Women Founders

Wildfang’s Emma Mcilroy On Letting Your Fans (And Celebrities) Build Your Brand For You

Last month, The Riveter kicked off its Female Founders series at our Capitol Hill location in Seattle, featuring a fireside chat with Wildfang CEO and cofounder Emma Mcilroy, hosted by Rebeca Lovell of Create 33. The topic was “Creating a (Fashion) Cult, Up Close and Personal”—and we can think of no one who could have better fit the bill than Mcilroy.

Emma Mcilroy is often described as a queer-feminist-Irish-immigrant-female-CEO, but in our opinion, she’s so much more than just the ultimate boss. In 2013, she started kicking down the doors of the patriarchy and dismantling gender norms in fashion when she launched her clothing brand, Wildfang. The company has since grown into a multi-million-dollar retail giant and a place for women to feel that they can conquer anything. “Wildfang’s an omni-channel fashion lifestyle business,” Mcilroy explained during The Riveter’s event. “We say we’re the home for badass women. We’re equal parts fashion and feminism, so we exist to bring all of the really dumb rules that exist in society for women, whether that’s fashion, whether that’s jobs. We’re right there to break all those dumb gender roles that just don’t makes sense and hold us back.” To this day, she stands by her belief that every woman has the right to wear whatever she wants and be whoever she wants—and hopes that Wildfang’s clothes help empower every woman to do just that.

Here’s a list of ten of the wisest takeaways from The Riveter’s chat with Mcilroy.

Inspiration can come from anywhere—you just have to be open to it.  

“There’s various places you can get inspiration from. If you’re creative, maybe it comes from art or fashion or wherever. For me, it comes from the consumer and it always will. That’s what I’m inspired by, is solving their problems, and connecting with them. I’ve never really had a problem finding clothes. What I didn’t realize was the pain. When you can’t self-express, it’s a really shitty experience. It really is when you have to show up how other people want you to show up in the world, rather than how you choose to.”

When someone believes in your product, you won’t have to pay them to use (or wear) it.

“I can tell you we’ve never paid a celebrity ever. From Evan Rachel Wood, Ellen Paige, Lizzo, Phantogram, Chvrches, Megan Rapinoe, Debbie Harry, Janelle Monae; they actually mostly pay us for the product, which is the best. So, the cool thing about them is they are just another member of our community. Yes, they’re aspirational… but the truth is, if you build something really pure and authentic for the right consumer, the [most aspirational] versions of that consumer will also find it attractive.”

The consumer is always priority, so it’s important to get to know them and to always be honest with them.

“[It’s important to be] really focused on your consumer and really authentic, but we wear our heart on our sleeve. You can trust everything that comes out of my mouth. When we make a mistake, we own it. And the values that we operate with are their values, so they are just other versions of all the rad women in this room that are rocking our product.”

The consumer is part of the company’s community. They dictate the overall feel of a brand.

“You build this brand and you incubate it and you’re so clear on the values, and you’re so clear on what it is and what it isn’t. And then you have to let it go and it becomes whatever your community wanted to be, or whatever they think it should be.”

Building a team from the ground up can be challenging, so find people who can uphold the mission and the culture of the company.

“If you’re a first-time entrepreneur and you run out of cash, you’re unproven, so it’s not like you’re attracting the big resumes. So, [when] you go through all that, come back to the mission—[to] the people who want to run through walls for you and want to believe in the mission as much as you do.”

Transparency is key on all levels, from entry-level staff to management.

“When it comes to hires, transparency is critical to me. There’s no number the team doesn’t have access to. If something goes wrong, like a difficult HR incident, when it’s handled, I stand up and share it with the whole team, or I go one on one with every team member. There are no secrets in our business and no gossip. And that is utterly critical to me. Utterly critical. There are no hallway conversations. There are no after work conversations. Everything happens on the floor, and can happen all levels, up and down.”

As an entrepreneur (and a human!), it’s vital to your mental health to have support from others. For McIlroy, that takes the form of the Emergency Beer Club, a network of fellow entrepreneurs she can always lean on.

“When you don’t have a network, when you don’t have a community, when no one in your community does this thing that you do and you often suck at it—that’s part of the journey, and you often fail, because that’s part of the journey. It’s just hard, you know. So, I’m a huge advocate for addressing and talking about mental health challenges.”

Success stories are great, but so are the stories that show mistakes and failures.

“I’m super passionate about two things. One is trying to allow other women access to whatever I’ve learned because I have literally made every mistake you can possibly make. I don’t even know if there’s any mistakes left. The second thing is, I’m very passionate about PR and media. We only hear one kind of story. We only hear the success story. We hear nobody else’s… It’s like history: It’s written by the winners. The problem is we lose all these stories. Do you know the best people on my board? The best people on my board are entrepreneurs whose company failed… because they know everything that can possibly go wrong.”

Protect your energy and watch who you surround yourself with. Running a company won’t work unless you are healthy and content.

“Your energy as a founder and a CEO is the most important thing in the future success of the business. The most important thing is you. You being healthy and happy and content is the most important thing. I don’t care how much time and energy it takes; it is the most important thing in your business to success. Because I can guarantee you, when you are unhappy and sad and depressed, results are going to fall off a cliff.”

Enjoy failure, but embrace those who want to help.

“Having that tribe of people, to whom you make yourself accessible—they can’t help and you can’t trust them if you don’t share yourself. It’s a combination of embracing failure, and others who embrace possibility.”

Shameika Rhymes is a journalist of all trades. She’s a former television news producer who has written for outlets like ET Online, ESSENCE, EBONY Magazine, INSIDER, the National Museum of African American Music, Shondaland.com, and WEtv.com.