Ali Von Paris, founder and CEO of Route One Apparel, discusses the start of her business that specializes in Maryland-themed merchandise. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
With its unique patterns and color combinations of red, white, gold and black, the Maryland flag is bold, garish and not exactly fashionable.
But somehow Ali von Paris, CEO and founder of Route One Apparel, has managed to build a considerable following making clothes and wearable merchandise that extend beyond gimmicky Preakness infield attire and over-the-top sports fanatic gear.
"Yes, we do have a very loud flag. But it's knowing what not to do with the flag," she said. "Throwing the flag on everything is kind of distasteful."
At 26, von Paris has tapped into state pride by making merchandise that attracts die-hard, in-your-face wearers of flag apparel and people who might take a subtler approach to expressing their love for the Free State.
In six years, von Paris' business has drawn 200,000 followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. She's also signed licensing deals with University of Maryland (2013) and National Bohemian beer (early 2016), and developed partnerships with Maryland Live Casino, Power Plant Live and the Maryland Lottery.
This year, von Paris received an Outstanding Young Alumnus Award from the University of Maryland Alumni Association; was named Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year by the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business; and been appointed to the Maryland Tourism Development Board by Gov. Larry Hogan.
Von Paris is making a case for becoming the next big name in the apparel and design world with Maryland roots. She and a team of designers are "catering to all kinds," she said.
"We're not just taking the flag and saying, 'Oh, let's sell the flag.' We're easing people into it," she said. "We have a lot of subtle patterns. For those who are all about those flags, we have the louder patterns."
Her company sells 1,500 products — including Maryland flag bikinis and customized business banners — on its website. About 80 percent of them are manufactured in the U.S., she said. Von Paris declined to disclose revenue figures.
Since its inception, von Paris said, her company has received more than 100,000 orders, with more than a half-million items sold.
And she shows no signs of stopping.
Von Paris says that her company — with six people on payroll and 40 contractors — has a internal goal of producing 30 new products a month.
It's a far cry from when she started from her dormitory suite at the University Maryland, College Park after selling 800 T-shirts as a fundraiser to help her favorite bar, the Thirsty Turtle. Part of the $25,000 raised from presales and sales of that initial effort helped seed future projects for Route One Apparel.
"I had to be explicitly clear when I brought in new roommates that I was doing this," she said with a laugh. "I had boxes all over the living room. It was pretty absurd."
She eventually moved her operations into the living room of her parents' Timonium home for two years before moving into her company's current location in Phoenix, Baltimore County.
"That was insane," recalled her mother, Lyn von Paris. "I thought I was living in a warehouse. I wasn't sad to see the stuff go. But I was sad to not see her every day."
Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday unveiled new Maryland-flag themed license plates.
Lyn von Paris said she sees Route One Apparel products throughout the state. In fact, she makes a point of telling people that she knows where they purchased the merchandise without revealing her relationship to the brand's founder.
"I'm amazed," she said. "Frankly, I wasn't sure that this would last more than a year. But I couldn't be more impressed to see how she worked all this out."
Von Paris attributes part of her business savvy to her family's business, Von Paris Moving & Storage, which has operated in the Baltimore-Washington area since 1892.
"Patience was something ingrained in me," she said. "I learned nothing comes overnight. My family is constantly bringing up the older generations and what our great grandparents went through. It helps you stay grounded."
When von Paris' name is mentioned, people immediately brighten up and sing her praises.
"She's very creative. She just has an attitude of success. She's got real determination," Robin Chiddo, director of business development for the University of Maryland Alumni Association. "She's outgoing. She looks at projects and sees the small and big picture."
These attributes were part of the reason von Paris received the school's Young Alumnus Award in September.
"She's done so much for this school," Chiddo said. "She's really a delightful person. She's a well-rounded representation of a Maryland alumnus.
C-Mo Molloy, brand manager for National Bohemian, met von Paris a year ago at a Baltimore networking event.
Molloy said he was familiar with von Paris' company before their meeting. Von Paris certainly wasn't the first to create merchandise based on the Maryland flag. But she distinguished herself with her vast array of products, offering everything from a belt adorned with a Maryland flag to a loud, flag-patterned head-to-toe body suit.
"I was a big fan of her product line. She had the energy of someone I wanted to work with," he said. "Her company really keys into the young Maryland-centric consumer. She has a corner on that market."
Von Paris immediately received licensing rights to make merchandise for National Bohemian. And she has exceeded Molloy's expectations.
"I thought she might come out with a couple shirts," he said. "But I've been amazed by the sheer number of products. They continue to develop the product line, with well over 50 or more offerings. And that number continues to grow exponentially."
Von Paris has always been a creator. When she was young — about 6 — she wanted to be an architect.
"I built towns out of Legos," she said.
During high school, von Paris dabbled with marketing and web design through Myspace when she started promoting her favorite band, All Time Low, whose members attended Dulaney High School, where she was also a student.
"I admired them," she said. "I developed a creative knack for marketing while promoting them. I learned HTML through Myspace."
It was this initial marketing and promoting work that led von Paris to start her first business, Trendy Faux, which sold plastic necklaces.
"I used my expertise in minor photoshopping and visuals," she said.
However, the business floundered.
"It was a little side thing. It didn't work. Mostly, my friends and I would wear it out," she said. "But it is cool to look back at all the things that make you who you are today. They all add to experience that you can apply to later in life."
Von Paris attributes a good portion of her current success to 2014, when she completed the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, which takes a select group of entrepreneurs and trains them for 12 weeks in education, capital and business-support services.
"That was when I was really thinking outside of the box," she said.
It's part of that training that has allowed von Paris to realize that after two years in her current location — a residence that used to be a dentist's office in Phoenix — she needs to find a larger space.
Cyber Monday didn't help.
The company took 1,000 orders on Cyber Monday, compared with the 50 to 100 orders they usually get on a given day, she said. The result is that her location is filled with merchandise.
"Before the holidays, we were packed with stuff. Now it's times-20. It looks like 'Hoarders'" she said. "It's growing pains. The only person I can blame is myself. I need to find my next space. We were thinking 10,000 square feet. Now I'm thinking 15,000. We're busting at the seams."
Ali von Paris
Title: Founder and CEO of Route One Apparel
Education: Graduated from University of Maryland, College Park with a bachelor's degree in finance and supply chain in 2012. She completed the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program in 2014.
Bragging rights: This year, von Paris received an Outstanding Young Alumnus Award from the University of Maryland Alumni Association; was named Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year by the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business; and was appointed to the Maryland Tourism Development Board. She has also signed licensing deals with University of Maryland (2013) and Natty Boh (early 2016), and developed partnerships with Maryland Live Casino, Power Plant Live and Maryland Lottery.