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International Playground's Founders: Over the Lumberjack Look

Photo by <a href="http://drielys.com">Driely S.</a> for Racked
Photo by Driely S. for Racked

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When longtime pals Virginia Craddock and Johnny Pizzolato were both thinking of ditching their corporate fashion careers, they didn't just GChat each other job listings or make vague plans over after-work drinks—they went on a vision quest.

"I wanted to start a showroom and she was like, 'Great! I want to start a store!' So we drove to the woods," Johnny told us. After a few days sequestered upstate they emerged from the wilderness with a mission statement.

Their goal: to represent an innovative roster of designers (think Mary Meyer, Soulland, and 7115 by Szeki), and showcase those talents alongside treasures they picked up on their travels.

The original International Playground, which opened in 2010, quickly gained a following with art-lovers exiting the neighboring New Museum. And this year, the duo opened a second outpost in Soho, right above their Broome Street showroom. "It's a little more expensive, a little more forward," Virginia says. "Johnny and I really get to bring our curatorial eye to this store."

Read on for tales of midnight pop-up shops, psychological insights into Annie Leibovitz's dog, and the reason why Virginia and Johnny are sick of this whole urban rustic thing.

This is your second store! How did you decide the timing was right?

Johnny: We had been on Stanton Street for four and half years. We love the proximity to the New Museum, but the area is definitely not a shopping destination. A lot of our customers happened upon us because they were on an art tour, or they heard about us. It's been very under the radar. We knew we wanted to open in a prime location to give the average shopper the opportunity to find us so it's not such an underground club. We were going to open in Williamsburg, and then our landlord offered us this store upstairs from our showroom space. So of course we jumped at the opportunity to be right in the middle of Soho.

What was your vision for the original International Playground when you opened on Stanton Street in 2010?

Virginia: We were two idealistic fashionistas branching out on our own for the first time. We had all sorts of grand ideas about what we were bringing to the fashion world, and the world at large.

Johnny: I'm getting terrified about what you're going to let out of the bag. Don't talk about the ice cream truck or Lindsay Lohan's leggings!

Virginia: Okay, I won't go into specifics. But we felt like we could work outside of the traditional constraints of fashion and retail and wholesale. We had designers from all over the world, and from all different genres when we first opened.

Johnny: We started with a Swedish denim collection, a womenswear collection from Helsinki, and a men's bag line from New York. We opened this eclectic showroom without categories and without a target. Just things we liked and were drawn to. Then we had to rein it in a little bit. We've gotten a little more category-specific. We're not as open-ended as out there, but we're still introducing brands that aren't out there.

How did you decide to open a store together? What were you doing pre-International Playground?

Virginia: We have been friends for a long time. We worked in different sectors of the industry—Johnny more in marketing and me in the production and practical side of things. He was working at Carlos Campos, a menswear designer, doing marketing and he brought me on to help with production in the first couple of seasons. I was going to leave my more corporate job and he was deciding to leave Carlos Campos. We just decided it was time to do something together.

Johnny: When you work with one emerging designer and you start coming up with these sort of novel ideas you're like, "I could be doing this for a bunch of different people." So I wanted to start a showroom and she was like, "Great! I want to start a store!" So we drove to the woods.

You drove to the woods?

Johnny: Yeah, we drove upstate.

Virginia: Our first corporate retreat.

Johnny: We bounced ideas back and forth for a couple of days and came up with a really strong mission statement.

So you emerged from the woods with a plan.

Johnny: We did! This was the spring of 2009. We knew we liked designers from London and Paris, and Scandinavian design was starting to come to the forefront. So we planned a trip to visit those three regions. We also knew that we wanted to do a pop-up. It was a very new thing, we didn't even know to call it a pop-up…no one was doing it. We were like, "We'll get a space for a week." So we produced a few of those before we opened the store.

We had all of these funny, idealistic ideas. We had our friends at Gibson guitars loan us these guitars and amps. We were like, "people will just come in and hang out and play!"

Did they?

