Renegade Craft Fair: Thanks, but No Thanks

The Renegade Craft Fair is coming to Detroit. And it’s only right that the local craft community should ask: what is gained by this visit, and what is lost? The answers to this question will have important repercussions, not only for our community, but for others like it. As for Small Craft, we believe that the Renegade Craft Fair will take far more than it gives. We have a deep love for indie craft fairs, and a long track record of supporting them. But we’ll be staying far from this event, which does not seem to represent either the best interests of our community, or the values of indie craft as a whole.

In 2017, the Renegade Craft Fair is a global chain. It has 12 locations in the U.S. and U.K., if we include unproven markets such as Detroit. And like any global chain, its stated goals include growth. “We look forward to expanding our reach to more cities,” reads a statement on the Renegade Craft Fair’s website.

It also gives indications of aspiring to expand its offerings within each city. When asked on Facebook whether there would be an additional Renegade Craft Fair in Detroit during the holidays, the reply was: “Not this year, unfortunately, since it’s our first time there, but possibly down the road!”

The logical conclusion to all this growth is that more fairs in more cities will be Renegade Craft Fairs, with the same name, the same logo, and the same ownership. The variety and opportunity of the indie craft scene will be exchanged for a single well-known and consistent global brand. This is a familiar model to all of us, easily seen in the repetitive strip malls that line the streets of America’s cities and suburbs. But it’s an awkward fit for the indie craft fair, which is intended to offer an alternative to all of that.

The Renegade Craft Fair wasn’t always like this. In the introduction to her 2008 book Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, and Design, author Faythe Levine looks back at Renegade’s 2003 debut, with obvious affection and enthusiasm:

“I remember some people laid out blankets and hawked their wares as if it were an impromptu yard sale. Others didn’t even have change for the shoppers. A lot of us had no clue what we were doing, but there was this exhilarating energy throughout Wicker Park. Around me were my peers, people who were taking their lives into their own hands and creating what they couldn’t find in their everyday lives at school, home, and work.”

For Levine, this first encounter with indie craft was the starting point for much of her own work, as an author, filmmaker, crafter, business owner, and fair organizer. And it’s not hard to see why! All these years later, that scrappy little fair still sounds fresh and exciting. The raw energy emanating from Renegade’s early years has been inspiring to many over the years, ourselves very much included. It’s the energy that’s generated when people are encouraged to make for themselves: to make their own crafts, their own fairs, their own communities. “Without really being conscious of it,” writes Levine, “we were creating an independent economy free from corporate ties.”

It’s a thrill, to be part of such a moment. And that thrill remains a key part of the Renegade Craft Fair’s appeal. There’s a hint of it in the “Renegade” name. And in their website’s assurance that the fair is “continuously championing the global indie craft movement.” But today, Renegade is a large chain, expanding into communities that already have their own indie craft fairs. Does this encourage people to make for themselves? To create an independent economy? Does this champion a meaningful movement?

In 2003, Renegade began with a few blankets on the ground, but was able to generate “exhilarating energy,” by offering something new. In 2017, it’s “the farthest reaching craft showcase in the world,” but does it still have that energy? Is it still an experience that people will look back on years later, with gratitude and wonder? We ask, because in Detroit, the Renegade Craft Fair doesn’t appear to be offering anything new. Instead, it seems to be reaching for a piece of what’s already been built.

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Detroit has indie craft fairs. Lots of indie craft fairs. And it has, for quite some time. The largest and longest running is the Detroit Urban Craft Fair, which will be celebrating its twelfth year this December. Over the years, it’s been joined by numerous others, each with its own particular focus and flavor. Local shop Detroit Mercantile hosts a Merry Market each holiday season. Ponyride is home to a Summer Series and a Holiday Market. Floral designers pot & box host a HLDYMRKT and a VLNTNSDYMRKT in the winter. And these are just a few examples.

There are also indie craft fairs in the suburbs that surround Detroit, such as Ferndale’s DIY Street Fair. And in neighboring cities, such as Ypsilanti’s DIYPSI, Flint Handmade’s Craft Markets, or the Toledo Maker’s Mart. Each of these is its own unique and independent event. And each serves its own time and place. But loose connections have been made through the years, and a robust regional community has emerged.

Local fair organizers are often crafters themselves, and they sell at one another’s events. One fair will use its social media to promote another. The calendar is shared, to avoid conflicts. Is there a sense of competition? Sure. But it’s balanced by a sense of community. Crafters have watched each other’s children grow up at these fairs. They’ve danced at each other’s weddings. They’ve mourned each other’s losses. And whether or not visitors to these fairs know all that backstory, they can still feel the warm glow of an authentic craft community. A global chain can’t replicate that, and it can’t offer anything better.

