The Very Exciting and Official Backstory of Rare Dirndl
2020 marked the 10 year anniversary of the creation of Rare Dirndl and as its founder, I, Erika Neumayer Ehrat was really proud, to hit that milestone. But, I might be even more proud to say that we’re still here after 2020!
Since the start of Rare Dirndl in 2010, a lot has changed while much has also stayed the same. I thought I would go back into the Rare Dirndl time machine with some photos to celebrate a full decade of dirndl fun!
To learn about Rare Dirndl's history, let’s start at the very beginning…
I graduated from Dominican University with an Apparel Design Bachelor's degree with distinction in 2009 and I had no idea where to go. I had no job lined up, I wasn’t really interested in the corporate fashion design world so I started doing alterations and side projects for a few folks until I figured out what I wanted to do with my new “degree.”
Also around this time one of my girlfriends, (who I met through dancing with the American Aid Society Jugendgruppe) was in Germany studying pastries and I would get almost weekly emails from her with awesome new dirndl dress designs and the latest dirndl trends of the alpine regions. I wished so badly to be able to have cool dirndl dresses like those in my closet. Having grown up as an active member of the German community in Chicago from a very young age, we indeed had a German dirndl dress closet in our home, but all that was in it were some old pieces from the 70s, my dancing uniforms (for lack of a better word) and 2 that I got in Germany… but nothing exciting like the ones she was emailing me.
I thought I’d try my hand at sewing up my own traditional dirndl styles, creating some new patterns, and really re-thinking how American’s could view the German dirndl dress. One thing led to another and in January 2010 I opened up my small business checking account and in April launched the Rare Dirndl online store!
The name Rare Dirndl started because my design style was unique and a bit unusual and I knew that the brand would always remain on the smaller side to offer exclusive designs. The word ‘Rare’ fit the bill (plus it looked really cool in the original font).
I ‘launched my line’ with money that I had saved up by working part-time during college and doing odd-ball alterations. My parents were gracious enough to let me use their dining room and living room as a “studio” of sorts. My parents always had threads stuck on them when they left for work and were constantly vacuuming up threads from the carpet and checking the couch for pins before sitting down…but their support never wavered. I will forever be grateful for their generosity during this time.
My first designs were inspired by the Amazon Rainforest.
This jungle had always been a fascination of mine, plus I knew that if I was going to make a name for myself I needed a design that would be just on the edge of shocking… and that was The Leopard Dirndl. It was an all leopard print, textured satin mini dirndl dress with an optional leather belt or apron. This was a best seller for 3 years and I still see women wearing this design today with pride!
At this time, I was doing small trunk shows and pop up shops, taking orders and sewing them up myself. I quickly realized that this is not a sustainable business model and with help from people and places like the Chicago Fashion Incubator, V. Mora and Jane Hamill, I found a local manufacturer, had my patterns perfected and digitized, learned a lot about email & online marketing and I had inventory to sell!
German Fest Milwaukee
This inventory was going to be the basis for my first BIG show in 2012… German Fest Milwaukee. It was an eye-opening, tear-inducing weekend. I felt so under-prepared. I was the obvious rookie and to top it off, my little space became completely flooded. However, this was also my first experience with seeing that the generosity of the German community extends past the streets of Chicago. Other vendors around me didn’t hesitate to help me sweep the water from my space, put up tarps around the booth to protect me from the rain and shine their lighting my way when it got dark.
The following year, one of those vendors called me and told me that they were going to close their doors, but wanted me to have their coveted front booth space. Again, I felt the love of the German community and eagerly accepted this offer. Since then the layout of the market has changed, but what I learned those first 2 years remains in my mind.
Today, German Fest is just about the only summer pop-up event you will find me working, and my booth set up sure has come along way from its humble beginnings.
Following my first German Fest, it was clear to me that despite the weather and my rookie booth set-up… sales were going in the right direction. This meant growth. Soon I had dirndl dresses, fabric, patterns, and supplies stored in not only the living room and dining room but also the basement, my sister's room and in the shed… when my work started finding its way into the kitchen, my dad kindly suggested I start looking for my own space.
That’s when we found the property in Lincoln Square.
Lincoln Square is a neighborhood in Chicago with deep German roots and I knew that if I was to have a storefront studio, it should be in Lincoln Square. The space was a mess and took some remodeling but after a solid 8 months… it was looking like the place my business could call home.
From 2010-2015, I traveled a lot with the business.
Just about anytime an opportunity presented itself, I jumped on it. And looking back at the photos, I am so lucky to have such wonderful family and friends who were always willing to help.
Rare Dirndl had an odd pop-up shop at the Indiana State Fair, we did a fashion show and morning TV appearance in Atlanta and even found ourselves in Munich for the first (and last…) Münchener Trachtentage.
My mom, sister, myself and Grandma in Munich at my vendor booth at the Münchener Trachtentage, 2013
These events taught me so much and I am very grateful that in my 20s I soaked up all that these opportunities could teach me.
In 2015, things started to change. I was able to quit my part-time waitressing job at the fabulous Laschet’s Inn, was now working with a part-time employee, 2 seamstresses, and got engaged.
2016 brought major changes. My husband and I got married, found out 6 months later that we were expecting a baby and sales that year were the best ever!
Throughout the years, Rare Dirndl has been featured on or in:
- DANK German American Journal
- German World
- Heimat Abroad
- Fox & Friends
- Better Mornings Atlanta
- Borrowed & Blue
- The Nickelodeon original film, Swindle
- Young Germany
- Dirndl Magazine
- Bridenity Crisis Blog
- DNAInfo Chicago
- AND I’m sure I forgot a bunch!
Our winter wedding with my best friends in my bridesmaid German Dirndl designs, 2016. Click here to read more about the wedding and how we incorporated our heritage into the entire day.
It goes without saying that 2020 brought about some challenges for Rare Dirndl. While I was preparing for a 3 week maternity leave, suddenly everything changed and some quick pivots were made to keep our team together and safe. We started using our blouse elastic and dirndl linings to make masks for our customers and to donate. We were able to donate over 500 masks to front line workers in Chicago, specifically Swedish Covenant Hospital, CPD, Misericordia Home, Masks for Moms, & La Casa Norte.
We also had to reimagine what wearing a traditional dirndl meant when you didn’t have any special occasions to wear it to. It was clear that our little community was still so proud of their heritage and was itching to wear their dirndl dress even if it was just for a zoom call or to work from home. We started our annual Heritage at Home day and we introduced the Everyday Dirndl. More than ever, folks started to embrace their love for German dirndl and their heritage on a daily basis and not just for Oktoberfest.
I’m so happy to say that, we are still thriving and excited to bring you new ‘made in Chicago’ dirndl dress designs as well as on-trend blouses and accessories.
A lot has changed since 2010. New location, we are now a small team of women instead of a one gal show, our product offerings have varied and the logo has changed, but the core values of the brand remain the same! Inclusivity, creativity, thoughtfulness & respect remain the heart of Rare Dirndl. We continue to be passionate about helping people connect with their German heritage without sacrificing their personal style and I look forward to many more years of fun to come.
A truly heartfelt DANKE to all of those who have purchased Rare Dirndl over the years and to those who have supported me and my small business dreams in other ways as well.
Ever wonder which dirndl style you are? Click here to take our quiz and find out now!