Unique Markets' Inspiring Founder On A Decade of Pop-Up Fairs & What She Looks For In Vendors

Ten years ago, an indie gift market took over the California Market Center for a two-day event powered by over 200 local vendors. That retail therapy format may not seem remarkable today, but back then, Unique LA was the largest pop-up fair of its kind to focus on design-minded, handmade goods. What began as a two-day holiday shopping party in Downtown LA has grown into a massive marketplace for discovering and supporting local designers, makers, and artists in cities like Austin, Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, and beyond.

Faithful fair frequenters may already be familiar with Unique Markets founder Sonja Rasula's story: The former HGTV interior designer brainstormed the event while in (where else?) an LA traffic jam, then spent all of her 401k savings to start the business. Since then, she's hosted entrepreneurial camps, opened a permanent venue and creative co-working space (the five-year-old Arts District building hosts everything from weddings and retro grown-up proms to Unique's Working Girls series), shared words of wisdom in countless panels and conferences (including Create & Cultivate, SWSW, Girlboss Rally, and more), and has been recognized by Los Angeles magazine as one of LA's most inspiring women.

This Saturday, December 15 and Sunday, December 16 (10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily), Unique Markets' holiday bazaar continues in LA with a takeover of the Santa Monica Pier. The weekend promises over 150 creative vendors hawking clothing, accessories, jewelry, home decor, art, beauty and skincare, and much more alongside complimentary drinks, whimsical photo ops, stylish lounge areas, and more.

That's not all: Rasula is kicking off 2019 with a big announcement from Unique. (More on that later!) In the meantime, we sat down with the inspiring LA-based entrepreneur to find out how her company has evolved since it began 10 years ago, what she loves about Etsy (and why Unique isn't "Etsy in person"), her favorite new LA boutique, and more. Read on below, then buy your ticket ($7.50; free for kids 12 and under) for this weekend's event at the pier in advance online here or day-of at the door.

Photo: Unique Market/Flickr

First off, congrats on celebrating a decade of Unique! Thinking back on when you first started the show in LA, how has Unique evolved?

Thanks! From the very start I had a pretty grand vision for the markets. I like to say "go big or go home" and that is what I set out to do. The way to make a real, lasting impact within a city and its community is to create something big that has potential to touch the masses. So I knew the market would have to be big — four times the size of anything comparable, so that first market in 2008 featured 225 sellers!

My initial vision was to bring a sense of pride around LA design and art, and to educate the masses on conscious consumerism by getting them to not just shop local but have a great time doing it. Now that we've done that and I've seen the amazing and powerful positive impact here in LA and the other cities we've held pop-ups in, I want people in cities all around the globe to have it. That's the new vision I'm focused on now.

Unique recently mentioned on Instagram that it's "not Etsy in person." Can you explain more about how the event is different from the online marketplace, and tell us some of the things that you do love about Etsy?

I love Etsy and have never said otherwise — in fact, they were my very first sponsor! The Instagram post that you're referring to revealed our brand-new branding, and one of the biggest challenges we gave the designers was that over the past decade, the No. 1 thing people mention when talking about Unique Markets in conversation and in almost every single article, is that we are "like Etsy in-person."

Being compared to such a ground-breaking company is very flattering but it's not reflective at all of what we are and what we do. Unique Markets is very different because we are not a tech company or sell anything online (our entire mandate is to create connection and memories through experiences for people, IRL), we are highly curated (sellers have to apply to take part at our pop-up markets), our design aesthetic is very modern and minimal, and we limit the number of sellers in an environment to ensure a great atmosphere (whereas anyone can have a storefront and sell on Etsy).

We have very similar core values and company missions, and are part of the same community trying to push small, independent business owners and goods, but that's where the similarity ends. I love what Etsy has done and the community they have cultivated! But we are quite simply not Etsy. We are Unique. Our new tagline is "Something Different" and I think that is a very true and beautiful thing!

Unique's December 2018 marketplace at California Market Center. Photo: Unique Market/Flickr

You've probably seen your fair share of handmade items and makers — so what qualities do you look for when considering new vendors?

It's a mix of things, but I'd say the top things we look at are quality, aesthetic, professionalism, and people who share our belief in community over competition. First we look for designers and artists and independent brands that we think will connect with our audience and shoppers — both their products and their stories, process, and viewpoint. We pay close attention to the quality of their goods, as well as the quality of their photography, website, and social media posts — we take an in-depth look at it all.

Diversity is very important to me so we look for a range of styles, products and price points so that shoppers can, for instance, find a $20 ring or one that costs $1,000. Aside from the products that they make, we look for people we think can handle the large crowds at our pop-ups and who can grow their businesses. Real impact to a community happens when an individual can start employing other community members, giving back, and hiring other local companies.

Many of our vendors don't hand-make their items because they've grown and now have teams or small factories that they run. A great example is P.F. Candle Co., started Kristen Pumphrey, who began hand-pouring candles and selling them at our markets but scaled the company and now employs almost 50 people outside of Downtown LA! [Editor's note: P.F. also opened its first boutique in Echo Park.]

What are your recent favorite shopping discoveries in LA?

I love that Gabriela Artigas opened a retail store. [She's] one of my favorite LA designers; my wedding ring is from [her]!

What other plans do you have for Unique that you can share?

This holiday season we did nine holiday pop-up markets in four weekends, so my only plan for the future is to CHILL. I'm excited to reveal some big news in January but it'll have to wait, so stay tuned!

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