Johnny: Yeah. Well, our friends.

Virginia: We stayed open from noon until midnight every day for a month.

Were you there every day?

Virginia: Oh yeah. That was the pop-up that had the bar.

Johnny: Right! The one with the bar!

Who was coming in at, like, 11PM on a Tuesday?

Johnny: Awesome people. Really fun people. We did one during fashion week first. It was really fun and successful, so we did one for the whole month of December. It was so joyous and exciting. New York at Christmastime in general is so fun, and everyone is out at parties. All of our people mobilized and came together for it, and some of the strangers who came in are people we still work with today.

Virginia: One of my closest friends is from that pop-up. We sold her a Study NY coat, she was an editor for a Canadian magazine called The Block. And now she's a staple in our life.

Johnny: It attracted a lot of cool people. Annie Leibovitz and her dog…

Annie Leibovitz would come in with her dog?

Johnny: Her dog and my dog were not friends. They were these two little guys. They were really at odds.

What was your original opening day like? Were you nervous, or did you feel like you had a handle on this whole store thing from running your pop-ups?

Virginia: I don't remember the actual opening day, but three weeks later we had our opening party. It was bananas. We had our designers do rotating kiosks, and they were creating things on-site.

It was the only time our landlord let us use the backyard.

Did he ever let you use the backyard again?

Together: No.

Virginia: It was a rager.

Johnny: It was wonderful. It was very similar to the party we just threw for our Soho store.

Virginia: But this one was more civilized.

Johnny: We rented glassware. No plastic cups.

Virginia: I was very impressed with the real glasses.

Johnny: It puts everybody in a different mindset. When you have a real glass, you're not going to go smoke a joint around the corner.

Virginia: You're on your best behavior. You're not going to pee in the hallway.

Is the stock different at your Soho store?

Johnny: We're bringing more collection-based things here. Some of our more expensive lines are here.

Virginia: It's a little more expensive, a little more forward. Johnny and I really get to bring our curatorial eye to this store and mix in our retail discoveries that we find as we travel with the brands that we represent and that we always go hard with.

Johnny: Our retail locations are always educational for us. Because we are representing different clothing lines and selling them to other stores, we can give real-world responses back to the stores that are buying stuff. Like, "People really like this." Or, "This type of dress does really well."

At first we only carried the lines that we represented, and then we started buying more and more outside of that. The initial concept was to highlight things that complement our designers.

Do you always agree when you're doing your buying?

Johnny: Oh yeah. No, it's insane! It's a total boxing match.

Virginia: Not with every single thing!

Johnny: No, not with every single thing. But there's an art to working with a partner and coming together on aesthetics. Our work is so invigorating and so exciting and we both come to the table with so many different ideas.

How do your styles differ when you're buying?

Johnny: I'm obsessed—to a fault—with people working from reference points. If someone is doing 1920's dress lengths really hard and really accurately, or if they're trying to bring back a 1993 look that I remember, sometimes I'm drawn to the learnedness of it more than the execution. I'm like, "they're doing this so fucking good!" I get can get a little too excited about that sort of thing. But I love it when someone puts a lot of thought behind what they're executing.

Whereas Virginia comes from a production background. I think she can be drawn more to execution.

Virginia: I'm less about references and more about execution and accessibility. Not that it needs to be mainstream whatsoever, but there should be an access point into the collection.

But we often come together on completely inaccessible over the top things. Those are the things that we agree on the most, the ones that we know will never sell.

Johnny: The crazier pieces, we're like, "Oh we need like five of these! Let's go big here!"

How would you describe the International Playground customer?

Johnny: Our customers are awesome. They don't take themselves too seriously, but they want to feel empowered by their clothes, they want to have fun with their clothes, and they want to project an attention to detail.

Virginia: I think our demographic is all over the place, but by and large they're excitable. You can get them excited about fashion.

Johnny: Some of our best customers are 15-year-olds who sit at home and study our Instagram and study our designers' Instagrams and are super obsessive in that sort of way. Or it's like an 81-year-old who comes in and picks up the same piece as the 15-year-old. It's a personality type, they don't have to be told that something is cool.

