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Shopping, Food and Beer: Sonja Rasula Brings Cool and Community to the Masses at this Weekend's UNIQUE LA

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Detroit Sprinkles is one of the 275 vendors at UNIQUE LA. Photo by Emily Lerman/LAist

LA is an amazing and dynamic place. Complain if you want, but it's impossible to deny that the city is full of people doing great things to foster an increased sense of community and exploit LA's finest assets. Sonja Rasula, founder of this weekend's UNIQUE LA, is one such individual.

LAist first met the Echo Park native at GOOD's Community Leader's Event, where she received an award for her work with December’s UNIQUE LA and the upcoming CityLabs volunteer fair.

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While some of us don't need much convincing to take a trip down to the fashion district, Sonja says the goal of UNIQUE LA is to provide an event that offers something to everyone, from the designers to the consumers. Based on our experience last time, she has you covered. Like shopping? Score deals at the 275-vendor booths. Like beer? Hang out, admire the view, drink PBR, grab margs and tacos from the Malo pop-up restaurant and then dress up for the photo booth. Eco-green freak? The Green Room features over 20 green, sustainable-minded vendors. Have kids? Visit the Etsy craft area for some family A+C time.

With the event a few days away, Sonja took the time to speak to LAist about the importance of conscious consumerism and community building, promoting downtown LA and it's thriving art and fashion scene, volunteering and the amazingness that is LA's taco trucks and fruit stands.

LAist: How did you conceive the idea for UNIQUE LA?

Sonja: The idea had been in my head for a few years. It occurred to me that there were so many great people in the city doing stuff, but there wasn’t any one kind of cultural event [on a larger level]. I looked to New York, Toronto and London and in those kind of larger metropolitan cities, they have really large art events...much like UNIQUE LA, and they are large enough to introduce people to up and coming talent and it just seemed strange to me that LA never did this.

Trade shows, sample sales and the need for UNIQUE LA...
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In LA in general, there is this really weird culture of trade shows that happen all the time and then there are sample sales. As a shopper I love sample sales, but when you take a step back and look at what it really is, it frustrated me and I know that the designers were sometimes frustrated because sample sales basically take the worth and value away from the design. And people get excited about them and lots of people will drive downtown for a sample sale, but only because they know they can get stuff really cheap.

So I thought to myself, “ I can create an event, that’s really really big that has enough vendors that it would almost rival a mall, because then there is really no excuse.” In other words, some people would say “I don’t really like jewelry” or “I’m not into women’s clothing” but with the amount of vendors and the diversity that I offer, there is really no excuse for anyone not to be able to come.

What do you hope to achieve with UNIQUE LA?

I have two main goals. One of them is to create a space that is large enough and has enough offerings to introduce individuals, not just the fashionistsas and hipsters, but literally the masses… [to new designers];I wanted people to drive in from the OC and come from Burbank, and not just Echo Park. So I achieved that [with the first show].

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The second thing I wanted to do was to be able to have an event for the designers where they were able to make money and show the design and the worth of what they do. It’s not a sample sale, but of course all the vendors will sell somewhere between wholesale and retail. Its just much better for the designers from a sustainability standpoint because there is no middleman. They can sell a purse for $75, where a retailer would sell it for $125 and still make a good profit.

Is your background in design?

I studied journalism and worked as a journalist in the media for 10 years...I've also directed many websites and was on a few different design-related TV shows. I have a small line of eco-stationary and house wares line that I work on too.

So how would you describe what you do?

Well it sounds weird to say “I’m an event planner”, because that doesn’t really make sense, so now I’m a community cultural curator…I try to curate really cool things that are happening and try to encourage and foster community at the same time.

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What has been the highlight of organizing this event?

Definitely meeting all of the designers, and really more like discovering them when you do something this big. When I started, I had about 50 people in mind that I really wanted to come to UNIQUE LA...but when you have 275 vendors, most of them I don’t know, so that is really exciting and super rewarding for me as I get to discover all these new artists and designers and give them an avenue to get out there.

For the already famous people taking part, like lets say Johnny Cupcakes, who has a store in LA and is known all over the world, it’s exciting that I get to show him off. He started printing a few t-shirts here and there for friends and then slowly has been building, so it’s still cool to feature independent artists who have sort of “made it”.

Community building at UNIQUE...

The really cool thing is during the show, the vendors of course meet and kind of network with one another and it’s cool to be able to see a young, up-and-coming student. I know at the last show we had a girl named Ana Serrano who worked with paper and recently graduated from Art Center. She has such an amazing talent for using color and shapes and she had a booth at our show. I just noticed she is at a really big show called Papershapers at the Scion Gallery in Culver City with eight other paper artists. Who knows if it was because of the show that she got this interest, but my assumption is yes, and that most of these small little vendors talk to the other ones.

Eva Franco, who is a dress designer in Los Angeles, is now working with Elizabeth Soule [who takes Polaroid photographs with animals] on woodprints and was really popular the last show. So they met at the show, and now Elizabeth is doing design work for Eva.

Why is an event like this so important to our community?