Detroit also has many homegrown events that predate the arrival of indie craft, but similarly combine the bohemian, the handmade, and the festive. To choose one high-profile example: Cass Corridor street fair Dally in the Alley has welcomed artists and craft vendors throughout its 40-year history. When we participate in these events, we make ourselves part of a larger tradition.

This is a famously resourceful and innovative region, home to a variety of thriving cultures. So there are many kinds of beautiful handicrafts to be found here. We love indie craft, but it’s important to remember: it’s just one tiny drop in a great river of creativity. And it’s impact is not entirely beneficial. If we step away from the indie craft fair, and walk around with open eyes, there’s no end to the incredible handmade work we’ll see.

All of which leads to the question: what does the Renegade Craft Fair have to offer, that we do not already have in abundance? There is already a flourishing craft culture, in and around Detroit, and it includes a sizable network of indie craft fairs. So Renegade really is bringing us nothing new, in that regard.

What it can offer, of course, is a nationally known brand. And it may be that this brand will draw more vendors from across the country. That’s not a bad thing. It’s always great to meet new crafters, and see new work. But it must be asked: If you’re on the road sharing your original vision, shouldn’t it be more of an adventure? Do you really want to find the same fair in every town? New experiences fuel the creative process, so it’s to everyone’s good if touring vendors continue to travel through a network of unique, local fairs.

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Indie culture far predates its association with the craft fair, and it has worked out a set of values in the smudged pages of countless zines, and the sweaty basements of countless shows. Craft, of course, is vastly older, and has had centuries to patch together its own set of values. Indie craft inherits the values of both parents, and makes them its own.

In indie craft, we value the local gathering over the big box store. The imperfect original over the exact replica. Independent adventure over managed safety. The ultimate goal is a form of self-sufficiency, often summed up in three letters: DIY. Do it yourself, at every step, and on every level. At a good indie craft fair, those values resonate through every aspect of the event. And when an object, a vendor, a fair, and a community are all expressions of the same DIY ethos, it makes a powerful statement about the world where we want to live.

By acting in accord with these values, indie craft roots itself in two strong legacies. And it assures itself a healthy future. For it’s these values that give indie craft a depth worthy of sustained exploration. With them, it offers a community where a good life can be lived. Without them, little more than a passing style. It would be painfully shortsighted, then, to cut ourselves off from those values, in support of a monolithic brand.

In Handmade Nation, co-founder Sue Daly states that the Renegade Craft Fair began because she and a friend “thought it would be fun to throw an event that embodied the DIY spirit.” That was a beautiful goal then: one that inspired us all. It would be a beautiful goal now: one we’d be happy to support. But when a global chain disrupts a local community, where is the DIY spirit?

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Full disclosure: Small Craft’s Amy and Ethan Cronkite were organizers of the first Detroit Urban Craft Fair. Amy was a member of Handmade Detroit, the fair’s founding organization, and was an organizer for the first ten years of the event. She took a leave of absence in 2016, and announced a final but friendly departure from Handmade Detroit this year. This is a proud and important part of our history, but we’re no longer affiliated with Handmade Detroit or the Detroit Urban Craft Fair.

There are two conclusions to be drawn from this.

First: We don’t pretend to be neutral observers. We’re longtime participants in the local craft community, and we love our local fairs. We want the community and its events to stay strong, healthy, and beautiful. And all our thinking is very much informed by that.

Second: We aren’t speaking for any fair or its organizers. These are purely the views of our little family business. And while Small Craft hosts a variety of fun events, there’s one kind we don’t ever host: a craft fair. Because we know that niche has already been filled.

We also think it’s important to acknowledge the Renegade Craft Fair’s past accomplishments. While history does not show Renegade to be the very first indie craft fair, as is often believed, it was certainly among the earliest. And we have a lot of respect and appreciation for that pioneering work.

With one of her earlier craft ventures, Amy was a vendor at Renegade’s 2007 holiday fair in Chicago. And our family shopped at their summer fair in Chicago that same year. In those days, we felt a sense of shared purpose with the Renegade Craft Fair. That’s what makes its current approach so disappointing.

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4 Responses to Renegade Craft Fair: Thanks, but No Thanks

  1. Nothing makes me happier than being part of the wonderful community here in Michigan. Positive vibes bring positives lives, and ya’ll vibes got me dancing on good vibes.

  2. Rachel says:

    As a participant in past Renegade shows, I loved how it brought people out. There was great energy around it. I also appreciated how organized it is.

    What I do find frustrating is the cost of the show fee, which is rising $100+ every year for the past three years. It is making it cost prohibitive for smaller businesses and newer makers to participate.

  3. Elizabeth Schnelle says:

    What a well written article–many words of wisdom. Marble Falls, Texas is getting ready for it’s 3rd Handmade/Homemade Fair which came about because the locals ASKED for a LOCALLY made craft show. They still are glad they did.

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