Which pieces are you really excited about this season?

Virginia: I'm excited about the A. Knackfuss collection. Spring-summer was our first time carrying it. We discovered it in Paris. Her prints are surreal takes on jungle illustrations, and she incorporates these incredible weaving techniques with futuristic fabrics and more traditional silks.

Johnny: It's a high price point and it's intense, but it's beautiful. People pick it up and they're excited. When I saw Virginia put on the vest that we have, you got that sense of how someone could be empowered by clothes. It brought you to another place.

From a wholesale point of view, it's been super exciting working on Anzevino Getty. I can't wait to get the fall collection in our store. It's all custom brocades, they worked with one of Chanel's fabric houses. It's a luxury sportswear line, but there are some affordable pieces in there too. One of the designers is August Getty, from the Getty family, so it has that Hollywood flash aesthetic but it's also super fun.

Soulland spans genres—there aren't a lot of New York menswear lines that can do that. It started off as a skate brand but it's grown up. It has that reach that we look for.

The Soho store is beautiful! How did you come up with the design?

Johnny: When we were first talking about the store, I watched the '30s movie The Women. I just love that fashion show scene where they call all the fancy ladies of town over to watch the presentation in the women's dressing salon. I love that whole experience.

So much of fashion in the past ten years has just been stripped down, farm to table, urban lumberjack—I think it's because we became over-saturated. Everybody has too much put in front of them, so I understand the need to return to basics. But that's not fashion to me. Fashion is decadence.

Our other store is more of a playground—it's in you face and graphic. Here we wanted to have more of a solid foundation for people to come and discover things. So you immediately trust what you're finding in the space.

Virginia: We're also in a neighborhood with people like Chanel. We had to up our ante.

What do you look for when you're hiring?

Johnny: We don't like to post ads. We either hire customers or referrals.

Virginia: In general we look for people who have a widespread skill set and passion. Because we run a business that is so multifaceted, every person here becomes a part of more that just a retail scene or a wholesale scene. So you really have to be passionate about fashion in a bigger way—more cultural references, as opposed to straight-ahead clothing.

Johnny: Customers have to feel comfortable to walk into a space and discover something. We don't want them to feel judged or like someone is pushing for a sale. We really are trying to educate people about these designers, so we look for employees who can provide that experience. Also, nice people. So much about fashion can feel exclusive, and we want everyone to feel invited to the party.

How would you describe the mood in fashion right now?

Johnny: I think people want to feel good again. They want to feel glamorous and take care of themselves a little more. It's nice to see men wearing structured suits and going out of the way to groom themselves. I think women are wearing more tailored clothing in more decadent fabrics.

Virginia: I totally agree with that. I think men's fashion in particular is very exciting. It's finally become acceptable to want to be fashionable. In general it's moving back towards a more put together look.

Johnny: I feel like deconstruction is gone, which is nice. We've taken things apart for so long that it's time to put them back together.

Time for the lightning round!

8am or 8pm?

Virgina: 8am

Johnny: 8pm

Beer or wine?

Both: Wine

Whiskey or tequila?

Virginia: Whiskey

Johnny: Tequila

Cats or dogs?

Both: Dogs

Beach or mountains?

Virginia: Beach

Johnny: Both

Favorite vacation destination?

Johnny: I go upstate every weekend, I don't know if that's a vacation.

Virginia: What's a vacation?

Favorite neighborhood lunch spot?

Both: Lucky Strike

Rap or country?

Both: Rap

Mad Men or Game of Thrones?

Both: Mad Men

Coffee or tea?

Both: Coffee

Sweet or savory?

Virginia: Sweet

Johnny: Savory

Introvert or extrovert?

Both: Extrovert
· International Playground [Official Site]
· All Better Know a Store Owner Posts [Racked NY]
· International Playground Is Expanding to Soho, Naturally [Racked NY]

International Playground

463 Broome Street