By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
Last weekend, at its brick and mortar location on the 52nd block of Butler Street, Three Pigs Collective hosted a pop-up summer carnival. There were clothing racks to browse, and games, and vegan versions of county fair treats like corn dogs and fried Oreos. There were mimosas and cupcakes. And there were clowns. Lots of clowns.
Some of the clowns were in the form of large hand-painted wood cutouts. Shop founder Sadie Shoaf and shop manager Kelley Brennan were fully outfitted, face-paint and all. And as a special bonus, anyone who showed up dressed as a clown or other carnie-type character received a 50-percent discount in the store.
At least one shopper found the scene too creepy to handle.
“They were like, ‘I can’t…. I can’t look at you. I’m terrified of clowns,’” photographer Katie Krulock — Shoaf’s long-time collaborator — recalls with a laugh a few days later.
There’s a subversiveness in hosting an event centered on something that many people find viscerally frightening. These clowns were more kitsch than killer, but the Three Pigs folks understand that there’s a place in fashion for the bizarre. And aesthetically speaking, Three Pigs only knows one way to go, and that’s all the way.
Shoaf, now 25, started selling and learning about vintage clothing when she was 18, working for Highway Robbery Vintage in the South Side. Later, she, Krulock and poet Andy McIntyre set up an art space on Howley Street in Bloomfield. There, Shoaf occasionally sold clothing, and the three made art together under the Three Pigs banner – Shoaf painting, Krulock taking photos, McIntyre writing. “Three Pigs has always been a collaborative thing,” Shoaf says.
As they began to grow as online vintage sellers, Krulock (27) started shooting inventory, modeled by Shoaf and a handful of friends, in her third floor Braddock apartment. Over time, the sets and narratives have become more involved and Shoaf has started to explore video and performance art as a way of keeping things fresh.
But from the start, the photographic element felt like art it its own right, rather than just a means to sell inventory. Krulock’s photos are often lush and dreamy; other times they’re stunningly deadpan. She has an eye for beauty, but — like Shoaf — possesses an innate sense of camp. There is a series of Shoaf as Miss Piggy, in a rubber, factory-made mask, and another of her wearing a sinister-looking hand-made pig mask — apple in mouth — and a shimmery ball gown. And the ongoing fictional story of Wayne and Sheri, which you can follow on the Three Pigs blog, simultaneously explores love, jealousy, and hilarious wigs.
“We’re all friends so we feel comfortable enough experimenting together,” Shoaf says, noting that such scenarios are rare. “I’ve worked with younger people who are like, ‘Yeah, I just showed up at some guy’s house, he had beer there and we just took pictures,’” she says. “But we have a relationship with each other, we know that we have creative freedom [and] we’re going to support each other. Or if it’s too much, we have a conversation about it as its happening. I think it’s just that collaborative process and the relationships that we’ve built.”
Last October, Shoaf came across a Craigslist listing advertising a storefront for rent in Lawrenceville. There was no photo but, since the ceiling was collapsing in her South Side apartment, she went to take a look. “The landlord was like, ’This is your spot,” she recalls. “Katie was on a bike trip but I [called her] and was like, ‘Hey, I just got a store.’” They celebrated their grand opening at the end of November.
When I stopped by one weekday afternoon in early summer, Shoaf was behind the counter, as she often is, working on a hand-painted piece. Bright colors dominate her painted work: flames flair up leather vests and snakes wrap around boots and jeans and elbow-length gloves. There are appearances by scorpions, nude women, and – unsurprisingly — circus clowns.
“I just found this body suit that’s really high cut, so I did a tongue all the way down [the crotch],” she says later with a grin, sitting out on the store’s back patio, which they use for pop up sales and events like the summer carnival.
A similar piece – the “Krampus sued bra” – featured two strategically-placed demons sticking out long, ribbon-y tongues. “I’ve been having a lot of fun [with] more three- dimensional things coming off the clothes.” (Both items have since been sold).
“It’s so much more interesting than something that’s just hanging on the wall,” Shoaf says. “It’s a sculpture, and then I see all my friends wearing it, and it feels really cool.”
The racks of Three Pigs are filled with the sorts of things you’d hope to find in any decent second-hand clothing store: floral-print polyester mini dresses and broken-in band t-shirts; snakeskin shoes and oversized trench coats. Some of those items are sourced by Shoaf, the rest come from the dozen other vintage sellers who share the space. Krulock notes that having multiple sellers keeps it interesting for everyone. “You really don’t know what other people are going to bring in. It’s always wildly different.”
For her part, Shoaf focuses on pieces from the 1960s through the early 2000s – things that shoppers love, but that some vintage sellers do not consider “true vintage,” a.k.a. items from the ’60s and earlier. “I just want it to be accessible,” she says. “I feel like with vintage, people are like ‘I’ll never find something that fits me,’ or it seems like this thing. But there’s so much cool shit.”
Sometimes, she reworks items to make them more wearable (cutting the skirt off of an ’80s prom gown or a wedding dress and turning it into a top, for example). “That stuff normally sells out pretty quick too,” she says. “I think its [about] finding a way to style it to make it appealing to other people, so they’re like, ‘Oh, I could wear that!”
But Three Pigs isn’t just about providing people with cool outfits. “I want clothing to be respected as an art form,” Shoaf says.
Krulock considers her friend for a moment. “You’re not a dealer,” she says. “I think you’re functioning as an artist and clothing is a tool of yours.
“I think that with most [vintage] stuff, it starts and ends with clothing. With what you’re doing, it’s just a whole different world.”
The actual business part of running a business isn’t necessarily Shoaf’s favorite part, but there are benefits to having a storefront, especially because Three Pigs has use of the whole building: Shoaf and Krulock share the upstairs living spaces with painter and collaborator Dave Watt. Tattoo artist Matt Wallenstein works out of a small room on the top floor. Krulock runs her film processing business, Rat Lab, out of the building as well.
“I knew that I wanted Katie to have her darkroom here,” Shoaf says. And Rat Lab offers an incredibly specialized service for film photography enthusiasts: Krulock processes film – color and black and white — by hand.
“The thing that’s been cool with the lab,” Krulock says, “is how much of Pittsburgh I’m seeing that I didn’t know about, or just didn’t think about. It’s been so cool to have a place in this city for people to walk in and drop stuff off.”
“You’re making film really accessible,” Shoaf adds. “Katie has film for sale, and cameras, and I think it’s like, ‘Oh, loading a film camera, its point and shoot, I could do this.’”
It’s all an incredible amount of work, and Krulock jokes that both she and Shoaf are rapidly graying.
“But it’s been cool to come back from whatever freelance job that I have for the day and Sadie’s been up front all day, and has two custom orders to bang out,” Krulock says. “And I have some film orders to finish and we’re both spazzing, but we’re both there. And I find a lot of comfort there.”
Back when the store was only online, Shoaf says, they would get together every Thursday to work on things. “We were forced to all hang out,” she smiles. “But this is every day, and we all talk, and are there for each other, and that’s been a really rewarding thing.”
The night before the carnival, Krulock returned from two weeks overseas, exhausted, with a lot of work to catch up on. “That whole day I was in the lab processing, popping in and out to eat a corndog.” It was, she says, awesome. “When you come back from being gone for so long, you think ‘Oh, I need solace, I need time to reflect.’
“But I come back here and I’m like, I actually think I need to be around these people. It’s kind of refreshing.”