Women’s apparel is a family affair for Mark Schneider, owner of Chicago showroom Schneider & Co.

His brother, a Portland, Ore.-based rep, lured him into the business in 1989 by encouraging him to take a sales position with Duffel and Sperry Topsiders. A few years later, then working as a boat salesman, he met his wife, Renee, in a showroom where she worked as a rep.

“I was selling powerboats in New England,” Schneider recalled. “I asked, ‘What’s a clothing rep?”‘

Intrigued, Schneider packed his belongings into a Volkswagen Jetta and headed to Chicago. It wasn’t an easy beginning. At age 23, Schneider barely knew his way around the Windy City, let alone the smaller towns in his Midwest territory. “I didn’t know where Decatur [Ill.] or Houghton [Mich.] was,” he said.

After about 1 1/2 years, he struck out on his own. “When I started, I had a few lines,” he said about his collections of silk warmups and women’s golf clothes. “I sold them, but it was a rough time.”

Then he got in touch with a friend of a friend named Renee, who was also in the business. During a phone call, Renee remembered her future husband talked a lot of shop and not much else. “I was grilling her,” Schneider admitted. “I didn’t have any friends in the business.”

Six months later, he met Renee in person at a showroom where she worked. They started dating, and within a few months, she quit her job, they went into business together and moved into his one-bedroom apartment in Lakeview.

“We slept there, we ate there and we kept samples there,” Schneider said of their one-bedroom home.

Since then, a lot has changed. Now Schneider, 35, and his wife have a six-year-old son, Keaton, and a three-bedroom house on the city’s North Side. The duo take three-week trips to Italy and spend about $28,000 a year in rent and expenses running a 1,300-square-foot showroom on the 12th floor of the Chicago Apparel Center.

Schneider & Co. sells moderate sportswear lines, including Telluride, Fjall, Cambridge Dry Goods, Tyler Boe, Nomadic Traders and Dakini. Wholesale prices range from $12 to $280. The showroom increased sales of the Fjall line, a hip collection produced by a former Polo Ralph Lauren designer, from $26,000 to $550,000 in three years.

The company sells the lines to specialty stores, as well as department stores, including Nordstrom, Erehwon, Mark Shale and Galyans Trading Co. Galyans’ orders through Schneider & Co. were up 25 percent in 2001, Schneider said.

“I stand behind my products,” Schneider said. “In the 12 years I’ve been in business, I’ve had my same customers. When I hear myself sounding too much like a salesman, I stop myself. I’m not the hardest sell.”

Schneider said his firm does not represent “old fuddy-duddy stuff.”

“I want to sell to you, your mom and your sister,” he added. Lifting up a flirty, popular pair of print cropped pants, Schneider said, “You can be 80 or 15 and look good in them.” Other popular items include a lightweight Italian fleece top with lighter-colored trim around the neck and waist, and several patriotic red-white-and-blue pieces.

Patriotic attire, including Telluride cotton sweaters with a flag or stars, is selling well. “It’s not tacky,” Schneider said. “It doesn’t scream Fourth of July.”

Since Sept. 11, some retailers have been “very hesitant in placing their orders,” Schneider said.

“I think everyone’s feeling it. It’s slowed down a little, but it’s just little spikes on the chart,” he said. What he lost in business post Sept. 11, he expects to make up in the latter half of 2002.

In the meantime, Schneider plans to hit the road with his wares. Although he admits that he hates traveling roughly 30 weeks each year, he makes the best of it. “You want to make it fun,” he said. He no longer takes to the road with a full-size traveling showroom. “I felt like a truck driver,” he said. Not to mention that it’s easier driving a smaller vehicle through Minnesota and Iowa in the winter months.

At the end of shows Schneider is exhausted. “It’s a grind,” he said. “You’ve got to be a bull to be in this business. It’s almost like we’re nomads or circus people who go place to place do our dance and come back home. It’s a unique breed.”