Former Canadian HGTV design personality Sonja Rasula moved to L.A. with dreams of making a television career in the States. When those plans fell through, she founded Unique Markets, a huge, tradeshow-like market to bring American-made goods to the masses while supporting small businesses. Since then, it has become the largest pop-up marketplace in the country for American-made goods, with shows taking place in L.A., San Francisco, and New York.
Now, she’s bringing Unique to Minneapolis for the first time. Held in conjunction with the 2017 AIGA Design Conference, Unique MPLS will showcase more than 60 indie, local designers and makers selling home goods, clothing, bath and beauty products, children’s goods, and more. Makers include ACG, Anna Chambers-Goldberg’s artful line of hand-dyed women’s clothing and scarves; Dog Love Repeat’s handcrafted leather dog accessories; Knot + Ivy’s macrame wall hangings; Tandem Made’s architectural home furnishings; and WAAM Industries, known for its wooden milk crates and waxed canvas lunch bags. There will also be a photo booth hosted by the Limebooth and a special pop-up by event partner, THINX, the startup known for its period-proof organic-cotton underwear.
I spoke with Rasula about what inspired the idea of the markets, what she looks for in makers, why she selected Minneapolis for a Unique event.
Bring me back to the beginning: What spawned the idea for Unique Markets?
The idea came to me while stuck in traffic, trying to get to a shop before it closed to buy a gift. I thought to myself, “Why isn’t there something like a mall (lots of options and variety, food, parking) but that features things made by independent designers, artists and small brands that are just getting their start?” So I created it; a two-day pop-up marketplace with something for everyone, and then I added free drinks, fun interactive activities, photo booths and more. I think I was filling a hole, creating something that didn’t exist and could be awesome. This is what retail needs, this is the innovative, experience and community-driven pop-up version of The Mall and it greatly benefits the sellers and the local economy. You have a background as a television personality on an interior design show. How did you foray that experience into curating pop-up maker markets? Curation and design are everything. Our team works really hard to create an experience that is curated, fun, filled with moments of discovery and inspiration. I think my background definitely helps with that and if it wasn’t for my work in television, and for many years in the corporate online/tech world, I wouldn’t have had the skills to run a successful market and business.
How many markets do you hold per year?
We hold three in L.A. and are expanding to new cities. We hope to hold one to two in Minneapolis each year.
Why did you select Minneapolis for a market event?
This city is such an incredibly creative place. When I can see that there are lots of amazing restaurants, museums, and stores that promote local-made, and then loads of cool people in the city doing interesting, creative things, I know it’s a good choice for us. There isn’t a large-scale, modern marketplace like Unique Markets here, so we wanted to lay down roots and dedicate time and resources to creating a long-lasting Unique MPLS event. We’ve been holding Unique LA for almost 10 years, and that’s what I hope for the Twin Cities because that is what helps the makers and business owners here thrive over time.
What do you look for in a maker or brand when curating the lineup for an event?
We look at the quality of the product, the price point, and the aesthetic. Modern, well-designed products are what we look for and know it’s what our audience is looking for—we are not a craft fair, we are promoting people that we not only believe in but can tell from their work and online presence that they know how to run a good business. We’re helping the sellers reach wider audiences, buyers and the media and our goal is so see them grow and succeed, and so we look for those who we feel are ready for that next level. It’s really exciting for us to see and support such great talent here!
I saw THINX is a partner for Unique MPLS. How did they get involved and what will their presence be at the event?
THINX has been a part of all our markets this year and we’re so happy to have them as a partner. We really admire their playful, no BS approach to breaking taboos around menstruation. So at Unique Minneapolis this weekend, THINX will be showing all of their products including their new leotards which we are super excited about. As a brand, I know that being able to connect with customers in person is really important to them. I think a lot of Unique Markets’ shoppers have heard about THINX and are curious and they love being able to ask questions and see and feel the product before they buy.
What’s your ambition for Unique Markets? How do you see it evolving?
I’d like to franchise it actually because I’ve seen how amazing the markets are in terms of community. If I could do it myself I would expand all over, but I also see the value in having local entrepreneurs who are passionate about community and shopping learn from and with me, and really bring markets all around. There is something very, very special that happen at the markets but because of what we do with the sellers and community throughout the year. They grow and begin to hire more people and use more local services, and the impact on the local economy is phenomenal. My dream and vision is for that to happen all around the country, in every state.
Saturday, Oct. 14 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. @ Minneapolis Convention Center, Exhibit Hall B, 1301 2nd Ave. S., Minneapolis. To attend the free event, RSVP at uniquemarkets.com.