by Sarah Seabright
I was fourteen years old when Wildfang first came across my radar. I vividly remember walking up to the store with my mother, wearing my usual light-wash jeans, a too-big graphic t-shirt, and an oversized sweatshirt.
I had always felt like an outcast in school, my nerdy and masculine attire putting me in stark contrast to the skirts and frills that most girls around me wore. As I walked into Wildfang, I was slightly confused. I didn’t understand how this was a women’s clothing store that didn’t have any skirts, dresses or generalized frill. Instead, there were overalls, t-shirts, button-downs, and slacks. I hesitantly walked farther into the store, gently flipping through the t-shirts, I bit my lip to stop a childish squeal of excitement from escaping me. I remember thinking, for the first time in my life, that I could feel comfortable wearing every piece of clothing a brand had to offer.
Emma McIlroy and Julia Parsley founded Wildfang in 2011. Their idea of a feminist clothing brand started with a simple shopping trip to Urban Outfitters in 2010 (“TedX”). McIlroy and Parsley had grown up as tomboys in a world of gender conformity. Through the years they had evolved into strong-willed, successful women who chased adventure and accepted their tomboy-selves (“Our Team”). But as they stood in the men’s section of Urban Outfitters looking at chunky blazers and ill-fitting t-shirts, they could only think, “Why don’t they make this stuff for women?” (Parks).
Despite tomboy clothing appearing throughout the past 100 years, the fashion industry still cultivates a culture of classically gendered clothing. The first hint of tomboy clothing came in the Roaring Twenties when the liberation of women’s sexuality inspired new styles of clothing like the boyish garçonne dress. In the 40’s, Audrey Hepburn paved the way for women wearing pants (“12 Pieces for an Audrey Hepburn–Inspired Wardrobe”). As time passed fashion became less about gender and more about the brand. In the 80’s, Ralph Lauren’s classic Polo shirt represented a key transition towards androgyny in fashion. While today’s societal norms around clothing are far looser than even twenty years before, the fashion industry continues to create a culture where women have to search for men’s clothing, versus men’s clothing being specifically designed for women. By 2011 there were still no stores or brands that took the final step of making tomboy clothing purposefully for women.
In McIlroy and Parsley’s frustration, the idea of Wildfang was born— a tomboy clothing brand that would let women like them find clothing that fit their personalities and their bodies. The two women officially founded Wildfang in 2011 but spent the majority of 2012 doing consumer research to find out if there was a market for tomboy clothing (O’Conner). McIlroy and Parsley found that there was an abundance of women just like them who were struggling to find clothes that fit their style and their bodies (O’Conner). In 2013 McIlroy and Parsley left their six-figure jobs at Nike and dove boldly into the unknown, even going as far as to cash in their 401Ks to help get Wildfang off the ground (O’Conner). The two women also convinced a Nike coworker, Taralyn Thuot, to quit her job at Nike and become Wildfang’s Creative Director (Rimm). McIlroy, Parsley, and Thuot worked tirelessly, finally debuting the company ‘Wildfang’, which means Tomboy in German, in 2013. Within thirty days of their website’s launch, 22,000 women had subscribed to the startup’s mailing list (“TedX”). What was once a mere pipe-dream of two frustrated tomboys is now a thriving company with over 25 employees, two brick-and-mortar locations (the original Wildfang in Southeast Portland and Fort Wildfang in downtown Portland), and a roaring online business. In addition to being successful in the Portland community, Wildfang is and is looking to open stores in New York City and Los Angeles.
Portland’s notable fashion industry was no doubt an asset to the creation of Wildfang. While other startups might have had issues finding fashion-focused investors and knowledgeable employees, Wildfang came to life in a hotspot for design and fashion innovation. Portland’s location quotient for the fashion industry is 1.36, the third highest on the West Coast and the sixth highest in the country (“The World’s Leading Cities for Fashion”). A location quotient is a measure of how much productivity a city supplies in a certain industry compared to the national average, which is 1. Portland’s prominent fashion industry can be traced back the large companies that are headquartered in the city. Nike, Adidas, Columbia Sportswear, and many other notable fashion brands are centered in Portland, flooding the city with thousands of employees and designers from all over the world (“SummerSkin, LLC”).
