Emma Mcilroy: The “Wild Feminist” Who Sparked A Movement With Two Words – “Yeah, Maybe”

Emma Mcilroy: The “Wild Feminist” Who Sparked

A Movement With Two Words – “Yeah, Maybe”

Photo Courtesy of Wildfang

When Emma McIlroy was seven-years-old, she loved fossil hunting behind the home where she grew up in Ireland. One day, she found a small, greyish rock and told her mum that she was sure she had found a mammoth’s foot in the woods. Instead of saying, “Yeah, right,” her mum said, “Yeah, maybe” and took McIlroy and that “fossil” to the Natural History Museum. Turns out, that little rock was not a mammoth’s foot. It was, however, a 200-million-year-old Ichthyosaurus skull, a prehistoric dolphin from the early Jurassic period and, in fact, it was the best example of such ever found in Ireland.

Her mom could have said, “Yeah, right,” and McIlroy may have tossed that fossil or added it to her rock collection. Instead, her mom, said, “Yeah, maybe.”

Fast forward to 2007, when McIlroy has finished her studies at Cambridge and is living in the US, working at Nike as an Associate brand manager. She soon works her way up to being a product marketing manager.

Then, in the summer of 2010, McIlroy and her friend Julia Parsley, also a Nike exec and also a self-proclaimed tomboy, were looking at clothes at Urban Outfitters. Nary an item of gender-fluid clothing did they find. When McIlroy suggested to Parsley that they start a clothing company to fill that gap, a clothing company that allows women to wear “whatever the hell they want,” Parsely could have said, “Yeah, right.”

Instead, Parsely said, “Yeah, maybe” and Wildfang was born. Even if their name doesn’t sound familiar, one of their most prominent designs likely will, a simple black crew neck sweater with the words Wild Feminist emblazoned on it.

Wildfang calls itself “the company that seeks to build a home for badass women everywhere, while delivering menswear-inspired styling and irreverent content.” Its queer founder is killing it at not only at doing that but also at inspiring women to start imagining life where, “Yeah, maybe” is queen. And Wildfang Is not just for tomboys, but rather for women who are tired of other people “shoulding” all over them, “And isn’t that kind of EVERY woman?” McIlroy asks.

After leaving Nike in 2012 and launching online that same year, they opened their flagship brick-and-mortar store in Portland, Oregon. A New York store is slated for May and a Los Angeles spot is planned for the end of 2018. “We had 3 leases fall through in LA. So, we pivoted and are opening a store in NYC in May. It’s going to be incredible. And honestly, we’ve learnt that when something falls through it’s usually an opportunity to reassess and deliver something even better. Our Creative Director always says: when someone shuts a door, Wildfang opens a window.”

But online and in store sales are only part of their mission. Making change in the world in the other. In 2017 alone, Wildfang helped to give $75,000 to a variety of charitable organizations including, ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Joyful Heart, New Avenues for Youth, Tegan & Sara Foundation, I Am That Girl, Q Center, Girls Inc, and many others.

And just today, Wildfang announced that it is lending a hand to the last abortion clinic in South Dakota, Sioux Falls Planned Parenthood, creating a campaign that will allow the clinic to stay open. The campaign, We’re Not Going Back, also offers donors the chance to fund an abortion for a woman who is unable to pay for it herself by donating $1000, which will go directly to Sioux Falls Planned Parenthood.

Billboards also were erected today New York, Los Angeles, South Dakota, and Portland that read, “WE’RE NOT GOING BACK.” Why the twenty-second of January? Because it marks the 45th anniversary of Roe v Wade and still we fight for the rights won in that case. Wildfang is not messing around and it is challenging people everywhere to stand up with them.

Naturally, the path to success was not without its obstacles. Even her “Yeah, maybe” mum wasn’t too crazy about the idea. “She was not a fan. She thought I was totally mad to leave a good job at Nike with security and benefits. She’s come around though — she is for sure a Wildfang now.” And there were more than 70 no’s from investors before there was a yes. What finally led to landing the money they needed you ask? Well, McIlroy says, “I definitely changed my approach to raising money and the people I’d been approaching. Usually when you hit a wall like that it means you need to change your approach. If I hadn’t had a ‘yeah, maybe’ attitude I wouldn’t have got through that period. It was pretty rough.”

McIlroy has done a TEDx Talk on how putting “Yeah, maybe” ahead of “Yeah, right” can be the difference between the birth of a dream rather than a death. For McIlroy, it certainly did. Because of “Yeah, maybe” she became not just a fossil hunter, but a fossil finder. She became not just a clothing line co-founder, but the hub of a community, the creator of a force, the incubator for an attitude, all of which existed, but all of which were scattered and without any way to coalesce. Wildfang was born and this community, this force, this attitude found its home. And you can be sure that it’s not going anywhere. In fact, growth is afoot.

“We want to keep building our tribe, our community. We’d like to see stores in New York, LA, Seattle, Chicago, Austin, San Fran — anywhere women need a community and a platform. We are also working really hard on our product right now to improve the fit and the quality, but also expand the sizing range so more women can access it. Our new suiting will go up to size 20 and we’re psyched about how awesome it looks. The long-term goal is to be her favorite brand and make a huge impact on our community.”

