Why you should care

Because outdated gender constructs have been cramping your style for far too long. 


“I was that 4-year-old that went back-to-school shopping, and I was always in the boy’s section. I wanted to look like Michael Jackson, the red leather jacket, the one glove,” she recalls. Some are born with an innate sense of style. It’s a gift that, for Julia Parsley at least, didn’t always feel like one.

Gender-bending fashion notions were fine — charming, even — for a little girl. But as the self-described tomboy grew older, that shifted.

I was that 4-year-old that went back-to-school shopping, and I was always in the boy’s section.

“I have so many memories of walking into stores, particularly when I was younger, when people weren’t even really hip to this, and having the sales clerks come over and say, ‘The girls section is over here.’ That feeling of being really misunderstood and feeling really lonely,” says Parsley, a soft-spoken 32-year-old who grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and eventually headed to the Pacific Northwest to take on a coveted role working for the Nike Foundation.

They could have resigned themselves to a lifetime of ill-fitting menswear. They did neither. Instead, they founded a company.

It turns out Parsley was hardly the only woman on the hunt for apparel with a masculine edge. So was friend and fellow Nike staffer Emma McIlroy, 30, a former athlete from Northern Ireland who moved to the U.S. to become a product lead for Fuel Band. Possessed of a tough-girl veneer it would be easy to develop growing up in Northern Ireland as the sister of an Olympic track star and the fastest runner in Ireland’s history, McIlroy remembers a day when she and Parsley were shopping, as usual, in the men’s department, this time at Urban Outfitters.

Emma on left with a tshirt and Julia on right with her hand over Emma's eyes in color

Owners Emma and Julia of Wildfang

“She just turned to me and said, ‘Why don’t they make this shit for us?’” recalls McIlroy, the bolder, outgoing counterbalance to Parsley’s thoughtful and reserved pragmatism.

They could have caved, headed back to the women’s racks and moved on. They could have resigned themselves to a lifetime of ill-fitting menswear. They did neither. Instead, they founded a company.

Launched as an e-tailer in April after managing to secure $650,000 in seed funding led by VegasTechFund, the venture firm of Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, Wildfang takes its name from the German word for tomboy, which also has connotations of rascal, scamp or boisterous child.

Selling clothing for what McIlroy calls a “confident, independent, bold, fun-loving, cheeky girl who has a free spirit,” the Portland-based company signed up 20,000 members within weeks and quickly established itself as a go-to for guy-inspired style that’s made for women.

Ripped, loose-fitting jeans and generously cut denim overalls, bomber jackets, boxy sweaters, button-downs in punk-rock plaid and trousers that sag ever-so-slightly from the hips.

There are ripped, loose-fitting jeans and generously cut denim overalls — items Parsley counts among her wardrobe staples — alongside bomber jackets, boxy sweaters, button-downs in punk-rock plaid and trousers that sag ever-so-slightly from the hips. Rock chic skinny jeans and graphic tees that you’ll find McIlroy pairing with suspenders are also part of the merchandise mix, which expanded from its online-only status to a brick-and-mortar Portland storefront that opened in July, complete with a carving wall that invites fans to leave their mark.

Within months of launching, a small army of celebrities beloved by the tomboy set had signed on to help market the brand, including musicians and identical twins Tegan and Sara, singer Sara Bareilles, actress Kate Moennig, Olympic-athlete-turned-model Casey Legler and Elvis Presley’s granddaughter and actress Riley Keough. This week they’re releasing a four-item private label collection ($28-$108) inspired by classic tomboy types that Parsley and McIlroy describe, in Breakfast Club-esque parlance, as the Jock, the Prep, the Urban and the Rebel.

Dubbed Wild.Life and manufactured in Canada, the mini-collection is the work of Wildfang Creative Director Taralyn Thuot and incorporates organic cotton, recycled polyester and a logo print of a steely-eyed wolf by Portland artist Haley Ann Robinson. Sustainable materials, socially responsible production and a badass mascot at an affordable price point are part of the draw, but they ride shotgun to the main attraction: made-for-women pieces that riff off of silhouettes traditionally reserved for men.

That in and of itself is not a new idea — you’ll find tomboy style pulled through history on the coattails of icons such as Marlene Dietrich, Debbie Harry and Diane Keaton and filtering into today’s mainstream from such disparate sources as the current J.Crew catalog to the pages of Vogue . What is new is the notion that women who would previously have been relegated to permanent outsider status can rapidly — and profitably — form an insider’s club of their own, thanks in part to all that the Internet, social media and technology make possible.

If the women behind Wildfang have their way, we’ll get more than a bunch of girls running around in wolf-embroidered tops…It will mean a wider definition of girlhood itself.

“They’re pulling together a community that has much more in common than just the clothing,” says Andy White, a partner with Wildfang investor VegasTechFund.

While it’s a community built on a certain style aesthetic, one where brogues and heavy bangs can achieve bombshell status, the brand’s real power resides in its emotional undercurrent, one that delivers a message of inclusiveness and belonging to girls who, like Parsley and McIlroy, are used to feeling like they’re stuck with a menu of gender-driven choices that just don’t taste quite right.

If the women behind Wildfang have their way, carving out a place for tomboys will mean more than a bunch of girls running around in wolf-embroidered tops Instagramming their collective edginess. It will mean a wider definition of girlhood itself.

“I hope that when you go over to visit your niece, and she’s running around the backyard, and her hair’s half in, half out of her ponytail, and she’s got skinned knees, you say, ‘Oh my god, she’s a Wildfang.’”

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