SAIS Alum Starts Puzzle Apparel

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Marisol Trowbridge
Marisol Trowbridge

Caitlin Watson
Associate Editor at SAIS Europe

Marisol Trowbridge, a native of Maine and 2013 SAIS graduate, has merged her love of fashion, textiles and crafts and her passion for social entrepreneurship to build Puzzle Apparel, a business with a positive social impact.

On November 22, Trowbridge, an International Development concentrator, launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for Puzzle, an online women’s fashion brand that supports American artists by allowing shoppers to customize designs with handmade materials by hand weavers, fabric dyers, printers and painters.

“Puzzle empowers consumers to support the creative economy and give back to the community,” said Trowbridge.

Customers select a garment style, size and color, then search the artist gallery to find a handmade fabric for the cuffs or collars.  In the process, they get to know who made the handmade materials, how, and from what fibers; from hand-spun alpaca to silk, linen or tencel.

“Shoppers design their own fashion and develop a singular personal style, giving them the satisfaction of both looking great and directly supporting artists of their choice,” Trowbridge said.

Puzzle markets directly to customers through an e-commerce platform. By cutting out middlemen and selling from its website, Puzzle can offer relatively low prices for the hand-made goods it commissions and sells, said Trowbridge.

Trowbridge’s SAIS experience served as a launching point for Puzzle and its business plan. Puzzle’s business design, a finalist in a number of business plan competitions in 2012, grew from skills she gained writing a full-length business plan for a Social Entrepreneurship class with Professor Cinnamon Dornsife, Senior Associate Director of International Development at SAIS.

“My SAIS experience gave me the opportunity to explore the economic and social development aspects of the textile and apparel industry, and the time and space to explore business models that can create social impact,” Trowbridge said.

Trowbridge’s SAIS experience also guided her decision to launch Puzzle domestically. While at SAIS, she often faced the question, “Why do you have to go all the way around the world to make a difference?  We need jobs, income and support here, too.”  So, Trowbridge took this sentiment to heart. “I literally went home to start in Maine,” she said.

So far, Puzzle is a small enterprise; Trowbridge, who gets support from several freelancers and volunteers, is the only full-time, paid employee. All of the artists hail from Maine, where artisans are plentiful but opportunities to access major markets are scarce.

As Puzzle grows, Trowbridge hopes to expand to other rural arts communities, such as Native American reservations, and eventually to artisan communities outside of the US.

Trowbridge also has her sights set on expanding support services for artists, helping them get better prices on wholesale materials, build business management skills and travel abroad to share with artisans in other countries.

Although ultimately the market will dictate how quickly and in what ways Puzzle will expand and develop, “no matter what direction I go in, positive impact will be key to my strategy,” Trowbridge said.

During Puzzle’s Indiegogo campaign, five percent of proceeds will go to Accion East and Online’s program to support low-income and minority women business owners.  Project Eve’s Shop the Movement Program will match Puzzle Apparel’s donations.

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