On election night, Wildfang — the Instagram famous brand behind the “Wild Feminist” t-shirts — crammed 600 people and a gospel choir into their offices to celebrate what the founders hoped would be the election of the first female President of the United States.
As the election results rolled in, Emma McIlroy, CEO and cofounder, wondered if the feminist empire she’d set out to build was finished. “I thought the target market was there but maybe it’s not,” McIlroy said of her thoughts in 2016. “Maybe Wildfang doesn’t have a place in this world.” So, for the rest of the week, Wildfang went dark. No newsletter. No social media posts. No promo whatsoever.
Then McIlroy got the answer as to whether Wildfang had a future in Trump’s America: In the three days following the election, Wildfang’s sales skyrocketed. “If that doesn’t tell you that the consumer was sending us one hell of a clear message, then I don’t know what will,” says McIlroy. “Every product that was going out the door was a Wild Feminist product — that told me we had a place in the world, that we needed to belong. Our consumer was saying, ‘Please, don’t go anywhere because more than ever, you are needed.’”
Into the wild
McIlroy started her career in banking (“Hated it.”) before transitioning to sports marketing on a sponsorship team for the Premier League (That’s “proper football—not American football.”). Then she got the call to join Nike. “I’m a brand marketing nerd and I’m obsessed with sports. When you put the two together, I couldn’t imagine a better brand to work for,” she says. “Working at Nike taught me a lot about really connecting to people’s passion and doing something that matters.”
Wildfang came about almost by accident. While shopping with her cofounder Julia Parsley, also a Nike exec at the time, the self-described tomboy, found herself jealous of the options offered in the men’s section. “It was just this moment of realization for us both. Like, ‘It’s 2010 and our gender means that there’s certain clothing we can’t buy… that’s really weird,’” she says. “Women are held back from purchasing certain silhouettes and from displaying more provocative or bold statements because it’s not feminine.”
The realization made them angry and eventually lit the fire that would launch Wildfang in 2013. “We created this brand for women who felt held back, who wanted a community to belong to, who felt like they wanted more options to express themselves,” McIlroy says.
Turning t-shirts into a feminist empire
Five years later, Wildfang isn’t just a spot for Insta-famous graphic tees and gender-blurring suiting—it’s the model of feminist regalia. “We wanted to create a brand that made women feel braver, and bolder and didn’t put them in a box. The uniform that we give them is one piece of that,” McIlroy says. “When a girl puts on one of our suits, you see it—there’s a light bulb moment where she’s like, ‘I am ready to take on stuff. I feel confident. I feel bold.’”
McIlroy, who was born in Northern Ireland and became an American citizen last year, isn’t shy about bringing the political conversation into personal style. “I never intended Wildfang to be political—but then I also never intended it to be political to be a woman,” she says. “As an entrepreneur and as a leader of the organization, I’m not going to talk about selling you jeans when DACA’s going to be revoked—there are just bigger conversations to have with our girls. Our customer doesn’t care about a pair of 501’s when she might lose her ability to access healthcare.”
For that reason, Wildfang’s activism is just as important a part of the brand as its latest capsule collections. Last year, McIlroy says Wildfang contributed over $75,000 to causes supporting marginalized communities—impressive given the startup isn’t yet profitable. “I know that by giving money to the right organizations, we genuinely improve the life of our consumer and our community and that is why we exist,” she says. This year, Wildfang’s goal is to double that amount, giving back to causes including the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Southern Poverty Law Center, the Tegan and Sara Foundation, Q Center, Girls Inc. and The Malala Fund.
In her opinion, prioritizing giving back should be mandatory. She warns me what she’s about to say will be provocative for some brands. “If you’re not giving back and making your current point of view clear in the current political climate, I don’t want to hear from you,” she says. “If you’re not speaking up on some of these issues and making it damn clear where your brand falls, then I just don’t want to work with you. I don’t want you in my ecosystem.”
Fortunately, that ecosystem is already a vast one — and growing as more consumers are gravitating towards brands with a mission they can get behind. “There’s so many other brands and people in our space, and we’re so delighted that they’re all fighting the fight with us,” McIlroy says. “We’re only one small part of a much bigger movement.”
As with anything political, there’s bound to be some backlash to McIlroy’s wild feminism. “I can tell you there’s a lot of people that deeply do not agree with what Wildfang is doing and I get those emails, I get those phone calls, I get those people in our store,” she says. “The only thing that keeps you going through that criticism—outside of having a nice thick skin—is that you really believe in what you’re doing.”
Creating lasting change
Part of what’s behind McIlroy’s aggressive drive to give back is the sense that just as quickly as a t-shirt can go viral, a startup can disappear. She hopes to capitalize on the full power of Wildfang’s present influence in the feminist movement in order to make a lasting mark.
People wear the Wild Feminist tee for two reasons, McIlroy says: To feel like part of a community and to get a bit of inner strength. “Women put it on and they feel a little stronger, a little more emboldened to go out there and make a difference,” she says. “That’s what keeps us going: to give her a place where she feels safe, she feels loved, she feels accepted for who she is and she feels emboldened to go and take on the world and make her mark on it.”
Here’s McIlroy’s advice on how to build your own feminist empire:
(1) Hold onto a little naivety. “Most entrepreneurs have certain things in common,” McIlroy says. “An ego and a strong degree of self-confidence are definitely two of them and I was certainly guilty of both,” she laughs. For first time entrepreneurs, that confidence, even if a little naive, can help remove a lot of the fear of starting your own business. “It’s a beautiful thing,” McIlroy says. “When I get asked for advice by first-time entrepreneurs, there’s only so much I actually want to tell them because there’s a certain amount of that naivety that creates the fearlessness that’s critical to success.”
(2) Stay true to your mission. “Find what makes you tick, what you’re deeply passionate about. Find what you care about more than anything else in the world. That thing that you rant about to your best friend. That thing that you can’t help but tweet about,” McIlroy says. “When you’re an entrepreneur there are so many highs and lows—you need something to keep you going through the lows, something that really fuels you and really motivates you.”
(3) Be real. To build something authentic and lasting, you have to be real says McIlroy. “It would be so much easier for me to stand up and not be vulnerable—but it’s BS and it doesn’t help the people coming behind you.”
(4) Surround yourself with “yeah, maybe” people. Have people on your team willing to explore the possibilities instead of saying no to those crazy ideas in service of your passion. Saying “yeah, maybe,” was the first step in creating Wildfang. “Find the thing that really gets you excited, that you really believe in, that you really are motivated by and set your mission firmly against that,” McIlroy says. “Then find a whole bunch of people who are just as crazy and share the same values.” To hear her speak about the power of these two words on her career, watch her TED Talk.