One Tuesday afternoon this February, I trudged up the slush-filled streets of downtown Portland into Fort Wildfang. The downtown store was named ‘Fort Wildfang’ as a nod to the store’s goal of being a safe place for socializing in the Portland feminist community, as well as a place to buy unique clothing (Roy). As I entered Fort Wildfang my eyes immediately flew to the t-shirt that was displayed in the center of the store. It was a plain, black, scoop neck t-shirt that was adorned by nothing but two pieces of white text in the center. ‘Wild Feminist’. The shirt was the perfect embodiment of Wildfang— simple yet strong and proudly unapologetic in its message of feminism.
I continued to stroll around the store, trying to get a feel for Fort Wildfang. The scent of fresh linens and melted snow instantly pervaded the air. From the crisp folds of the t-shirts to the clean-cut triangle display cases on the walls, the store bled a distinct and modern aesthetic. Minimalistic floating rods lined the walls of the store, holding various button-down shirts, pants, overalls and suits.
A woman in her mid-twenties flipped through t-shirts beside me, her hair buzzed into a one-inch fuzz that covered her skull in a light layer of brownish-blond. Her brown leather jacket matched with slick black Doc Martens and a industrial bar running through her ear gave her a classically tough look. As I inconspicuously side-eyed her, she lifted her head and gave me a welcoming smile. “These t-shirts are sick right?” she said, glancing at the “Freak Flag” t-shirt I was holding. “Yeah, they really are” I replied with a smile, heartened by the woman’s kindness. As I continued to roam the store, brushing my fingers against the soft fabric of the hanging clothes, I reached the far left wall of the shop. As I took in the store around me, the sheer amount of decisions that went into creating the brand started to sink in. Everything, from the t-shirt designs to the clothing racks, was meticulously planned and chosen by the Wildfang team. All of the time, drive, and passion it took to start Wildfang centered around the company’s co-founder and CEO, Emma McIlroy.
I first saw Emma McIlroy through my laptop screen while I watched her TED Talk, “The Two Words that Stand Between You and Your Next Big Idea” (“Ted X”). She walked out on stage comfortably, without any specialized swagger or ego. When I think of an entrepreneur CEO who founded their own business I think of someone who is intense and powerful, constantly exuding a harsh control over every situation. Emma McIlroy was the exact opposite of this, her presence setting me at ease even through a screen. During the talk, she wasn’t loud or overly animated like other public speakers, instead she commanded attention with her down-to-earth demeanor (“TedX”). Her dark hair was pulled back into a high ponytail and a pair of black frames rested on her nose. She was wearing a long sleeve button-down and slacks, each consisting of a black base with thin stripes of white plaid criss-crossing through the outfit. Over her button-down she layered a ‘Wild Feminist’ t-shirt, the crisp black letters standing out starkly against the bright white of the fabric (“TedX”). Overall the outfit was a quirky mix of formal and casual, a unique take on style that McIlroy pulled off with ease.
Two weeks after visiting Fort Wildfang I got the chance to talk with McIlroy over the phone. Despite previously having heard her speak in videos, McIlroy’s voice surprised me she first came on the phone. McIlroy spoke in the sharp yet sing-songey patterns indicative of a classic Northern Irish accent, her words flowing into each other as she talked. McIlroy’s brain worked a mile a minute and her words came out just as fast, her intelligence and quick wit shining brightly throughout our conversation.
