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How Unique L.A.'s Sonja Rasula Became An Artisanal Entrepreneur

Sonja Rasula, Founder of Unique Markets / Credit: Bryan Dale (Bryan Dale)
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The epiphany came, as many do, in traffic.

It was the summer of 2008, and Sonja Rasula was shopping for gifts for her best friend. The then-32-year-old was painstakingly making her way, by car, from Venice to Eagle Rock in search of the ideal present, when she realized there might be a way to consolidate the boutique shopping journey on which she had unwittingly embarked.

"I thought there could be a new retail experience where you park your car and get everything... like a mall, but not; like a flea market, but not," she says. "My gut told me that there were other people that would feel the same way."

Rasula had a background in corporate management and, after letting the idea sit for a few months, she hit the ground running. She set up social media accounts, created a website and plotted out what would soon become Unique Markets, a curated, pop-up event that brings together local artisans to sell their products. The inaugural bazaar, held in the California Market Center in downtown L.A., was an immediate success.

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"The very first market was 225 sellers," says Rasula, "and I actually made a couple thousand dollars in the end."

Her gut feeling had been correct.

Rasula wasn't always on track to become a hand-crafted goods maven. After growing up in L.A.'s Echo Park, she moved to Canada to study journalism at Ryerson University. Before graduating, she made a brief and bizarre foray into the music business.

"I answered a full-page ad in the newspaper which was, 'Do you want to be the next Spice Girl?'" she says. "Obviously, I was like, 'Yes.'"

Rasula went to the audition, survived the next few rounds of cuts and soon found herself in an apartment in New York City with a group of other girls, recording an album and on track to becoming world-renowned superstars.

After the album, she waited for success but nothing happened.

"I thought I would be famous, but that did not work out," she says, laughing.

Instead, Rasula left college early after being offered a job at Much Music, which she describes as "Canada's MTV," and worked in the corporate world for nearly a decade. She wasn't even 30 before she found herself approaching corporate burn-out, so she turned her sights back to the city she had left behind.

"I was like, I gotta move to LA," she says.

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Once here, Rasula landed a job as a cast member on TLC's Trading Spaces but was fired before the show aired. She decided to take a step back and re-evaluate.

"I had a decision to make," she says, "which was, look for another job, or volunteer. I was lucky enough to have I looked at my bank account and thought, this is probably the only time I life that I could not work for a while."

Rasula began volunteering with a get-out-the-vote nonprofit organization, and the freedom of not being tied down to a job and having the space to think creatively about her next venture led to her traffic epiphany.

"I knew it was time [for me to] to start my own business," she says.

Looking at the Unique Markets aesthetic now, it's tempting to say that Rasula was one step ahead of curating a look that has since become ubiquitous and might be described as Instagram-chic. Her markets are clean and modern,airy and bright with white walls and backdrops, sparse with pops of color. Vendors selling succulents and letterpressed cards abound, as do makers of homemade jewelry, clothing, décor and art.

"I've always liked modern, minimal design, and I've always loved typography," she says.

Since opening in 2008, Rasula says she receives hundreds of applications from vendors who want to sell their products on the Unique Market floor.

For the first time this year, the event will travel to eight cities. In the past, it has attracted 50,000 visitors annually.

As Unique Markets continues to grow, Rasula -- who lives in Echo Park with her husband and their two dogs -- hopes that her brainchild will foster an appreciation for design and respect for how much effort goes into making even the simplest item.

"I want people to understand the value that goes into design, and for all the designers and artists and makers who are there," she says. "I want people to see that there is passion and struggle and heart that goes into all of their products. I am trying to get people to see that things that are made locally and independently have so much more value than mass-produced stuff, and I think you have show people the way sometimes."

Unique LA will be held on December 1 & 2 at the California Market Center and on Dec. 15 & 16 at the Santa Monica Pier. If you can't make it and still want to celebrate small businesses, here are some other markets and craft fairs happening this holiday season:

Patchwork Show
Nov. 25
Artist Village: 2nd & Sycamore, Santa Ana

Echo Park Craft FairDecember 9 & 10
Mack Sennett Studios: 1215 Bates Ave., Echo Park.

Renegade Craft FairDecember 8 & 9
Los Angeles State Historic Park: 1245 N. Spring St., Chinatown.

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1010 Abbott Kinney.

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