It's important because it doesn’t just speak to the converted. Having a gallery show is always fantastic and I take nothing away from that. LA is amazing because there is always stuff to do…I mean every weekend it’s like there are five things I want to do and can only pick two, and that is a really cool thing about the city. But I feel like there are so many small events and from a consumer standpoint, you are running around. So with an event this large, you aren’t just speaking to the same kind of people. If you held an event downtown for the fashion crowd, the only people that are going to attend will be the fashion crowd. If you do an eco event, lots of people will come but it will be people who are already passionate about the eco event.

Attracting the masses...

What I think is so great about this event is that it really is so huge and so diverse…I really do want to attract the masses. The people who live in Echo Park already know about the cool stuff…the people who I want to come to this event are the the people who don’t have the time or because of where they live don’t get to see all the cool neighborhood artists or have no idea that Eva Franco is even from Los Angeles but they have bought her dresses before.

The most important thing about this community event is that it really brings in the diverse community LA has so it appeals to everyone and not just one group. People can come with their families and do arts and crafts but you will totally have the hipsters who are there to drink the free Pabst and buy stuff from Detroit Sprinkles.
I just think it’s important to have stuff this large that is all-inclusive and no matter where you come from or what you do, you can attend and feel like you are part of something really cool where you get to discover people who are in your community and take part.

I know you have a big emphasis on “local”. Are all the designers and artists from LA or Southern California?

My mandate was that 90% be local, which to me means California. Right now 80% are from Los Angeles. We have some people from San Francisco, a handful from Brooklyn, someone from DC and Philly…the other cool creative cities. My whole thing is to promote LA and California in general…but especially Los Angeles because people think of this town as only Hollywood but it’s important to remember that we actually have a thriving fashion community and art community, and even some world famous crafters. The main focus was to support local businesses. Almost everything at the show was made in America and I’m pretty strict about that.

99% is made locally, which means you are supporting so much more than that one person you are buying from. As consumers, people really don’t think about it so much, and I’ve been guilty of it in the past too, but one thing UNIQUE hopes to help people realize, and again, especially the masses and not the people who already know this, is the idea of conscious consumerism. So it’s about realizing that you are buying a piece of artwork and the person needed to buy the paint and the canvas and all of those things they bought local and that supports another person in the community and so on...and it [puts] money back into our American economy.

At the GOOD event, you mentioned your next project, CityLabs, planned for NY and LA in September. It sounded like a community service spin on UNIQUE LA. Can you tell me a little about more this?

I had been thinking about the idea for a little over a year, and then as soon as Obama got elected, I thought “there are thousands and thousands of people in every city who really got energized and passionate about politics [many for the first time]…and at the same time, people also started to ask ‘ok, so how are things going to change’. Because of my role as the Executive Director of Young Progressive Majority (YPM), I also knew there were all these young, engaged people who understood that it doesn’t just end with voting and now that Obama was in office, they wanted to do something else to help and take part in the community.

I definitely had friends who Googled volunteer opportunities and had to sift though thousands of hits. And were such a "want it now" generation and the only way to search for these opportunities is online. So I thought about how else people can find out about organizations that need help and I knew there were so many people energized and willing to give their time.

Having already done one UNIQUE event, I knew how hard it was, but I also knew I could do it. So I thought...let's create a shopping event where people aren’t actually shopping, but rather connecting with good community organizations.

I think with the economy, people are understanding the idea that everyone feels the effects of the economy...hopefully people will start to realize there is always a way that they can help and it doesn’t always mean money; it can be time, or energy or expertise.

What organizations you are particularly fond of?

YPM, of course. Also, Create Now. [UNIQUE LA raised $4000 for them at the December event.] They provide creative opportunities to at-risk youth who are already in detention centers. They are the kids that most people at a certain point give up on and have already made a few mistakes already.

There are so many great groups: 826 LA, who will be at Unique, the Surfrider Foundation, Heal the Bay...California is a wealth of philanthropy.

LA has the best...

...taco trucks and fruit stands. They are so special.

What is your idea of the perfect LA day?

I am a subscriber to the LA times, so I like to do a quick once over of the paper. Then brunch with friends. I love Dusty’s on Sunset. OrAuntie Em's in Eagle Rock or Mustard Seed Cafe. Then maybe a hike or a matinee or a flea market.

Favorite shopping areas?

3rd Street between Farifax and La Cienega and of course I love Silverlake and the Sunset Junction.

Thanks for talking with LAist! Anything else you're especially looking forward to this weekend?

Definitely the Oh! Snap photo booth, the pop-up Malo...and cupcakes! We're having gourmet, affordable cupcakes and soda-pops. Dim Mak records will be there for the first time, and we're hosting an after party with them Sunday, so I'm really excited about that too!


UNIQUE LA
Saturday, May 2, 11 am - 7 pm
Sunday, May 3, 11 am - 5 pm
California Market Center penthouse//110 East Ninth Street, Downtown
$5 per ticket (free for children 10 and under)
50% of ticket sales benefit a local charity

Photos: Sonja Rasula, courtesy of Sonja Rasula, used with permission. Meat pillows and posters from December's UNIQUE LA, by Emily Lerman/LAist.