Last October, New York’s Union Square played host to a pantsuit-wearing pro-Hillary flash mob. In one video of the event, which reached over a million viewers, front and center a dancer wore a T-shirt blasting these words in bold sans serif: Wild Feminist. Two weeks later, six Gresham teenagers made national headlines by donning the same shirt as part of a promise to stand up against Donald Trump’s vulgar “locker room” talk.
Behind both of these moments? A Portland clothing boutique called Wildfang.
“We’re one of the few brands who talk about politics, who talk about Planned Parenthood,” says the company’s 33-year-old CEO, Emma Mcilroy. “We’re strong supporters of LGBTQ rights. We speak out on racial injustice. We support Black Lives Matter. The old adage is true—you can’t keep everyone happy in those conversations. But that never scared us.”
Mcilroy, a Northern Ireland native, launched Wildfang in March 2013 with cofounder Julia Parsley. (Parsley has since left the company.) Their mission: to select and create masculine styles tailored for women’s bodies. After a year of consumer research, Wildfang was born, borrowing from a German word that means, roughly, “an animal brought in from the wild.”
“The ‘wild’ part is this wild, raw energy and the ‘fang’ part is this captured, safe energy,” Mcilroy explains. “Our brand was always meant to be this rebellious, tough brand and also have a soft, human heart.”
Wildfang’s loose, long jackets, boxy tanks, and button-ups almost immediately caught the eye of celebrities. Actor Evan Rachel Wood (recently of the HBO hit Westworld) was an early adopter, sporting Wildfang during her 2013 pregnancy. Kate Mara, Tegan and Sara, and Ellen Page followed suit. The online store became a SE Grand brick and mortar in August 2013, with a second location landing downtown in 2015. In March 2016, Wildfang launched the now iconic “Wild Feminist” T-shirt. Singer Janelle Monáe wore it on a Coachella stage in spring, right before the presidential election season turned especially acrid. Shirt sales spiked in sync with national headlines—particularly around Election Day and January’s women’s marches around the world.
“Wildfang speaks with a unique voice, and it’s enormously attractive,” says Bob Killian, a Chicago-based branding expert. “It’s refreshing because they’re not breaking rules, they’re making up their own rules, and being consistently fresh and inventive in doing it. That’s very powerful stuff.”
In the meantime, Mcilroy has become something of a minor celebrity in her own right. She says she’s been recognized on the street in Brooklyn, one of the company’s biggest markets, and is in the midst of planning an LA store. Her employee count has practically doubled annually to today’s 21.
As national brands take up social causes in their marketing—see Budweiser’s and Airbnb’s nods to open immigration in Super Bowl ads—Wildfang’s politics are already at the core of the company’s brand.
“When you’re serving a consumer, it’s very hard to just talk about shoes when she feels like she might lose her job, or lose the right to marry her partner, or lose the access to affordable health care, or lose the right to control her own body,” says Mcilroy, who donates 10 percent of profits from the Feminist Collection to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.
Where to go from here? Mcilroy says she wouldn’t mind seeing Wildfang’s Wild Feminist shirt on a few more high profile figures.
“We have yet to get it on Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton,” she says.
Here's a glimpse at Wildfang's latest lookbook: