I was recently introduced to Emma McIlroy and immediately developed a business-crush. The CEO of cult fashion brand Wildfang, she invited me to their monthly Free Speech event, a wild feminist spin on The Moth. I loved everything about the event, from turning the physical store into a poetry stage, pep rally, and one of the most diverse and authentic crowds I’ve experienced.
Since then, I’ve become an online admirer of their smart, sexy social media and online store, and joined the club with my first purchase; super-shiny Shelley shoes that average ten compliments a day and a black patch with gold stitching reading Haters Gonna Hate. Yes.
Here, Emma takes a break from creating a more stylish and inclusive world to share her spin on entrepreneurship and building an authentic, of-the-moment brand.
What is Wildfang?
Wildfang is the home for badass women. We are on a mission to empower the bold and embolden the masses.
Your brand is bold yet keeps it real. How do you do that?
We are fueled by our consumer. Whatever matters to them, matters to us. Their style, their language, their opinions fuel ours.
You call your brand a “movement.” Sometimes you even get pushback. Tell us more…
We think of ourselves as more than just retail. You don’t see most retailers or boutiques do the things we do — take a point of view on women’s rights and politics, create tons of content, donate to tons of charities and community groups — so we don’t like to just think of ourselves as a retailer. Some people think of us as a movement, some people think of us as a brand. I personally think that we are just a small part of a movement – it’s clearly much bigger than us. We are psyched to be a part of something bigger and something that matters. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
What is the hardest part about what you do?
Being a CEO is lonely and hard as hell. You handle the truly difficult situations that no one else wants to handle. You also make the final decision – so you have huge accountability and responsibility. Add on top of that the fact that I’m an Irish, queer, woman and I’m under 40 and this is first time I’ve done this — so most CEOs don’t look like me. Yeah, sometimes it’s a lonely job. But it’s also the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done and I wake up every day feeling like we make a difference.
What was the inspiration for your monthly Free Speech event?
Our team loves storytelling — things like Moth and Mortified. However there isn’t a platform focused on women, in particular women of color and queer women. Across the board women are underrepresented and so are women’s issues. So we created a platform for those women. Free Speech is an incredibly powerful event. It’s my personal highlight every month.
What is the Million Women’s Voices project?
It was a platform that Ziba, Uncorked, and Wildfang created with a zero-dollar budget, to ensure that women’s voices, feelings and thoughts were being recorded as President Trump took office. It’s a way to express your thoughts and find community. I’ve found the content to be incredibly inspirational. Much like Free Speech, we wanted it to be a platform where anyone could access and take part, irrespective of their skin color, income level or sexuality. There are no qualifiers to recording your point of view. The stories on there are phenomenal.
What does diversity mean to you, and how do you manifest that through your business?
I think everyone is aware of the baggage of white feminism. For me diversity is about intersectionality and although we are a small, under-resourced company we strive to be diverse and inclusive and represent that intersectionality as much as possible. Diversity means ethnicity, income levels, ability levels, age, gender, sexuality, nationality — and we do our best to ensure those things are considered and represented throughout our company and platform.
You’re from Ireland but do a lot of activism on behalf of America. How did that come about?
I’m not sure I deserve the term “activist.” I probably aspire to that. Truthfully I’m just doing what I love and fighting for things I care deeply about.
I’m a woman and a feminist. It doesn’t really matter where I came from, those things hold true. Additionally this country took me in, gave me a job, allowed me to start a company and marry my wife — I’m so incredibly grateful for all those opportunities. That said, I will never forget my roots (or lose my accent!). Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 80s taught me a lot. I’m very proud of where I’m from and very proud of the opportunities America has afforded me.
What’s your advice to someone who wants to start a clothing brand?
Oh my god, what a question. I could write a book. The clothing industry is incredibly competitive. As a leader and founder I’d say – get a very thick skin, get ready to work harder than you thought was possible, learn how to sell because you’ll do it every single day, ensure you have a mission beyond making money, build a strong team you trust because you can’t do it alone, build a support network at home & with friends because you’ll need it. From an industry perspective I’d say – make sure you offer something truly different, make sure you understand margins of your business and make sure it can scale.
How do you define success in your work?
When a million people have a Wildfang tattoo – then we’ve probably done our jobs.
Join the movement at www.Wildfang.com and #wearewildfang.