The heart of Wildfang is their consumer. During our conversation McIlroy informed me that when she started the brand she was simply a woman who wanted to find clothes that she felt strong and comfortable in. Her goal for Wildfang is to help other women find the same confidence. Wildfang’s clothing is meant to be available to anyone who buys clothes, but their target consumer is specifically badass women. “If our target consumer was one person”, McIlroy clarified over the phone, “she would be a liberal mid-twenties woman who lives in a major city and wants to make her mark on the world”. During our conversation, McIlroy made it clear that everything Wildfang creates, from a t-shirt design to a suit pattern, is based on the idea of providing women with the clothing they need to feel like their true selves, as well as reflecting the beliefs and values that these women share. “We go out of our way to know our customer back and front,” McIlroy states passionately. “We know who our girl is, what issues she cares about, what things annoy her, what things excite her, the TV programs she watches, which celebrities she cares about, and the way that she wants to dress” (McIlroy). McIlroy then went on to describe that through a mix of communication platforms, including social media, emails, phone-calls, stores visits, PR articles and focus groups, Wildfang follows the ins-and-outs of their customers’ lives. With this in-depth information, the designers for Wildfang tell their customers’ stories through their products and media outlets. McIlroy illustrated that Wildfang’s process is a two-way conversation with the consumer, consisting of putting out products and listening to what comes back. In McIlroy’s narration of the Wildfang process, it became clear that Wildfang’s consumer isn’t just a buyer or a business target, but a muse that passionately inspires the company to thrive.
While feminism may be a well known subject in today’s social climate, in 2015 when Wildfang introduced ‘Wild Feminist’ to their clothing, it was an unusual and bold move. “What people don’t realize is that we put the Wild Feminist shirt out three years ago,” McIlroy states, “and we’ve been standing behind feminism for a while, before it was popular. At the time when we released the shirt, it wasn’t the most popular idea”. McIlroy described that at the same time Wildfang released the Wild Feminist shirt, they also conducted a survey with a diverse group of two hundred people and asked them “Are you a feminist?” and “Why or why not?” (McIlroy). The biggest finding from the survey was that people were misinformed about feminism. McIlroy recalls that subjects reasoned they couldn’t be a feminist because they liked watching men’s sports, had never been to a women’s march, or because they were a man. Through this survey, Wildfang saw people who believed in gender equality and women’s rights shying away from the feminist title because they didn’t know what it truly meant. In response to this miseducation, Wildfang decided to become even more vocal in their fight for gender equality.
Wildfang is a member of the Feminist Movement that has existed for hundreds of years and has had an impact on women worldwide. The term feminism came to be in the late 1800s in Europe, but the concept of gender equality had started long before that (Burkett). In the late 19th century going into the 20th, the First Wave Feminist Movement struck the United States, a movement centered around women fighting for their right to vote (“19th Amendment”). In 1920, the nineteenth amendment was passed, giving women voting rights in the United States (“Modern History Sourcebook”). The Second Wave Feminist Movement occurred throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as women protested political, social and legislative change primarily in labor rights and reproductive rights (Burkett). While gender equality has improved greatly since the mid-twentieth century, women still face oppression and inequality on a daily basis. Wildfang sees the fight for gender equality as an issue that still needs to be fought for.
“It’s not enough to just be a feminist,” McIlroy states. “You have to be a Wild Feminist. You have to be wildly radical about gender equality because otherwise you’re a misogynist or a sexist. If it’s not already apparent in 2018 why gender equality matters, we should be wildly vocal about it. ‘Wild Feminist’ was the classic Wildfang way of pushing the envelope just a little bit further than people are comfortable with. That is where we find the magic of our brand, when people are just a little bit uncomfortable. And then we would say, ‘Fuck it. Let’s make it more uncomfortable.’ For us, it was our brand making a statement about how passionate we were about gender equality and if you wanted to be in our tribe, you should also be that passionate about gender equality.”
Hearing McIlroy’s take on feminism made me recognize one of the reasons for Wildfang’s success. While other brands steer away from controversial stances for fear of being criticized, Wildfang runs full force towards controversy and takes a position on political issues. The authenticity in their feminist message inspires those around them, staff and customer alike, to work harder in their fight towards gender equality. Wildfang is teaching women how to be more confident in their bodies and beliefs, building a tight-knit tribe of women that are able to express their views vocally through their appearances.
