Remember when going to a craft fair meant wandering through a dusty church basement with your grandmother? Recall the mountains of Easter egg-hued pom-pom’ed hats, the macrame plant holders, the toilet paper and Kleenex box cozies? Yeah, you remember. So do I, but times have changed, and mercifully, so have craft fairs.
One of the best known and loved is the Renegade Craft Fair, launched in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois in 2003. It’s now going strong in four additional cities across the U.S.: Austin, Texas; Brooklyn, New York; San Francisco, California; and Los Angeles, California. Its massive success eventually led to the opening of Renegade Handmade, a permanent, brick and mortar extension of the Fair, affording a location for artisans to sell their goods year-round. The shop is sunny and vibrant, with something interesting to look at everywhere you turn.
I caught up with Sue Daly, the owner and one of the founders to ask if she was at all surprised at how these two enterprises have taken off. “I was definitely surprised when we started Renegade, just because there hadn’t been a way to measure the interest in the real world at that point. I knew the DIY craft community had momentum online, but was really happy to see people react so enthusiastically to the Fair and the artists and their work.
“It makes sense in retrospect — everything is so unique compared to what was available at other arts and crafts fairs, and especially what’s available in mainstream stores, and the like. I think bringing the DIY craft scene out, in more of a public marketplace kind of way, introduced people to well-designed items you can use and wear.”
But Sue is more than just an astute business woman with an eye on future trends, she comes from a family where crafting was always going on, and is a talented jewelry maker as well. “My mom was crafty. She was always working on some hobby project. Needlepoint, crochet and knitting mostly. She always wore folksy clothing and jewelry too, and I think I just grew up around interesting little accessories and everything. I’d tag along to the little boutiques and craft stores with her, and I think that inspired me most. When I was about 10 or so, I starting dabbling in jewelry-making and beading.
“So that’s how it all started. But then I grew up and starting making jewelry again in about 2001. I had some success selling pieces to co-workers and online, so I started doing arts and crafts fairs just for fun a couple years later. I couldn’t find an event where I really felt like my work fit in and wished there was a DIY craft fair to participate in. Then it occurred to me that it would be fun to start one. So, along with a friend, we started the ‘Renegade’ Craft Fair that year.”
As the old saying goes, location is everything and Sue possibly couldn’t have picked a better part of town to open her doors. On the day I visited, the shop was bustling with customers and curious passers-by, apparently oblivious to the recession that is plaguing so many retailers. Renegade seems to be fitting right in with the long-standing art and design vibe of the Wicker Park neighborhood. “The neighborhood loves our shop. We’re helping keep the arts alive in Wicker Park, and offer a completely unique shop in Chicago-at-large, too. Since we have a national presence with the fairs, we also get a lot of tourists and destination shoppers too.”
And, as if providing the community with a sunny storefront and shelves, racks, boxes and bowls filled with well-designed, unique handmade crafts isn’t enough, Renegade Handmade also plays host to several events and workshops. The roster of in-store events is as unique and varied as the merchandise. There’s something new to experience every time. “We began having in-store events and teeny gallery shows last September. It’s different all the time, so we don’t have regular workshops we offer or anything like that. We had two artists make things in our front display window one week, and they sold the items that were made at the fair at the end of the week.
“We had Jill Bliss paint us a custom mural in-store, and she had a show of her original drawings and accessories. We had a needle-work showcase featuring over a dozen artists for our last show. Jenny Hart came and gave an embroidery workshop, which was great. It’s been a lot of fun being able to showcase the artists and the work in this kind of way. The art shows fall under our Spotlight Series gallery shows that last about six weeks each time, while the in-stores and workshops are kind of pop-up events.”
And for those who are not local to Chicago, fret not. Since December 2009, Renegade Handmade has been selling online. “It just seemed like the next logical step in growing the store’s presence and success. With our national notoriety, we want give people who aren’t in Chicago the opportunity to buy the handmade goods we have available here.” So, Chicago has its hot dogs, its stuffed pizza, and now there’s Renegade Handmade bringing some of the city’s best handmade crafts to the world. The website is the place to go to learn about upcoming events in the store and at the Fairs, and to shop online. “On February 19th, we’re kicking off a new Spotlight Series event with Mummysam. She makes incredible soft sculptures with all natural materials. I’m a big fan of her work.”
You know what, Renegade Handmade? We’re big fans of you, too.
Renegade Handmade, 1924 W. Division St., Chicago, IL, 60622, USA.
On the web: http://www.renegadehandmade.com