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A native of Franklin County, Derek Chitwood opened V.F. Chitwood’s in Lavonia in 2014.

The Chitwoods take pride in the Peach State

By Lisa W. Manus

For the past decade, Derek Chitwood has built the business and brand, Peach State Pride.

The logo has become synonymous with all things southern, especially that which is uniquely Georgia.

Chitwood may have started his business 10 years ago, but his journey to regional and national recognition began in his childhood, working alongside his grandfather Virlyn Chitwood in the family peach orchard in Canon.

The Georgia peach logo developed by Derek Chitwood was inspired by his family’s orchard.

It was there, in his grandfather’s shadow, that Chitwood says he learned the importance of “passion, hard work and respect for others” as well as gaining an appreciation of Georgia’s history and culture.

After graduating from Georgia College, Chitwood planned to teach history and coach. He intended to take a year off, before attending graduate school at Clemson University.

It was during this gap year that Derek went to work for a company that built playgrounds. Although the company was based in Oconee County, many of the jobs were in South Carolina.

Everywhere he turned, Chitwood noticed the well-known South Carolina logo—a palmetto tree and crescent moon.

“It was so neat, it didn’t matter what part of South Carolina you were in…you could be in the low country, or the upstate, it was like everybody was united together under that one logo,” Chitwood said.

Realizing that Georgia lacked such a unifying logo, Chitwood decided to draw upon his childhood experiences in the family peach orchard to create one himself.

“I thought Georgia is such a unique state in so many ways. You go from Lookout Mountain to Atlanta to Savannah to the Okefenokee Swamp. The geographic and cultural differences; it’s so diverse. We didn’t really have anything that brought us all together,” said Chitwood. “Growing up picking peaches, I was always really proud of being from the Peach State, because I was so involved in that. So, I went home and I drew the logo. It was a peach, of course. I started dreaming about it being the logo for the state of Georgia. That was the mission, the goal.”

At the time, clothing and other apparel were not on Chitwood’s radar. But a roommate urged him to make a few items of clothing sporting the logo. Chitwood created a few hats and t-shirts with the design.

Ace Hardware in Royston was the first store to carry the items.

Word of mouth quickly created a buzz about the apparel. Willow Bend in Lavonia – now known as the Vintage Owl – was next to carry the line.

For the next few years, Chitwood gradually recruited more stores to sell his merchandise.

By 2012, Chitwood had decided he wanted to turn his full attention and efforts to the Peach State Pride endeavor. A website was created with online shopping.

The company developed partnerships with nearly 70 stores to display and sell their merchandise. Chitwood paid attention to which stores were the most successful and why. He began to ponder the idea of opening his own store and pushing the product the way he wanted to.

“You don’t have full control over your product line when you sell it to another store,” said Chitwood. “They might carry only 10 percent of your line. We thought, with our own store, we could present it the way we wanted to, but also adjust to the markets, as well as bringing in other brands we wanted our brand next to.”

In 2013, the first storefront was opened in Watkinsville, under the name of Peach State Pride. It would later become Empire South.

Today, the Peach State Pride clothing line is just one aspect of the business.

Empire South serves as their retail front for their signature line, along with other brands. The company now has close to 100 employees on its payroll.

Wholesale still makes up a large part of their business model. Chitwood describes the wholesale market as the engine that has allowed the company to grow. Currently, Peach State Pride apparel is sold to more than 100 stores throughout the state of Georgia.

The original trucker hat remains the bread and butter of the enterprise, along with the original t-shirts.

The line has expanded to include a wide variety of merchandise from decals to performance polo shirts.

The company has also created an internship program with the University of Georgia to provide real-world experiences for business and marketing majors.

Chitwood says the most important part of Peach State Pride is his wife, Kari, who majored in business management and marketing. He describes her as the perfect partner for him, her analytical, organized mind complementing his more creative one.

“We really play off each other well,” said Chitwood. “She makes sure we have things in place to grow. It’s a joy to work with her every day.”

The partnership has led to five storefronts in Watkinsville, Lavonia, Hartwell, Athens and Atlanta, in addition to an online store, and a wholesale business.

The Lavonia store, V.F. Chitwood’s, is named after his grandfather.

“The pride that I see with Peach State Pride…what I want to communicate is ‘How can you be proud of where you are from and make it better?’…because as great as it is, we can always make it better,” Chitwood said.

The journey from a mere idea to full-fledged company has come full circle for Chitwood.

A love for Georgia, cultivated in childhood in a peach orchard alongside his grandfather, has been the driving force for the business.

“Growing up in he orchard, working side-by-side with him was the greatest inspiration for everything I do. All the values, everything we do circles back to the values that were instilled by my Grandpa,” said Chitwood. “The way he lived his life was important. I want people to know that. I want that to resonate with people.”