Wildfang sinks its teeth into the tomboy market

Wildfang models Laurel Pantin, Megan Rapinoe, Nadia Sarwar, Hannah Blilie, and Kate Moennig. Photo by Lindsey Byrnes
Wildfang models Laurel Pantin, Megan Rapinoe, Nadia Sarwar, Hannah Blilie, and Kate Moennig. Photo by Lindsey Byrnes
By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

It’s becoming clear that 2013 is the year of the tomboy. After a lifetime of scouring men’s and boys’ departments in search of masculine clothes that fit a female form, queers whose fashion needs straddle the gender binary have an increasing number of options.

One of these progressive new outfitters is Portland-based Wildfang (from the German for “tomboy”). Helmed by former Nike employees Emma McIlroy, 29, and Julia Parsley, 32, with creative direction from fellow Nike alum Taralyn Thuot, Wildfang has a team of 20-plus tomboys working to create not only a clothing company, but a sense of community.

“We don’t think tomboy is a trend. She’s always been with us – from Audrey Hepburn to Patti Smith – and she always will be,” McIlroy says. “The only difference is that social networks have allowed tomboys to find each other, and high-end fashion has finally started to pay attention.”

Though the retailer’s launch corresponds with the rise of related outlets like Tomboy Tailors and Saint Harridan (which focus on making more formal menswear work for feminine bodies), inspiration struck McIlroy and Parsley three years ago in the men’s department of a well-known retailer on NW 23rd Ave.

“I was salivating over a graphic tee with Kate Moss on it,” McIlroy says. “Jules was eyeing up a men’s blazer with patches on the elbows. Jules turned to me and said, ‘Why don’t they make this stuff for us?’ And right there in the men’s department Wildfang was conceived.”

The online shop brings together items from men’s and women’s lines, vintage items, and a variety of shoes and accessories. The site launched in beta mode — open only to those who signed up in advance — on March 15. A full launch is expected by later this spring.

Wildfang founders Emma McIlroy and Julia Parsley
Wildfang founders Emma McIlroy and Julia Parsley

“Three years ago no one was playing in this space. The consumer demand is real and obvious — you see it everywhere: on Pinterest, on Tumblr,” McIlroy says. “In addition, high-end fashion has played a lot in androgyny recently. We love that other people are starting to serve tomboys. Frankly it’s about time.”

The clothing currently available on Wildfang’s site is mix of classically masculine pieces (a striped crew neck sweater), items with a sexy feminine edge (a sheer sleeveless western-style shirt), punk-inspired elements (a black studded jacket), and vintage originals.

“Remember, tomboy is a spectrum. There are lots of different tomboys — from the prep to the rocker and the sophisticate to the jock,” MvIlroy says. “We are going to try and create looks for all of them. We’ve bought some menswear brands and some womenswear brands and are styling them to ensure they look great on the female form.”

A poignant illustration of this blending of masculine and feminine sensibilities is Wildfang’s jewelry collection, which includes a line of deceptively dainty-looking heart pendants engraved with brash expressions ranging from the relatively tame “in it to win it” and “balls to the wall,” to the decidedly bolder “fuck off” and “kiss me where I pee.”

In addition to virtual racks, Wildfang’s website also contains editorial content, including profiles of designers and insights into Portland’s unique culture. Next to each apparel item are stats on the model, as well as a brief bio.

Rocking a vintage black velvet blazer is Taylor. She is 5’6” and slender, with long dark hair and a fondness for creepy crawling creatures like snakes and insects. Wildfang’s site doesn’t include a size chart, so knowing the models’ dimensions and the size they are modeling gives some fit hints.

Tops tend to range in size from extra-small to large, sometimes in women’s, other times in men’s. Jeans run from 25 to 31. Most shoes can be found in women’s sizes 6-10.

“We have had to place bets where we thought we could sell items,” McIlroy says. “You’ll see us carry all the popular sizes and what I can promise is we will listen to our community and give them what they want.”

When it comes to price, customers can expect to pay anywhere from $28 to more than $100 for a top. Most bottoms are between $100 and $150. Shoes tend to be closer to $150 — it’s the only place on the site where prices ever exceed $200.

“Everything we bought we put through the filter of ‘Would I pay that, for that?’ And when the team answered ‘yes,’ then we bought it,” McIlroy says. “You’ll see a range of price points depending on the item and a real focus on craftsmanship in our clothing.”

Despite the company’s newness, the excitement and anticipation are palpable. Wildfang created its Facebook page on Feb. 1 — a month and half before items were available for purchase online — and by the March 15 beta launch, it had nearly 6,000 likes and an outpouring of enthusiastic comments from future customers around the world. People who had never seen or worn Wildfang’s products (aside from a glimpse of the company’s crush-worthy celebrity models) have been raving since day one.

“I love you already!”

“I’ve been seriously waiting for this my whole life!”

“I would love to be your #1 fan!”

Based on Facebook comments alone, it’s clear the company’s fanbase has already gone global. Though Wildfang does not currently ship internationally, fans are making their interest known from such far-flung locales as Ireland, Australia, South Africa, Beirut, Bolivia, Greece, Mexico, Holland, and England.

It certainly didn’t hurt that the company hit the ground running with a strong social media presence and a visual branding campaign featuring a number of iconic tomboys including Kate Moennig (best know for playing Shane on “The L Word”) and local celebs Hannah Blilie (drummer for Gossip) and Megan Rapinoe (the out athlete who helped lead the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team to gold at the 2012 Olympics).

“We are here to serve the tomboy. We want to serve her style and her spirit. We don’t define her sexuality,” McIlroy says. “We just want to build a community of badass tomboys. Our company is a very diverse one and I think our consumer base will be too.”

Hungry customers combined with a limited inventory means the indecisive will likely be left in the dust. On the flip side, early adopters are almost guaranteed biter-proof style.

“Well, we’re a start up with a small budget so we haven’t got a huge inventory, which probably means you should buy anything you love quickly,” McIlroy says. “If you do meet another tomboy wearing the same item, our advice is to high five them and pretend you’re in a rad new tomboy gang.”

Get on the list for the next peek at Wildfang’s collection at wildfang.com.