That growth seems like a sure thing between who wears Wildfang and McIlroy’s worldview, including just how vital being inclusive is. “It’s a real mix. We always say: fashions change with the season but badass never goes out of style. We have customers who are 2 years old and customers who are 80 years old. And about 20% of people who buy our Wild Feminist range are men. We’ve always prided ourselves on being inclusive and not some bitchy, exclusive fashion brand. Let’s face it — there’s so much work to be done in terms of gender equality, we’ll take all the help we can get.”

Ultimately though, McIlroy says that its honesty, authenticity, and heart that draws women to Wildfang. “Those are at the core of who we are and I think they feel that,” she explains.

If you think you’re not a “Yeah, maybe” person, you’re in good company. You might be surprised to hear that even McIlroy says she’s not always “Yeah, maybe” person. “That’s kind of the point — everyone struggles with it every day, every hour, every time someone asks you a question or throws out an idea. It’s so easy to become a ‘Yeah, right’ person when you’re tired or stressed. One big thing for me is to be aware of my energy levels and my stress levels. If I need more sleep I take it, I prioritize working out. I try to make my own health the top priority because, when I let it slip, I become a ‘Yeah, right’ person and when I am a ‘Yeah, right’ person it’s not inspiring for my team.

One major roadblock to being a “Yeah, maybe” person is that functional fixedness gets in our way, a concept McIlroy talks about in her TEDx Talk. It’s a process by which our brains will not allow us to see an object as being useful for anything other than its indeed purpose. For example, as an adult sees a blanket as a means to keep warm. A child might see a blanket as a cape, a body of water, a shelter, or even the wind. Functional fixedness is a block to creativity. It makes us believe that things can only work the way they have been working. The challenge is, how to work around a brain function that tells us, “You can’t do that” or “That won’t work.”

McIlroy says, she’s not sure you can avoid functional fixedness “because it’s a product of how we are conditioned and socialized from a very early age.” But you can work around it. “I think the key is self-awareness and recognition of when you’re in that pattern. It’s about having the mental strength to recognize what a ‘Yeah, maybe’ moment is and recognizing your power in that moment to behave differently.”

Surrounding yourself with, “Yeah, maybe” people is a vital part of being a “Yeah, maybe” person yourself. How do you do that? McIlroy explains, “First off, you don’t accept anything less. You cut out or distance yourself from the people who don’t think that way. Secondly, you have to put yourself in places to find people who think similarly – perhaps that’s a club or an event. Lastly, when you do find them, you make them clear how important they are to you and how grateful you are for them.”

Because the “Yeah, maybe” message is as important as the Wildfang label, McIlroy already has a side project in the works, working with a professor at Portland State University. “She interviews me every month about Wildfang and captures a very real, raw, and painfully honest view of what it’s like to start a company. Our hope is to hopefully make it a book someday. The goal is to reflect a much truer picture of what it’s like to be a start-up CEO, versus what you see in the movies.”

McIlroy also wants people to know that Wildfang is “a small team of people working our asses off to create a safe and empowering space for all women. We’re led by a queer, immigrant woman. We aren’t yet profitable, but we still gave $75k to charity last year. We literally get up every day with a singular mission to make the world better for women.”

And there’s still a lot to do in that pursuit, especially with incidents like when Forever 21 plagiarized McIlroy’s work, offering a Wild Feminist t-shirt on their site. It has since been taken down. But we all know it will happen again, if not to Wildfang, to another woman-owned business.

When it happens, McIlroy has a request, a simple one. “If you want to support small business, women-owned businesses, female artists — put your money where your mouth is and don’t shop there. It’s simple. Forever 21 will continue to plagiarize and steal people’s designs, until consumers stop shopping there. Consumers actually have a huge power in this situation to make their views heard by spending their dollars elsewhere.”

McIlroy has some advice for entrepreneurs. “If you’re doing something special, something others haven’t done – get a thick skin. Anytime you do something different — dress differently, play different music, think differently, you’ll face challenges. When you push the boundaries, you should expect resistance and that’s okay. It means you’re doing something right. Just put on your thick skin and keep going.”

“Yeah, maybe” is poised to revolutionize the women’s movement, as “It’s a powerful tool when you really focus on it. It shifts how you think and how people feel around you. People want to work with you and for you. It’s a tool that can make the impossible, possible.”

Wildfang’s very existence is a testament to and a vehicle for the power of women, in fact. McIlroy explains, “Wildfang is first and foremost a home for badass women. A place that all female-identified individuals should feel comfortable and empowered. We want to change how women are seen and hopefully break some of the boxes they’ve been put in. Our work often focuses on women of color and the queer community, because those are the women who need a platform and a community most.”

That includes members of the queer community, which is why McIlroy sees being out and sharing one’s story as more important than we might realize. McIlroy says, she thinks “it’s critical for other young queer women to have someone to look up to. To know that they can be a CEO and they can start their own business. It’s pretty simple – you can’t be what you can’t see.”

Jenny Block

JENNY BLOCK is a frequent contributor to a number of publications from Huffington Post to Playboy, and is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Solo Sex, and O Wow: Discovering Your Ultimate Orgasm.

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