The Fourth Annual Inc Web Awards: Start-up Strategies

Company: Pilgrim Designs, in Lexington, Va.
What we liked: By launching her fashion company on-line, founder Jill-Anne Partain not only avoided the expense of manufacturing in a big city but also helped revive an economically distressed area

On a crystalline morning in September, the magnolia tree outside Jill-Anne Partain's window is a fragrant temptress. But the young designer concentrates on her work, unfurling a bolt of green cloth freckled with dragonflies and spreading it across a cutting table. Partain has orders to fill, and she knows that if she opens the window, the glory of the day might tempt her outside for a ramble through the neighborhood she loves.

Pilgrim Designs is located in Lexington, Va., a town haunted by the shades of Civil War generals and a vanished textile industry. It is the latter that Partain dreams of reviving by building a business there. What is allowing her to do that is the Web.

Pilgrim Designs, which Partain founded in 1998 with a $500 college-graduation gift, makes handbags. Handbags are accessories by definition, but Pilgrim's -- designed by Partain and hand sewn by four seamstresses -- are spotlight stealers. The bags were inspired by handicrafters that Partain observed in an outdoor market in Krakow, Poland, where in 1997 she was researching her thesis on the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt. "Watching them work, I thought, 'That's what I want to be doing," says Partain, who grew up quilting, cross-stitching, and doing needlepoint. "But not on a small scale. I wanted this to be my life."

Partain was attracted to the idea of a traditional manufacturing business, particularly one as tactile as handcrafting bags. But she also wanted to maintain one-to-one relationships with what she hoped would be thousands of customers. To do that, she knew, she would need a Web site and a healthy E-mail database. So back at Hollins University, in Roanoke, Va., Partain designed an independent-study program to teach herself Web business. "I was interested in Amazon's strategy, but I saw the venture as more of an old-fashioned, roll-up-your-sleeves brand," she explains. "I envisioned Pilgrim as being like L.L. Bean."

BAG LADY: Jill-Anne Partain dreamed of running a fashion company far away from fashion centers.

Not that Pilgrim's products resemble Bean's fabled duck boots. Priced at up to $550, Partain's creations are the sorts of thing one expects to find in upscale boutiques or swinging from the arms of fashion editors. The need for that kind of visibility is one reason that so many fashion companies locate in affluent urban areas. But Partain figured that by selling straight to consumers over the Internet, she could avoid the expense of scaling up a manufacturing operation in New York City. And anyway, there was somewhere else she wanted to be.

While at Hollins, Partain had often driven across southwestern Virginia, passing the hulls of brick factories abandoned when the textile industry moved overseas. "I wanted to grow big enough to move into one of those factories and get it going," says Partain. "I wouldn't have to farm out any production overseas. And since I'm selling over the Web, it doesn't matter where my manufacturing is." Last year Pilgrim produced 5,000 bags from its modest headquarters in a building next to the Stonewall Jackson House.

Using the Web also allowed Partain to start up on the cheap. Until recently, she did all her own programming, using the same low-cost software package she purchased the day after her graduation. Because Pilgrim appeals directly to customers, Partain employs no sales or marketing staff, and word of mouth has proved so powerful (Ashleigh Banfield plugged a Pilgrim bag on MSNBC) that she hasn't had to advertise. Partain has also snagged the attention of those very New York editors she decided not to court in person. "A lot of fashion magazines tend not to look outside the parameters of where they are, but the site has helped get their attention," says Partain. Harper's Bazaar, for example, named Pilgrim one of its top 30 "style-packed" Web sites.

Down the road, Partain plans to expand into new product categories and would like to open in New York City what she calls a concept boutique, "where the bags would be displayed like works of art," she says. But someone else would have to run it. Partain is occupied in Virginia, growing $1.3 million Pilgrim and launching the Blue Ridge Mountain Business Initiative to bring other entrepreneurs into the area. "Even if you're not a designer, even if you make software, you could move into one of these great old buildings," says Partain, who urges colleges to get the message out to business classes. "If their students want to start something, they don't have to go to New York. They can stay here and be a part of this."

The Fourth Annual Inc Web Awards

Please e-mail your comments to

Published on: Dec 1, 2002