At BHAV, we believe in empowering women to find unique ways to embrace their cultural heritage. We started 'The Culture Connection' to explore the impact (both good and bad) of heritage on a variety of incredible women, and understand how it continues to play an influential role in their lives. We invite you to join us on this journey, with the hope that you find value in these conversations.
Erika (@raredirndl) is the owner and lead designer for 'Rare Dirndl', a unique brand that offers German ethnic dirndls with a modern edgy twist! When she's not being a boss designer, you can find Erika learning how to incorporate sustainability into her life (focused on being environmentally friendly, shopping sustainably, and supporting small and local businesses), and practicing yoga and meditation. Read on to learn about how Erika's German heritage inspired her design business and how she balances motherhood and career.
On Her German Heritage:
What's your background? I am Danube Swabian (or Donauschawben). It's a bit of a long story, but the short answer is both my mom's parents and my dad's parents were ethnic Germans living in former Yugoslavia. They identified as German, spoke the language, cooked the food etc, but lived in what is now Slovenia and Serbia. They moved to the US in the 1950's and my parents were both born in Chicago.
How has, or currently does your heritage play a role in your life?
My heritage plays a HUGE role in my life. I grew up participating in a Donauschawben club where I started dancing and singing with their children's group at the age of 4. I continued dancing and volunteering throughout high school and college. It’s the place where I met all my best friends and my husband. We both continue to volunteer with the group and we will soon bring our children there. It has had a great impact on my life.
My business is also based on German heritage, but it’s not specific to my Donauschwaben heritage. It has a more Bavarian (southern German state) vibe to it.
The only challenges being German poses is that it can often lead down a scary path where people jump to Nazi ideals and white supremacism. However, I never have and never will identify as such and make it very clear in my personal and business messaging that I DO NOT stand for that in any way, shape, or form. Whenever comments pop up on my Facebook page they are immediately deleted and blocked.
Your successful design company, Rare Dirndl, specializes in German dirndls and accessories with a twist! How did this idea turn into a business and how did your German heritage play a role in this idea?
From growing up the German community, I knew there was a need for fresh dirndl designs in America. At the time there were only two places you could get a dirndl in the US. They had both been in business for well over 20 years and the designs were getting dated. After graduating from college, my girlfriend was studying abroad in Bavaria and she would send me the newest designs that were being shown there. They were gorgeous and fresh… and I knew in my heart that I could use my creativity and sewing skills to make great designs. I tested some dirndl designs on my friends and family and after my first official collection in 2010 sold well, I knew I was onto something.
Being in such a niche market of German heritage attire, how has the response been from the German community and outside of your take on German dirndls? Were you hesitant in the beginning to put your designs out in the market? If so, how did you face that challenge?
I was a little nervous that there would be a lot of push-back on my designs because they were very modern. My first design was all leopard print, but it was also my best seller. Women in the community were looking for something fun to wear. They had their traditional dirndls, their vintage dirndls, their club dirndls in there closet already, so something fresh and new was very welcomed. As time went on, more and more women who were traveling to Germany for Oktoberfest were finding my designs and buying for a different reason; they wanted to fit in at the event without compromising their personal style. Most negative feedback came from folks who were not my target customer, which didn’t bother me.
Being a mother of two and running a full time design business must keep life extra busy! What advice do you have for busy moms who are looking to start their own business? What challenges did you come across in balancing motherhood but also pursuing your dream of designing and how did you overcome that?
My advice: only work when you don’t have the kids around or they’re sleeping. I find it hard and frustrating when I’m trying to work and they are trying to play etc. I have a 3 year old and a 3 month old. I really try to separate mom time and work time. They can’t live in the same space. I’ve tried and I just end up resenting them for “not letting me work” or not "sitting still” or not “being quiet”. They are kids who want learn, explore, play and be loved… and I can’t do that and answer customer service emails or strategize the next product launch. It’s just not a thing, so don’t try to make it a thing.
Other advice: Build a good support system. My mother watches the kids twice a week and my husband is a full time dad on days when he isn’t at work. I’m also not a one-woman show. I have a part-time employee and a virtual assistant. They make this ship sail smoothly. When it is just me and the kids, I keep my notebook handy so when I think of something, like an idea or a to-do, I write it down to get it out of my head and then I can get back to it later.
The challenge is time and energy. There never seems to be enough of either, but leaning those who support me in both business and life are what make it all work. Not everyday is amazing and most are far from that “Instagram” ideal, but I feel super blessed that I have a fulfilling job that allows me to be the kind of mom and wife I want to be... (well most of the time haha!)
What do you love most about German/European fashion? Any favorite pieces/outfits growing up?
I love that Europe is always ahead of America. My favorite pieces were the things I’d buy in Germany, (usually get made fun of for) and then 5+ years later they’d show up in stores and on my friends. These included drop crotch pants and thigh high boots. As an American it seemed like risk taking with fashion, so I like to incorporate that into some of my designs as well.
What's your favorite thing in your closet right now, or the piece that gives you the most confidence?
My favorite pieces are the ones that I bought from small businesses and are truly unique. But at the moment, the piece that gives me the most confidence is my wide brimmed hat that I picked up in Venice Beach. I feel like a badass in it… which is my favorite feeling.
What's your go-to cocktail, spirit or drink?
Dirty vodka martini or a Little Sumpin' Sumpin’ ale
What are you currently watching?
Schitt's Creek, (un)Well, and the Dinosaur Train (hahah!)
Name of the best book you've read in a while?
I'm constantly re-reading the Harry Potter series. But I'm also reading Clockwork by Mike Michalowicz and I LOVE Being Boss by Emily Thompson and Kathleen Shannon.
Morning person or night owl?
What's 1 small thing you couldn't give up (daily ritual, accessory/personal item, etc.)?