LINCOLN SQUARE — When Erika Neumayer was a little girl, her mother wouldn't let her have a Beanie Baby, so she grabbed an old T-shirt and made one for herself.
Out of such humble beginnings, a fashion designer was born.
Now 26 and a graduate of Dominican University's apparel design program, Neumayer recently opened a storefront studio, Rare Dirndl, in Lincoln Square. Her goal: to become the pre-eminent American designer of traditional German clothing, particularly the dirndl.
"People ask, 'Why don't you do regular clothes?'" Neumayer said.
Her answer: With America home to only two other makers of the dirndl — a sleeveless dress, apron and blouse — the field is wide open for a newcomer.
Mostly, though, she likes the style.
Neumayer's grandparents hail from a German enclave within Yugoslavia, and she spent her childhood attending events sponsored by the American Aid Society of German Descendants.
"My parents met through German club. That's what we did, we filled every weekend with it," she said.
But it was a study-abroad program in Ghana that led Neumayer to consider making a career out of traditional ethnic garb.
"I realized how much I love traditional clothing and traditional dress," she said. "It used to be you could tell where people came from by how they dressed. We've lost that."
Rather than mimicking existing dirndl designs, Neumayer's line puts a modern spin on the style.
"They're traditional in shape, but not in color or texture," she explained, showing off a Rare Dirndl dress featuring a suede bodice with a leopard print skirt.
"I try to push it but not too far," she said. "There are endless varieties but they always pull you back to the core of what a dirndl is."
She recently added menswear to her repertoire.
"I pride myself that the shirts don't scream 'German,'" largely by staying away from gingham, she said. "You can wear them out" on the town.
Her contemporary approach also extends to Rare Dirndl's accessories. When a shipment of lederhosen — traditional German pants — failed to sell, she used the material to create bracelets and purses.
Since starting Rare Dirndl in 2010, Neumayer has gradually built her business through word of mouth. Most of her customers find her online, though she noted that a Google search of dirndls will turn up German companies first.
While dirndls are making a comeback as everyday wear in Europe, the dress is typically bought in the United States as a special occasion item.
"A lot of my customers will already have a dirndl — maybe not a dirndl closet like I do. Just like with regular clothes, they come to pick something out for a specific event," she said.
Her marketing tactics also include wearing her own creations while waitressing part-time at Laschet's Inn, a German-American restaurant in North Center. German festivals offer additional opportunities to ply her wares.
"People are in the moment ... they want to dress the part," she said.
The storefront at 5051 N. Lincoln Ave., which she's occupied since November 2012, is the next step toward growing her clientele.
"I figured if I'm going to have a space with a storefront, it's got to be in Lincoln Square. All the people in German club started out here," said Neumayer, who moved to the neighborhood from her native Sauganash.
Currently open by appointment only, the store eventually will add retail hours, she said.
"I don't sell wholesale. I sell directly to customers, that's the best way to interact," she said.
Neumayer recalled one shopper who had her heart set on a particular dirndl, but the dress, the last of the style, was too tight.
"I said, 'Do you have 20 minutes?'" After a few quick alterations, "she walked out with a dirndl."
That kind of personal attention to detail doesn't come cheap. Rare Dirndl designs range from $270 to $525.
"It does seem like a lot," Neumayer acknowledged, but added that her dresses are a bargain compared with their European counterparts — she's seen couture dirndls sell for as much as $3,000.
"It's exclusive, it's unique, it's a different look. My customers know what goes into it," she said.
With her target market sure to flood Lincoln Square's Maifest this weekend, Neumayer is holding her first-ever sample sale from noon-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at her shop. An added lure: Champagne and snacks will be served from noon-3 p.m. Saturday.
Though likely to be decked out in a Rare Dirndl design for the benefit of her customers, Neumayer confesses that living up to the glamorous ideal of a fashion designer is perhaps the hardest part of her job.
"It's a lot of sitting and watching TV while I'm sewing," she said and admitted that her usual uniform is a far cry from her elaborate creations.
"Yoga pants and a T-shirt."