Rae Dunn Didn’t Mean To Start A Cult

Rae Dunn is shy. She’s a quiet person — an introvert. This is how she describes herself to me when we talk on the phone (and then again in a follow-up email), and I understand why she says it: She’s very soft-spoken, modest about her success, and has a gentle sense of humor. For such a shy, quiet person, though, the 58-year-old Dunn has become incredibly well-known over the last decade; in some circles, she’s considered a household name. But even if you don’t know her name, you probably know her work: Her simple crockery is stocked in every TJ Maxx, HomeGoods, Marshalls — all of which are owned and operated by TJX Companies — across the nation. Her designs are instantly recognizable to Rae Dunn insiders and casual shoppers alike: Think mostly cream-colored mugs, plates, and canisters, typically emblazoned with one- or two-word phrases like, “yum,” “family,” and, of course, “but first, coffee,” all written in a delicate, unadorned, hand-crafted font. You may even own a few pieces of her minimalist ceramics yourself without ever having known that there was a real person behind those designs, and that the person is Rae Dunn.  
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On the phone, Dunn is as unassuming as she says she is, though she’s also open and quick to laugh. She admits she created a monster with her now ubiquitous aesthetic. She claims it was an accident.
“I never intended on becoming a brand, much less creating this weird phenomenon,” Dunn says.
The “weird phenomenon” she’s referring to goes beyond the uber-popularity of her houseware line, and speaks to the existence of the Rae Dunn Hunters — who are also known as the Rae Dunners, or the Rae Dunnies, among other nicknames. They are Rae Dunn superfans, and their main mode of communication is Facebook Groups, of which there are hundreds, both national and regional, with names like Rae Dunn Newbies, Rae Dunn Addicts, Girls Just Wanna Have Dunn, and even What Have I Dunn?! On these pages — some with over 25,000 members — the Hunters trade secrets and tips for scoring the most coveted pieces of Rae Dunn merchandise. 
Like any other hypebeast, to be a true Rae Dunner, you need a shopping strategy. Her products are so popular that the release of seasonal mugs elicits the same reaction from Dunnies as an in-store drop of Supreme merch does from that brand’s fans. The craze can be witnessed first-hand in a viral TikTok video where hordes of women flock around a display case filled with Rae Dunn pieces, hungrily grabbing mugs and plates from the shelves, sometimes plowing one another over in the process. “There are basic pieces that are always in the stores, and then there’s stuff that comes out seasonally — and the seasonal stuff is what people fight over,” explains Lauren Sotelo, a former Rae Dunn Hunter based in Reno, NV. 
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But it’s not just the Halloween plates and Christmas mugs that stir mobs of suburban moms into a frenzy. “The ‘oink’ pig was like, a really big deal,” says Michelle Green, a Rae Dunn Hunter and TikTokker based in Fort Pierce, FL, referring to a ceramic pig-shaped canister with the word “oink” on its side. According to Green, searching out these highly sought-after pieces is where the Facebook groups come in handy. It’s there that Hunters trade info about what’s new, what’s rare, or what’s about to be the next coveted item. The groups also track orders heading to TJX stores, so that members can better figure out when shipments will be arriving in certain areas — and what will be in them. “The things that are limited, like the ‘oinks,’ only two went per [HomeGoods],” Green says. Because of her dedication to the hunt, she was able to get her hands on both of them for $16.99. Now, the pigs are selling for $250. “If I wanted the money, I could go and sell one of them,” she says. “But I don’t want the money... I found that. It’s like a treasure hunt.”
My initial reaction to this fandom was much like that of the viewers who left comments on that TikTok video: disbelief. Why is there such a frenzy over these simple ceramics? How could this chaos ensue over a white mug with the word “coffee” on it? Surely this must be an anomaly! But this wasn’t — and isn’t — an isolated incident. “Y’all no I work for TjMaxx and this is 100% true,” commented user @mary.jane4 on the viral TikTok. “They stand around like VULTURES and even get into fights over Rae Dunn mugs that cost like $8.99.” User @jadaamarie06, who claimed to be a former TJ Maxx employee agreed, adding, “They were always waiting at the door for us to open. It was intense.”
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While it’s tempting to dismiss the Rae Dunnies for their enormous devotion to what Sotelo once called “the comic sans of our generation,” it’s actually not so different from the craze for brands like Supreme or Kith Monday Program. Both are driven by the scarcity principle: We want things that other people can’t have, and we attach more value to things that are hard to get — hence, the “hunt” that devoted Rae Dunners are so drawn to. But instead of streetwear or sneakers or branded money guns or luggage at a flagship store in New York City, the hype is coming from ceramics at TJ Maxx. And, in this case, the hypebeasts are suburban moms.
