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How Two Former Nike Executives Built A Tomboy Fashion Brand

Emma McIlroy and Julia Parsley took lessons they learned at Nike and applied them to Wildfang, their menswear-inspired clothing brand.

In July of 2010, Emma McIlroy and Julia Parsley, two Nike executives, were at Urban Outfitters looking at clothes. The women are self-described tomboys–McIlroy says that “on a good day I look like I fell out of Keith Richards’ wardrobe”–and so were scouring the men’s department for finds.

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“I was looking at this graphic T-shirt which was too provocative for the women’s section–a semi-clad Kate Moss that was very bold,” says McIlroy, who hails from Belfast, Ireland. “And Julia, who has a much more sophisticated style, was looking at a little blazer. A men’s extra-small blazer. Naturally, neither piece fit us. And Julia said, ‘Why don’t we make this stuff for us? I guarantee there are women who come in here every day who want to rock these silhouettes. They want to look good in them, but they want them to fit their form. They still want to be women, they want to look like women, they want to feel sexy, but they want these silhouettes.'”

Emma McIlroy and Julia ParsleyPhoto: Megan Holmes

And so was born Wildfang, an upstart, Portland-based women’s clothing line with a grungy, rock ‘n roll vibe whose mission is keep women from ever having to shop in the men’s department. The company, which McIlroy and Parlsey eventually left Nike to create two years ago, might have become just another quirky, online boutique (there is one Wildfang store in Portland) with a good story, except that almost overnight it became popular with celebrities like Ellen Page, Kate Mara, and Evan Rachel Wood. These A-list endorsements helped the company raise $2.2 million at the end of 2013, and generate a million dollars in revenue last year. According to McIlroy, Wildfang will grow 250% this year over last and is expected to turn a profit in 2016.

Wildfang’s influencer marketing took shape rather serendipitously. Wood first discovered the brand when she was pregnant with her son and looking for maternity clothes–she says the “pickings were slim.” Then she stumbled on Wildfang’s website and found oversized concert T-shirts to cover her baby bump. “I just turned it into some kind of tomboy-mom chic, and it worked!” she says. Indeed, images of her wearing a black, Van Halen T-shirt and skinny jeans were picked up in celebrity magazines, offering the company early exposure. More recently, the actress shot a short film for Wildfang, called “Evan Rachel Would,” in which she treks around Portland in a “Tom Boy”-emblazoned T-shirt and bright blue beanie, eagerly accepting challenges that show off her Go Girl badass-ness, such as training as a mascot with Portland Trailblazer Robin Lopez; belting out karaoke with Beth Ditto, the Gossip front woman; and rolling joints with old ladies. Produced by the Portland-based advertising agency Sockeye, the film has become a viral sensation and yet another branding coup for Wildfang.

Wood calls Wildfang a “game changer.”

“The world is really split up into two sections, it’s like boy-girl,” she says. “In any store, you have your place. And I don’t, really. That’s not my place. I’m more in the middle. And we’re really bad about defining those gray areas and accommodating that. I was really appreciative of what (Wildfang) was doing and why they were doing it.”

Wildfang’s marketing may have organically fallen into place, but everything else about the company has been strategically planned. Having spent years at Nike–McIlroy worked in marketing, and Parsley worked at the Nike Foundation–both founders are trained in high standards, exhaustive consumer research, and the art of crafting a compelling story for a brand.

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“I guess what we took from Nike was like a mini degree of the best practices. One of the things that’s special about Nike is you learn how to be a storyteller,” says McIlroy, who worked on the campaigns for the FuelBand and “Write the Future.”

She adds: “It’s the most consumer-obsessed company I’ve ever worked with or interacted with. I think both of us really appreciated what it means to service a consumer and to focus on a consumer and to be entirely uncompromising when doing something for a consumer.”

Once Parsley was committed to the idea of starting Wildfang–initially, McIlroy was just going to help her get it started–the women needed to figure out who Wildfang’s consumer was. So throughout 2011, McIlroy spent weekends interviewing hundreds of women about their shopping habits and clothing desires. In one exercise, she had the women shut their eyes and visualize their dream shopping experience. “I’d say ‘shut your eyes and open the doors and you walk through those doors and you’re just at home. Which store is it? Which store is that?'” McIlroy recalls. “And there’d be silence. Absolute silence. They couldn’t answer it.


This revelation, along with the surprising number of women who confessed to constantly borrowing their boyfriend’s sweatshirts or grandfather’s old jackets, convinced her that there was room in the market for a company like Wildfang.

But the piece that really pushed her over–and convinced her that she should go the start-up route with Parsley–was how all of the women she talked to followed the same influencers on social media.

“When I looked at these girls’ social media accounts, all of them followed the same people. On Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook. So what I said to Julia was, ‘You take that menswear-inspired product and you put it together with that voice and attitude and persona and tone of voice that a number of those key celebrities have, and you’re going to fulfill that void in their retail world. You’re going to create their favorite brand because you are going to speak to them through the values and voice that they want. And you’re going to offer up a product that they’re looking for.”

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In the fall of 2012, both women quit Nike and started working out of Parsley’s apartment. They lived off their savings for the first 15 months, using the money to start the business, build a website, and shoot their first video. The film, which is moody and cinematic, and completely imbued with Wildfang’s rebel femme ethos, features an eclectic collection of women whom McIlroy and Parsley felt best represented the brand–the actress Kate Moenigg (The L Word, Ray Donovan), soccer gold medalist Megan Rapinoe, fashion blogger FrouFrou; and Hannah Blilie, the drummer for Gossip. The older woman narrating the video is Parsley’s grandmother.

When Wildfang launched in February of 2013, all there was was a landing page featuring the company’s mascot and the video. Within 30 days, 22,000 women signed up to be on the mailing list (there wasn’t any product until April).

“That was a bit of a shock for me and Julia,” says McIlroy. “It was like, oh, wait. People really do want this.”

After that, things moved quickly. They raised $650,000 from angel investors that spring and before the end of the year opened a flagship store in Portland. Today, the company has 18 employees.

The Evan Rachel Would video evolved from Wood herself, who approached Wildfang last year saying she wanted to collaborate. After she and Wildfang came up with the “Would” concept, Wildfang approached Sockeye to flesh out the idea and build a narrative around it.

“When they came to us, we were pumped,” says Ryan Crisman, executive producer at Sockeye, which has also done campaigns for Adidas. “This brand doesn’t have customers, they have fans. That really inspired us. We love brands that challenge the norm and take a stand, and that’s them.”

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Crisman says the idea was always to make a movie, not a commercial, and draw on Sockeye’s experience in independent filmmaking–both Crisman and the film’s director, James Westby, come from the indie world.


The video is as much a tribute to Wildfang as Portland. Wood sings karaoke in famed, Portland dive bar The Alibi; there’s Lopez; and the scene in which she’s directing children in a play was shot at Mississippi Studios, a popular music venue. The video opens with Kim Gordon, the iconic Sonic Youth guitarist, reading from her memoir, Girl in a Band–which she was in Portland promoting on the day the video was shot. (When Wildfang heard she’d be in town, they contacted Gordon’s manager and asked if she would participate.)

As part of the campaign, Wildfang now sells Evan Rachel Would T-shirts–the proceeds go to the Portland-based charity Friends of the Children.

As for the future?

McIlroy says she hopes the company grows into the kind of lifestyle brand that companies like Nasty Gal and ModCloth have become. “Our hope is that in two years time, when you’re talking about (those companies)–that we’re the next in that series.”

About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety.

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