BLUE HILL, Maine — As a student at George Stevens Academy, Marisol Trowbridge learned something that shocked her and would set her on a winding but determined path to the launch of a new business.
She was in Guatemala for two weeks for an independent project and she became friendly with her host sister, a 13-year-old girl who worked part-time in a garment factory. Trowbridge was horrified that a young girl might be forgoing school to make clothes that she herself could one day be wearing.
“That was my first sort of eye opening experience into how clothes are made,” Trowbridge said at a cafe in Blue Hill on Friday.
“I guess I was particularly struck by her case because I was interested in fashion,” she added. “It was interesting to find out that some of my clothes might be made by 13-year-olds in Guatemala. That really bothered me.”
After earning an undergraduate degree in economics, a graduate degree in international development and working in the fashion industry for seven years in New York, Ethiopia and the Netherlands, Trowbridge has now started her own company, called Puzzle Apparel, that will champion what she calls “sustainable, responsible fashion.”
Shoppers will be able to select an item that she designed from her website, then choose a patterned fabric to embellish the item. The fabrics are all handmade by artists in the U.S., many of whom come from Maine.
Puzzle Apparel employs three seamstresses in New York, whom Trowbridge found on Craigslist, to make the items and then send them on their way. Trowbridge is currently based in New Jersey.
To get the project off the ground, Trowbridge submitted a proposal to several business competitions, including the Harvard Social Enterprise Pitch for Change and the Dell Social Innovation Challenge, where she received positive feedback and advice.
To test her idea with consumers, she launched a campaign on Indiegogo, a crowdfunding website, with a goal of selling $10,000 worth of merchandise by Dec. 22. She offered two types of blouses, a camisole and a smoking jacket for sale for between $100 and $365 and created a short video to promote the project.
Puzzle Apparel reached its goal on time, so Trowbridge will launch an official website in the spring when she will begin selling a wider collection. Customers can pre-order items, but they will not receive them until March.
Trowbridge said the fun part about starting Puzzle Apparel has been visiting artists across the state of Maine and pitching her idea to try to get them to work with her.
“They all have unique fabric, which is great, because there’s really something for everybody,” she said.
She started over the summer by reaching out to weavers she knew from the Blue Hill peninsula. One of them was Chris Leith, the owner of the Eggemoggin Textile Studio, who has been weaving and dying for 12 years.
“She brings a different point of view,” Leith said. “I don’t have a background in the fashion industry and Marisol does …She really has knowledge of how that whole industry works and how you break into it.”
Leith’s fabrics were used in the initial samples that Trowbridge made to promote the project.
“I was really excited when she did the first samples and to see them photographed on a fashion model. They looked pretty darn slick!” said Leith, laughing. “I was really pleased.”
“I’m just looking forward to working with her,” said Quinn. “I just like the fact that she’s from around here and has gone off and been very successful.”
Contributing to the local economy is important to Trowbridge, who grew up in Sedgwick. On a blog she keeps to document her progress, Trowbridge posted about Brookings Institute report on Maine’s future.
“The report indicated that an important part of Maine’s future rested in its dense creative economy,” she wrote.
Trowbridge’s influences are not only local. The idea of creating custom clothes came to her when she learned of a shoe that’s made in Italy, but hand beaded in Kenya. Every shoe is the same, but is decorated with a different pattern of beads.
“You could definitely do that with clothing,” she recalled thinking. “And have lots of garments that are shaped the same, but look different.”
She calls it “mass-customization” on her blog.
Trowbridge now has about 30 artists, not just from Maine, who’ve signed on to work with her. Her orders haven’t been only from Maine, either. She will be sending items to as far away as Hong Kong.