The Craft of the Market: Renegade Craft Fairs

By Regina Connell.

Craft fairs and shows vary widely. There are street fairs. There are arts and craft shows. There are even holiday bazaars. Some can bore and depress you with their sameness or dodgy quality. Some can make you feel feel frazzled and anxious, with their vendors eyeing each other competitively. Some manage to stimulate your senses, but not your wallet. Few successfully stimulate your senses, feed your soul, and get you to ease out that credit card like the Renegade Craft Fair.

Since its 2003 inception in Chicago, Renegade has become a phenomenon, a wildly successful series of markets (in the summer and winter) in Chicago, San Francisco, Brooklyn, Austin, Los Angeles, and London. But what does successful mean? Think tens of thousands of people frequenting the market in a single weekend, buying everything from hand-spun wool to letterpress posters to jewelry, beauty products, jams, ceramics, bags, clothing, and beyond.

Enthusiastic shoppers at Renegade

The fairs are rollicking good times, and not necessarily because of the artisanal goods they feature, the events for kids and families, or the food and drinks. The fairs are fun even if indie craft isn’t really your thing because of the unique vibe of the events.

Sure, part of that vibe is the crowd that shows up. After all, how can indie crafts NOT be chill and fun to look at when the fair is dominated by buyers with cool dogs and cooler tattoos?

Which is cooler: the art or the tattoos?

But more importantly, what it comes down to is the spirit that the organizers of the Renegade Craft Fairs bring to the table.

For people who organize 11 plus events a year, they are a chilled-out bunch. Organizing isn’t easy: there’s getting people to submit their wares to be shown, deciding who gets in (last year there were 1,000 unique vendors among all fairs), and who doesn’t, and delivering the bad news to those vendors. Ow.

Screen-printed leather earrings at Renegade

Then there’s organizing these large spaces and working out the logistics of getting things to the right cities. There’s promotion. There’s managing cash flow. There’s dealing with last-minute pull outs and eleventh-hour additions. But throughout the madness, there’s a personal touch to what’s going on: no buck passing between organizations and no red tape, as you might find with other shows.

Then there are the show-days. Constantly supportive, helpful, amazingly laid-back, the team seems to understand that by serving their vendors, they’re serving the public. Keep the vendors upbeat and happy; everyone has fun. This attitude is everything.

Renegade vendor poses with her beautiful graphic prints

As Sarah Spies of Renegade says, “We’re a scrappy, young organization (just FIVE people), and a number of us have been with Renegade for a while. We focus on organizing it really well and making it great for vendors. We want it to feel like a fair rather than a show.”

One of the charms of the Renegade fairs is their crafted, organic, warm feel, so in-sync with the indie craft movement. “We’ve seen some fairs that have a certain ‘trade show quality’ but that leads to a visual saturation,” says Sarah. “We want people to stay engaged, stay interested, and stay a little bit surprised.”

Human heart coffee cups and anatomy-themed plates

For a young team, they’ve established a strong brand that comes from making sure they don’t lose sight of their vision, something that’s hard in a world where things like design, craft, and art are always bumping up against each other.

“While we’re constantly evolving—sometimes I think we have a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants approach—we do keep to certain ideas and commitments.” These include:

It’s got to be handmade. “We are about craft and artisans… We need to know how much of a craft is really handmade. We understand that sometimes you have other local artisans doing some of the work for you and that may be okay. But it can’t be outsourced to China. Nothing like that.” It also can’t be too slick. “It can’t feel too corporate. Is it TOO well done? Too perfect? That doesn’t fit Renegade.”

Renegade is committed to supporting handmade craft.

It’s got to be of high quality. “When we started out, the idea of contemporary craft was pretty kitschy. As the general quality of craft has come up, we’ve upped our game as well.”

It’s about functional, beautiful, accessible craft. “We get asked all the time about vintage and it’s not about pure art per se. Paraphrasing William Morris, ‘It needs to be functional and beautiful.’ “

It’s got to feel different. “We often look for the under-the-radar makers, the ones who are emerging, the ones who are doing something really unique. It’s not that we don’t work with established makers, but we want to make sure that you don’t see their work everywhere. We certainly have those people who are reasonably well known but who’ve managed to keep that independent spirit going.”

Strawberry-rose handmade jams

It’s got to work for the craftsperson. “We ask ourselves, ‘Will this person do well at this fair, given what we know about our attendees there?’ We need to be fair to the artist.”

With the indie craft movement still booming with no signs of slowing down, Renegade’s begun to face what some might call competition.

In typical fashion, Sarah welcomes it with open arms. “It’s great that people have additional and different outlets for their work. We want that. We know that a lot of people will also do the [newer] Unique shows (in L.A., San Francisco and New York), and that’s great. We just want to make sure that people, whether it’s the vendors or the attendees, have a good experience with Renegade.”

And they do.


All images from Renegade website.

Catch these upcoming fairs:

December 1 + 2, 2012 from 11am-6pm each day at the Pulaski Park Fieldhouse (1419 W. Blackhawk St.).

Los Angeles on December 8 + 9, 2012 from 10am-5pm each day at the Los Angeles State Historic Park.

San Francisco on December 15 + 16,  2012! We’ll return to the cozy Concourse Exhibition Center from 11am-6pm.

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