks, hats and other items, Route One expanded during the coronavirus pandemic into designs with the flags of other East Coast states that share the U.S. Route 1 road.
Several years ago, Route One also began entering into licensing agreements with well-known brands, such as National Bohemian, or Natty Boh, in 2015, McCormick in 2017 and Hershey about a year ago, a move expected to boost sales internationally because of its global recognition. About three-quarters of the company’s sales now come from within Maryland.
“We try to focus on things that have a crave factor, and people crave food,” von Paris said. “Then there’s the culture aspect.”
As a small licensee with nearly $8 million in annual sales, Route One is able to offer some of the bigger brands flexibility and quick turnaround in designing and making products, von Paris said.
Route One Apparel offers more than 3,000 products in 70 categories, selling both online and through more than 150 stores. The company operates a warehouse and office in Towson and works with contract manufacturers in the U.S. and overseas as well as with local artisans.
Morton Salt, which traces its roots to 1848, says it has the broadest footprint in the salt industry, making salt for a variety of uses beyond culinary. The umbrella girl first appeared in the company’s ads in 1911.