Wildfang CEO Emma McIlroy Is Queering Fashion and Changing Lives

"It's not about making money, it's about something much bigger than that," says McIlroy, who co-founded Wildfang in 2013.

Wildfang co-founder and CEO Emma McIlroy sits down on the windowsill of her company’s first New York storefront. It’s a small spot on Soho’s trendy Lafayette Street, and McIlroy, dressed in a tomboy-chic graphic tee and wide-leg checkered culottes, looks just as hip as her surroundings.

“I was really frustrated with women’s brands,” she says, recounting Wildfang’s humble beginnings in Portland, Ore., five years ago. “It was all kind of shit. Nobody seemed to care about the consumer beyond selling them stuff. There was no store, online or offline, that I would walk into and feel like, ’Yes, I love that.'”

Determined to create the retail experience she’d always wanted, McIlroy, along with her co-founders Julia Parsley and Taralyn Thuot, launched Wildfang in 2013. The retailer has become a go-to label for queer women, tomboys, and everybody in between, offering masculine-of-center t-shirts, pants, and suiting with bold slogans and colorful patterns. Some of its high-profile fans include Evan Rachel Wood and Janelle Monáe.

But Wildfang is about so much more than clothes: McIlroy and her team have cultivated a super-political identity, promoting the fight for women’s rights, racial justice, and queer inclusion day after day.

Emma McIlroy

Those early days of running an online shop were a labor of love, McIlroy recalls, especially since she had no background in e-commerce to begin with. “We had no idea what we were doing at the start,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve definitely made every mistake in the books.”

At the beginning, Wildfang sold menswear-inspired clothing from other brands, something McIllroy wasn’t satisfied with. None of the brands Wildfang carried would make clothing above a women’s size 12, and for a brand that promotes inclusivity and body positivity, ignoring plus-size customers wasn’t an option. Today, Wildfang designs, produces, and sells its own in-house clothing line, which runs up to a women’s size 20.

“I kind of think of our brand as queering fashion,” McIlroy says. “There are so many weird rules that exist in fashion that are so gender-specific. So we just want to fuck with those rules.”

Wildfang

But Wildfang’s push for progress doesn’t end with clothing. Empowerment for women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks is a huge part of the brand’s overarching mission, especially for McIlroy, who identifies as queer and is an immigrant from Northern Ireland. She makes a conscious effort to employ people from marginalized groups, though the brand does have “maybe two straight white guys” on its staff. (“They identify as feminists, though!” she clarifies with a laugh.)

McIlroy says she’s the only Portland-based queer woman CEO she knows. “This job is really hard,” she admits. “And everyone’s going to say ’no’ to you, even more so if you’re a woman, or queer, or black… For me, it’s really, really important to bring my queerness into everything I do because there’s just not enough of us.”

Beyond McIlroy’s personal advocacy, Wildfang regularly gives back to folks in need. The brand’s fundraising campaigns—yes, campaigns, plural—gained traction after the November 2016 presidential election, which saw President Donald Trump voted into office.

Thinking of our sisters in Ireland today #repealthe8th

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“We lived in a very different political climate five years ago [when Wildfang launched],” McIlroy says. “It’s really hard to talk to people about what a jacket looks like, or what denim they should buy, when their friend might be deported. Or when they might lose the right to get an abortion… When the election happened, we all just came together as a team and said, ’It’s not about making money, it’s about something much bigger than that.’ We have to make an impact on our community, and we have to give back.”

Last year, the brand—still small in both its reach and its profit margin—donated $75,000 to nonprofits big and small, including Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood, and the Tegan and Sara Foundation. In February 2018 alone, Wildfang raised some $100,000 to support the last remaining abortion clinic in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“Most of the campaigns you see [on our social media] are because someone on our staff feels very strongly about that issue,” McIlroy says. “We let them speak up. It’s their Wildfang—they know our brand.”

Wildfang also hosts free speech events at its brick-and-mortar locations, an initiative McIlroy stands behind in addition to monetary support: “[Giving back] is broader than money. You have to live and walk and breathe it every day.”

In terms of Pride gear, Wildfang is selling a limited-edition, rainbow-hued t-shirt ($40) from its popular Wild Feminist line. A portion of all proceeds from the tee benefit The Trevor Project. (McIlroy loves the t-shirt, naturally, but admits that the Sunnylife Rainbow Mini Piñata ($22) is her fave item in store right now.)

What’s next on Wildfang’s agenda? For one thing, the brand’s slated to open a fourth location this October in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake. McIlroy says she’s yet to talk about it but is excited to grow the brand and the team. In addition, McIlroy plans to continue expanding Wildfang’s size range next year, eventually carrying beyond a women’s size 20.

“Now, we sort of know what we’re doing,” she says, smiling. “So that’s different.”

New York-based writer, editor, and bisexual babe. Enjoys tattoos, iced Americanos, and dismantling the patriarchy.