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How Wildfang Turned Its Tomboy Brand Into a Movement

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In a new series, we sit down with some of the many women who are killing it in the fashion-tech industry and find out how they're kicking ass in their careers. This is Ladies Who Launch.

Wildfang's founders Julia Parsley and Emma McIlroy, from left, with creative director Taralyn Thuot, far right. Image via Nothing Major.

Online retailer has been live for five and a half months. In that short amount of time, they've amassed an enormous, dedicated and vocal following. The brand, whose name is German for "tomboy," offers an alternative version of the femininity that's typically peddled at malls or in women's magazines. On Facebook, they describe themselves as, "an online shop curating some of the raddest tomboy fashions—from wingtips to bow ties and button downs." Founders and Nike vets Emma McIlroy (aka Irish) and Julia Parsley (aka Fox) started the company when they realized they were both in search of menswear fashions tailored for their bodies. "This started from two girls at an Urban Outfitters wanting to wear the shit they couldn't fit in because it didn't fit them. It started with us; we're the consumer," said McIlroy.

The brand launched with a bang, assisted by a cadre of famous faces including L Word sex symbol Kate Moennig, professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe and fashion star and Lucky market editor Laurel Pantin. Just a few months after their e-shop debuted, McIlroy and Parsley opened a brick-and-morter store in Portland and rolled out their first in-house clothing line. Big accolades keep pouring in; just last week, musicians Tegan and Sara said they shop Wildfang regularly.

The brand isn't without its detractors, who grumble about Wildfang trading on genderqueer identity in order to sell clothing. But McIlroy says of Wildfang, "We're not a big guy trying to capitalize on a trend...Neither of us make a penny. In fact, we cashed out our 401ks to put into this. This isn't some money-rich scheme for us. This is our passion, this is a labor of love, we wanted to see someone create this brand and we wanted it done right so we did it ourselves."

McIlroy and Parsley. Image via Wildfang.

Racked spoke at length with McIlroy last week to try to unravel the secrets of Wildfang's meteoric, early success and how she and Parsley built such a passionate customer base.

Why the word tomboy?
"It was the best word that we could find that existed. If the word Wildfang had existed we would have used that. Because that what describes our consumers. Wildfang stands for something now. And that's what people are buying into. Tomboy, for us, is two things. It stands for a real fun-loving, cheeky, carefree positive, bold girl that I think many of us aspire to be when we're at our best. And the other part is it kind of sums up, loosely, that menswear-inspired vibe that we're going after. It was really a term that we felt brought in both the attitude and spirit of the brand but also the product and style."

An image from one of Wildfang's lookbooks. Photo via Wildfang.

How did the company get started?
"Myself and Julia [Parsley] are the co-founders and we met at Nike. I'm originally Irish—I worked for Nike London and then they moved me to global headquarters. Julia and I became good friends and realized that we had a very special partnership and chemistry. We found ourselves shopping one day in the men's department and I picked up—I still have the T-shirt—I picked up a T-shirt with a provocative picture of Kate Moss on the front. And Julia picked up a men's blazer with patches on the elbows. She saw me take a look at it and try to figure out if I could fit in it and she said, 'Why don't they make this shit for us?' I said, 'Yeah, that's a really good question, I don't know.' I used to do a lot of insight work for Nike and I'm kind of a consumer nerd—we both had great jobs, quite frankly, at Nike—and we were like, before we jump ship we should see if there are other girls who feel this way or if it's just really just you and me.

We went out and we did over a hundred and forty hours of consumer outreach. It was a really broad range of girls. We heard two clear messages. One was that no one had a favorite place to shop. And the other thing we heard was, yes, a really diverse group of girls wanted to wear their boyfriend's shirt or steal their grandfather's military jacket from the sixties. [We thought], there's a super-clear opportunity here. I could see that there was a consumer need to be met, and it was an emotional one."

A few of the faces of Wildfang. Photo by Lindsey Byrnes via PQ Monthly.

The identity that you have created and the audience that you've tapped into—watching it happen has been really compelling. How did you get all of these interesting women involved?
"Those girls believe in the concept. Kate Moennig, Megan Rapinoe, Hannah Blilie, all those girls signed up to work with us because they wanted to. It's an idea that's time had come. The first person that I met was Megan Rapino. I've worked pretty much every athlete that Nike [works with] and I have never met anyone so authentic or awesome as Megan. She is just a really great human. I'd never met her before, I didn't know any of her friends, but I had helped a girl get a job at Nike and she happened to be very good friends with Megan. I was telling her all about this idea and she was like, 'You know who would love this idea? Megan Rapino.' And I said, 'Really? Is she into that?' And she was like, 'That's totally her style and she happens to be my best friend! Let me make the introduction.' I didn't even know what I wanted Megan to do when we first sat down for dinner. I didn't have a website, I didn't have a logo, I had nothing. I walked her through what we wanted to do and she said, sign me up, I'm in.

The second person I met with was Hannah Blilie, same thing. She happened to live in Portland and a friend-of-a-friend said, 'Oh are you the person doing the Wildfang thing? You should talk to Hannah Blilie.' So I sat down with her [and asked her if she] wanted to be involved in some way. She said, 'Yes, that sounds awesome and exactly me. I always want to wear suits to awards shows and I want to wear great blazers and I hate wearing dresses and I never have a way to do that.' My marketing budget is tiny, I don't have money to drop on girls like that. So it's very organic."

A Tomboy tank on sale on Wildfang. Photo via Wildfang/Instagram.

What role does sexuality play in the brand, or does it play a role at all? Plenty of Wildfang's faces are major lady crushes.
"When you meet someone cool in the office and you think, man, I want to hang out with her and grab a coffee or when you're out a club and you bump into a girl that's giving off great vibes and you want to get a drink, do you give a shit what her sexuality is? Wildfang is super-inclusive. It's not a big deal to us. We work with people of all sexualities and we have a very diverse team of people behind the brand. It's just not a conversation starter for this generation anymore. It's really not. We are here to let people be themselves, and to be the best. That's Wildfang's mission statement. So if we deliver on that, I don't care about the other stuff.

All the people you're naming—and Sara Bareilles, Tegan and Sara and Riley Keough— when you meet those girls, they're really human. They don't do things because they're told too and they don't do things for money. They do things when they feel passionate about them. And that's the brand we're building."

Inside the Wildfang store. Image via Wildfang/Instagram.

Why open a brick-and-morter boutique?
"We had a fullfilment center where we fulfilled our product. People would come in and say, 'Hey, I don't want you to mail the product, can I just come by and pick it up and meet the team?' Online customers kept asking us when we'd open a store. Essentially, the store is the front of our office. Customers get an incredible experience and the chance to meet our team. It was also important to us because we wanted a home for the brand where people can come and feel what it's about. We call it Fort Wildfang. Some of the things we did, no retailer in their right mind would do. We installed swings and a carving wall. The only rule we have at Fort Wildfang is that before you leave, you have to carve the wall and make your mark. This is so Portland—on opening weekend, we had people leave to go get their carving tools and come back. We needed a changing room and for our consumers, the issues around men's clothing and fit—we wanted it to be really fun. So we built a giant treehouse/tent [structure]. It feels like a place you want to hang out."

· Wildfang [Official Site]
· How Of a Kind's Founders Bootstrapped Their Way to Success [Racked]
· Career Advice From Cuyana's Founders: 'The Easiest Way To Fail Is To Not Follow Your Vision' [Racked]