It reminded me of that movie “Tron,” the scene where the main characters looked out over the physical landscape of a dizzying digital computer world. Only, instead of “the Grid,” we exited the elevator and entered the dizzying maze of booths that made up the up-cycled, handmade world of UniqueLA.
It was like visiting the Etsy online store, only in real life, and just as difficult to navigate, with over 300 vendors crammed side-by-side, aisle-by-aisle on the ninth floor of the California Market Center. But instead of having to enter your PayPal account, real people swipe your credit card and hand you a crocheted mug cozy or recycled-leather wallet.
Ironically fashionable LA hipsters, crafty Orange County moms, tree-hugging animal lovers, and age-ripened (or hardened) artist-types, all on the hunt for that special piece of jewelry or one-of-a-kind letterpress print. There’s something for everyone, no matter what niche you subscribe to-steampunk, vintage, nerdy, quirky or green.
These products aren’t exactly cheap either. You can pay anywhere from $2 to $150 for statement jewelry, limited-edition postcards and art prints, hand-carved charms, leather jackets, hand-sewn aprons, specialty chocolate, organic cotton tea towels, vintage watch lockets, typewriter key rings, recycled journals made from used books, felt-decorated iPad covers, and exotic skin bracelets.
We may be in the middle of economic recession, but you would never guess it from the way these holiday shoppers plunked down their hard-earned cash and over-stretched credit cards-over $1.4 million last year-for UniqueLA’s mix of locally produced, eco-friendly and sustainable goods.
UniqueLA is the brainchild of Sonja Rasula who, in the spirit of D.I.Y., created her own sustainable design show to support Los Angeles’s own burgeoning craft community similar to those in places like Austin, New York, San Francisco and Chicago-all frontiers of “creative indie entrepreneurship” and prominent stops on the Renegade Craft Fair circuit, which draws thousands of visitors to each of its 10 events per year.
Another epicenter of the indie craft movement, London is host to daily and weekly markets like the famous Portobello Market on Notting Hill, counter-cultural Camden Market, and hipster-heavy Spitalfields Market and the Sunday UpMarket in Shoreditch.
The emphasis on local merchants, local economies, and-in the case of UniqueLA-the “Made in the USA” mantra is a common organic thread woven between all of these homespun communities. The growth in demand for such products has extended beyond pop-up shops and once-a-quarter events like UniqueLA, with online marketplace Etsy as the clear winner.
In November, Etsy released its shiny new iPhone app, just in time for Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping. With over 800,000 independent sellers all over the world, merchants can monitor their orders while conscious consumers and lovers of all things handmade can browse items and make purchases-any time and anywhere. And they did.
This year, Cyber Monday sales increased 80% from 2010, with over 15 million visitors visiting Etsy over the infamous shopping weekend. The e-commerce company expects to see similar trends through to the end of the year as traffic-now over 1 billion page views per month-and sales-$61.8 million spent in November-continue to rise.
One secret to their success, says CEO Chad Dickerson via the company blog, is their ability to “connect individuals around the world to creative, independent business owners who provide an array of unique, one-of-a-kind goods,” rather than focusing purely on price and convenience.
It’s exactly this aspect of Etsy that makes the indie craft movement sustainable; the handmade quality of these products mean that they warrant a higher price point (theoretically at least), and the community has a niche target market able and willing to pay a premium price for such value.
So whether these purchases are made in person at an event like UniqueLA or over the Internet via Etsy, many of today’s shoppers are foregoing trips to the mall or Walmart in search of something lovingly handcrafted and much more personal.
SHOP ALL YEAR ROUND
Holiday shopping may be over, but you can shop for handmade items all year round through Renegade Craft Fair’s online marketplace at the RCF shop, or head down to Oakland’s newly opened Popuphood (on 9th and Broadway) to explore handmade products from their rotating roster of independent artists and designers.
Los Angeles residents can stay up-to-date on upcoming UniqueLA events at stateofunique.com, Renegade Craft Fairs at renegadecraft.com/los-angeles, and vintage pop-up marketplace A Current Affair at itsacurrentaffair.com. Or head down to the Melrose Trading Post (open Christmas Eve), the Rose Bowl Flea Market (second Sunday of every month) or the Silverlake Art, Craft and Vintage market (second Saturday of the month).
Photographs by Christina Chou.