Like sneakerheads who eagerly wait for the next Yeezy or Jordan drop at storefronts, Dunn Hunters make their presence known at their local Marshalls and TJ Maxx. “They would line up every single day, even during the week,” Alyssa, the former HomeGoods worker who filmed the now viral TikTok video in Rancho Cucamonga, CA, tells Refinery29. “It doesn’t matter if it was raining or not. They would still be out there.”
Sotelo used to be one of those women who waited outside of TJ Maxx each morning to get their hands on the newest items. “It’s an adrenaline rush when you’re able to get things that other people want and they don’t get to have because there’s only so many pieces,” she says. “That’s kind of why it got super-crazy for me — because I started to get addicted to having things before somebody else was able to get it.”
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But, the devotion that some Rae Dunners have to the game can end up being toxic. Dunn Hunters have been known to deceive one another, lying about when and where they found certain products or if a store received a new shipment that day. “You think you’re friends with all these women, but it’s a bunch of women lying about things that they’re finding and then using each other to find other things,” Sotelo says. At stores, things can get confrontational, and even physical. “I’ve seen people fight over stuff and I’ve been around where women have screamed at each other over things. I’ve seen women take stuff out of other women’s hands,” Sotelo says. “It’s insane.”
Much like with other hypebeast brands, the rare, hard-to-find Rae Dunn products are the most coveted, and they often end up on third party sites with prices marked up unbelievably high (like the “oink” pig). Take Rae Dunn’s Homeline Bird House, for example. Green bought the cutesy ceramic piece, emblazoned with the word “home” on it, back in 2016 for under $5. Now, it can be found on sites like Mercari for over $600 apiece — one seller is even asking for as much as $1,130 for it.
“It’s kind of like people that collect Beanie Babies or Louis Vuitton purses or vintage shoes,” Green says. “Some people don’t get it. But if you get it, you get it.”
Magenta, Inc., the company that manufactures Rae Dunn products, seems baffled by Dunnies’ passion for the goods. “When we started partnering with Rae, we had no idea that this was going to become such a huge thing or such a collector’s item,” says Janet Speight, senior marketing strategist at Magenta, Inc. Every day, the brand receives messages from Rae Dunn buyers asking them to authenticate her pottery pieces that are being bought and sold across the internet. “[There are] replicas of Rae Dunn where we have to be like, ‘That is not authentic Rae Dunn,’” she says. Speight compares the replicas to copycat Chanel bags. “You would’ve never thought that it would turn into something like this,” she says. Magenta, Inc. doesn’t control the exact number of what products go where either, so it’s up to TJX Companies and how much they buy of a certain style to really control what’s rare and what’s not.
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Although brands like Supreme purposefully use the scarcity principle to their advantage by announcing drops and hyping up limited-edition collabs through social media and celebrity exposure, that’s not something that Rae Dunn — the artist — ever needed to do to attain the level of brand loyalty and wholesome hype she receives from her loyal customers. It’s not something she ever wanted, either.
“It makes me really sad that people [resell],” Dunn says. “I wish I could sell more of my handmade stuff. But when I do it, I know that people are buying it and reselling it for hundreds of dollars more. And it really upsets me because… I don’t know. I feel like I’m just being used.”
Dunn says that people have always responded positively to her work, but the recent spike in popularity is new to her. “I would say, just in the past few years, it’s become this… thing,” Dunn says. “I would have studio sales and people would come from all around the country and they would be treating me like I was Mick Jagger. I’ve had people break out and start crying when they meet me. It’s truly remarkable and overwhelming.” She marvels at it, laughing and saying, “I don’t even get it.”
Both Green and Sotelo estimate that they’ve each owned over 1,000 pieces of Rae Dunn pottery in the past few years. “I’ve spent thousands of dollars,” Sotelo says. “But it matches everything.”
Green, like other Dunn Hunters, has an entire room in her home dedicated to her Rae Dunn finds. “My kids say, ‘Mom, you choose pottery over us,’” she says. “I’m obsessed. It’s just the thrill, and they don’t understand it.” Green, a substitute teacher, hunts for pieces every day she’s not working. When I ask how much she’s spent during the past couple of years as a hunter, she balks. “It’s bad,” she says. “It’s bad.”
It’s hard to say whether or not Rae Dunn, the brand, will be a cog in the hype machine forever. But Dunn, the artist, says she’ll continue to create her iconic pottery for as long as people keep wanting to buy it — however, she’s always had other artistic outlets that she’s open to exploring. Currently, she’s working on a new line of jewelry and a line of pet products, both of which will come out this summer. While it’s too early to say whether they’ll have the same level of hype as her ceramics, Dunn isn’t worried. “I know that there’s a lot of negative stuff that goes on out there, and that makes me really sad. But I love that people connect to my work, and it connects them to other people, and it brings them joy and happiness,” Dunn says. “I’m not trying to be something fancy or different. My work is me.”