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Wildfang Wants Its Feminism to Be Bigger Than a T-Shirt

The Portland, Oregon-based brand practices “show, don’t tell” activism.

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Unbelievable as it may have been even five years ago, feminism is now cool enough to sell a T-shirt, and a number of clothing suppliers are tripping over themselves to cash in. Dior is selling a “WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS” shirt for $710 (a portion of the proceeds will go to Rihanna’s education foundation). At New York Fashion Week, designer Prabal Gurung sent his models down the runway in T-shirts reading “Nevertheless She Persisted” and “The Future Is Female” — the latter of which was originally printed by Otherwild, who borrowed the slogan from a 1975 photograph by Liza Cowan as part of her slideshow “What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear.” Gurung did not credit Otherwild or Liza Cowan. Feminism may be for everyone, but in some mouths, it rings a little hollow.

Wildfang, a Portland, Oregon-based purveyor of clothing for “tomboys,” has its own $40 “WILD FEMINIST” T-shirt (and sweatshirt, bomber jacket, mug, beanie, cap, patch, and baby onesie, with 10 percent of all proceeds going to Planned Parenthood and ACLU), but CEO Emma Mcilroy wants to be clear: The company was feminist before being feminist was trendy, and for Wildfang, it’s about much more than a catchphrase.

Mcilroy and her co-founder, Julia Parsley, were both employed at Nike when they first thought up the idea for Wildfang. The women recognized that there was a sizable androgynous hole in the women’s retail market, and they created Wildfang to fill it.

“First, it would be a place where women could have access to silhouettes we weren't traditionally allowed to access,” says Mcilroy. “Women could essentially steal styles from the boys, but those styles would work on their frame and make them feel confident and powerful and sexy. [That] wasn't happening in 2011, and has only very recently started to happen.”

Mcilroy and Parsley spent most of 2012 doing consumer research, and what they learned was that there was a large group of women who felt left out of the retail space. These women wanted a fun place to buy tomboyish clothing, yes, but they also wanted a store that stood for something bigger and spoke to them seriously about the issues they faced as women.

“We wanted to give women a store that had their back, that believed in them and would go to bat for them, a store that understood them,” Mcilroy says. Wildfang is, unquestionably and explicitly, a brand with a political point of view, but Mcilroy is wary when I ascribe that label (or any other) to her company.

Headed to Margaritaville ✌️ . Free shipping on these babies ends tomorrow. Don't sleep.

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While she acknowledges that Wildfang’s primary consumer base is made up of people on the margins and those who have historically been excluded from the retail world, Mcilroy rejects my categorization of the brand at large as queer. “I think it's really limiting to suggest that any brand needs to be queer or not queer,” she says. “Frankly, those are the kinds of labels that we've always stood in complete opposition of. I just don't think that's the future; I don't think people are really marketed to or considered as one thing or another.” So why, then, do they sell shirts that say “feminist” and “queer” and “misfit” on them?

“I think it's really important that the consumers claim the labels for themselves,” says Mcilroy. “I categorically want to be the home for that consumer.” Here she grapples with the challenge inherent in any brand whose target consumer isn’t exclusively straight, white, and male: How do you affirm your marginalized identity while reaching a broader audience? (See pop acts Tegan and Sara and MUNA, both fronted by queer women, who have each commented on their frustrations with the permanent “lesbian” or “queer” label attached to their bands.) For Mcilroy, the distinction between being a cool clothing store that queer women love and being a clothing store for queer women is an important one. It also means doing more than selling a T-shirt that says “FEMINIST” in capital letters on it.

When I ask what she thinks about the relatively new popular demand for feminist and “resistance” T-shirts, Mcilroy says that her company’s feminism predates the fad — and goes much deeper. “I think you're seeing a trend,” she says. “I think it's a lot of people in the market with no authenticity jumping on what they see as a commercial opportunity.” Understandably, Mcilroy wants to distance her store’s feminist products from those being sold by more traditional women’s retailers and luxury brands. For one thing, when Wildfang launched its own feminist-branded line a year ago, “it wasn't a particularly popular conversation to be having,” she says. For another, hers is a women-created and -owned company with an inherently feminist premise: There is no one way (to borrow a phrase) to “dress like a woman.”

W O R K I T. O W N I T. #bestfittingbuttonup (Ship free thru Friday.)

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“We walk the walk and talk the talk and there's a huge amount of heart behind what we do,” says Mcilroy. “We're not going to just put out those messages on March 8th [International Women’s Day]; we're going to put them out every day, forever, in the same way we've been doing it every day for the past four years.”

Wildfang’s brick-and-mortar store in Portland also hosts a monthly event called Free Speech, which Mcilroy describes as an internet-focused women’s storytelling event. There, they see an additional opportunity to put their politics into practice — company policy requires that half or more of the lineup must always be non-white, and half or more must always be queer. (Past speakers include patent attorney Jennifer Yruebas, an ex-Marine model named Michel Mesa, and author-comedian Jordan Hayles.)

Their deliberate diversity is also apparent on the company’s website and its Instagram, where the models (and the non-models shown wearing their products) are black, Asian, tattooed, and butch at least as often as they are femme and white. Most of the clothing available on the site is tailored to thinner bodies, but expanded sizing is one of the company’s top initiatives for the coming year. The new Wild Feminist line, released earlier this year, is available in sizes small through 2XL, and is modeled by a more diverse range of body types as well.

“Historically, we bought from other brands, so that handicapped us on the sizes we can offer and the silhouettes we can offer,” says Taralyn Thuot, Wildfang’s creative director. “We are trying to serve a diverse set of consumers, so we're really trying to push into more products we produce, so that we can have extended size runs and offer menswear-inspired button-ups that fits a woman's body.” Wildfang’s button-up — which they made because, as Mcilroy says, customer feedback told them their other button-ups were “crap” — is their first foray into self-produced clothing, and has quickly become one of their best-sellers.

This is the sort of symbiotic customer-business relationship Mcilroy envisions — a consumer with needs and values; a store that meets them. “Unless you've been living in a cave for the last six months, [you’ll know] the most important things in our consumers' lives are political,” says Mcilroy. For as long as that is true, they will make feminist T-shirts. But Wildfang’s feminism — and its queerness — aspires to go beyond sloganeering. It’s feminist, but not because of the T-shirt. As Mcilroy puts it, “We tell women that it's okay to stand outside of the box they've been put in by other people.”

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