As I strolled around Fort Wildfang, flipping from one item to the next, the words ‘misfit’, ‘queer’, and ‘feminist’ stuck in my head. Wildfang marks their clothing with words that allow their customers to claim a label for themselves. When I saw Page Roy, the only label I could think of was ‘badass’.
Page Roy has been working for Wildfang for three years and is currently Fort Wildfang’s staff trainer and helps with Wildfang’s social media presence. Simply stacking t-shirts, Page Roy oozed authority and embodied a casual ‘badass’ that peaked my interest. She wore a simple light wash jean and a white v-neck t-shirt. Her hair was pulled back into many long braids that ran down her back and her nose was pierced with a small turquoise stud. As she saw me, she offered a wide smile that showed off a gap between her two front teeth. “Let’s sit at the bar”, Roy said, motioning to the small bar counter that inconspicuously hugged the far left wall of the store. Stocked with local wine and beer, the counter blended into the social aesthetic that Wildfang strives for. “We call our store ‘The Fort’ because it is really a place where everyone can come and play and hangout and obviously shop too,” Roy explained, “but it’s more importantly just to be able to come hang with us”.
In addition to being a place to find a killer blazer or a witty tee, Wildfang’s stores provide an open space for women to meet other women who share the same feminist and liberal beliefs as themselves. In addition to Wildfang’s stores being a day-to-day social spot, the company also goes out of its way to host events that bring women together. Every month Wildfang hosts an event called ‘Free Speech’, where six women are invited to tell stories about their personal experiences. As a part of their commitment to diversity, Wildfang ensures that each month 50% of the speakers are people of color, and 50% of the speakers identify within the LGBTQ community (“Wildfang Free Speech”). All of the stories are different, ranging from comedic retellings of sex to recollections of rape in the Marine Corp (“Wildfang Free Speech.”). The one thing that ties the stories together is the intense intimacy and authenticity each woman shows in her story. At this event, Wildfang creates a space that helps women understand each others’ experiences to create a line of trust and connection within the Portland feminist community.
While Wildfang hosts events like Free Speech to build community within the Portland area, the brand also takes action in the form of charity. Wildfang is committed to raising money for various organizations such as ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Tegan & Sara Foundation, I Am That Girl, Q Center, Girls Inc, and others. All of the charities that Wildfang supports share the company’s goal in working towards a safer and more positive society. In 2017 Wildfang raised over 75,000 dollars for these charities (“Charity”).
In our conversation, McIlroy pridefully informed me that Wildfang ended up raising 100,000 dollars for the clinic. “This money firstly allowed Planned Parenthood to give abortions to eighteen women who couldn’t afford it,” McIlroy stated passionately, “secondly paid for medical staff to fly into the clinic for six months, and thirdly paid for 24/7 security for the clinic for three months”. This campaign was one of the many ways that Wildfang’s passion for gender equality makes a positive impact throughout America.
Since the founding of Wildfang in 2011, there has been a spike in the number of androgynous clothing brands in the apparel industry. Companies like TomboyX, Androgyny, HauteButch, Saint Harridan and Sharpe Suiting all produce similar apparel to Wildfang, yet Wildfang’s dedication to social change sets them one step ahead of their competitors. After scrounging through a plethora of business and company websites, it appears that not only is Wildfang the oldest tomboy clothing company, but also the most successful. No other purely androgynous clothing company has a higher estimated revenue, more funding, or more employees than Wildfang (“Wildfang”).
While their bold patterns and witty t-shirts are enticing, the true reason Wildfang succeeds is their authentic dedication to both their customers and social activism. Every decision made at Wildfang is made with the sole goal of creating social change. Wildfang isn’t an enterprise but a group of allies, paving a new road for women to navigate style. They are a collection of bandits, snatching men’s clothing styles in broad daylight. They are authors, rewriting societal norms one piece of clothing at a time. They are a virus, spreading through the fashion industry and infecting the style and minds of everyone they touch. They are sisters, bonded not by blood but by boldness and the bravery to change the world for the sole reason that it needs changing.
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