Wildfang CEO Emma Mcilroy talks immigration, feminism, and those anti-Melania “I Really Care” jackets
Emma Mcilroy just wants to fuck shit up. Well, more specifically, Mcilroy wants to fuck up gender roles. But, after a few minutes of conversation with the Wildfang CEO, one gets the feeling that she just wants to fuck shit up in general—in the best way possible. “I want to genderqueer what women are told they’re allowed to wear,” Mcilroy tells me. “I just want to fuck with all the gender roles because they seem to all work against us.” At the Riveter office in Los Angeles, Mcilroy is talking to me about her company, Wildfang. In June of this year, the clothing brand made national headlines when it created the now-iconic (and completely sold-out) “I Really Care, Don’t U?” military jackets—in direct response to First Lady Melania Trump.
Last month, Trump caused media frenzy when she wore her infamous “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket en route to visit detained immigrant children at the border. And while she wasn’t donning the Zara ensemble upon arrival at the detention center in McAllen, Texas, her apathetic message had already echoed across various media outlets. Stephanie Grisham, press secretary and communications director for the first lady, insisted that there was no hidden message. Grisham told CNN: “It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message. After today’s important visit to Texas, I hope the media isn’t going to choose to focus on her wardrobe.” And, in customary fashion, her husband took to Twitter to blame the Fake News Media for his wife’s choice of outerwear.
Fast forward to August, and I’m sitting on a velvet couch with Mcilroy in L.A. as Rilo Kiley croons through the speakers. The Irish native is donning Wildfang’s “I Really Care, Don’t U?” jacket with some checkered trousers as she talks about the “I Really Do Care” campaign, gender roles, and intersectional feminism. “Women in general are held back, but within that group—women of color, queer women—are held back even further,” Mcilroy says. “Any time I have the opportunity to be my real self, to talk about exactly who I am, I take the opportunity. I identify as queer. I identify as an immigrant. We’ve got to be real about these topics.” During our interview, Mcilroy talks all things immigration, the brand’s coveted Wild Feminist line, and politics’ influence on fashion. Read below for more insights from our discussion.
HelloGiggles (HG): What inspired the brand to mobilize on the “I Really Do Care” campaign?
Emma Mcilroy (EM): That week was so rough. Watching kids being detained in cages was just a new level of horror. And after a week of really hard news, we see this picture pop up of Melania on her way to an immigration detention area, on her way to the border, and she has a jacket that says, “I really don’t care.” It was just insult to injury. It took it into a new realm, and “insulting” is the only word that I can think of. And her lack of response to the situation—even if it was some sort of error by a stylist, the complete lack of empathy and the lack of apology was just horrible.
So as soon as our team saw it, we thought, “Well, wait a minute. We make jackets. She’s got a jacket. We make a very similar jacket. Let’s use this opportunity to create positive conversation [and] impact.” Her jacket was inherently negative. We flipped it on its head and made a positive statement, and then we gave away 100% of the profits. We’re not even getting our time covered on this project. Everything is going to RAICES [Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services]. We’ve raised almost $300,000.
HG: What do you think is the most misunderstood narrative surrounding immigrants?
EM: I’m a proud immigrant, but I’m a privileged immigrant. I speak English. I have an education. I had a job when I moved here. So there’s a number of things that make me really privileged. The people who got put into the detention centers and detained at the borders were refugees. They were literally fleeing for their lives. I thankfully have never been in that situation, but I do think that’s a really important distinction to make. I think the most obvious misunderstanding of immigrants is that they’re coming to take jobs.
Every time I meet someone who’s immigrated here, they have three jobs. I go in a Lyft and my driver is also a bartender and cleaning houses. Or I meet a woman who’s working in a kitchen and also taking care of kids and doing hair. All I see are immigrants who have three jobs and contributing to society in every way, shape, and form. One of the coolest things for me was my nationalization ceremony. I cried the whole way through it, beginning to end. I didn’t think I’d feel patriotic, because it was sort of a weird time. Yet I felt mentally patriotic.
I claim the tag of “immigrant” because I want people to know I came here and was loved and accepted and supported by this country. I was allowed to start my own business. I had people invest in me. I was able to give jobs to 30 other people. I want people to know that story, you know? I [also] want people to know that story from brown immigrants and Black immigrants. I don’t want just the white Irish immigrant story to get told.
HG: Wildfang is very much political. In what ways has politics and culture influenced fashion?
EM: Politics has always been closely tied to fashion. I guess we are political, but what I’ve always said is we never intended to be political. I never dreamed that there would be a time in America where it was political to be a woman, that it was political to be queer, that it was political to be a person of color. People of color are getting shot for nothing, right? I didn’t know those things would be political. For me, Wildfang stands for human rights. And politics have now started to threaten human rights, so that’s how I distinguish it. There are some things that are beyond politics. Our brand will always stand up for those things.
I believe everybody with a platform has a huge responsibility to speak up when it matters—to represent those who don’t have a voice for themselves. If you’re not doing that right now in America, I just don’t want to talk to you. I have no time for you.
HG: Given the success of the Wild Feminist line, how would you define modern feminism?
EM: Feminism must be intersectional—it must consider every single facet of what it is to be a woman. I try to always spell womxn with an “X” so it feels trans inclusive. It’s not my job to decide whether or not someone’s a woman. If they define themselves that way, then they’re absolutely a Wildfang. It’s about ensuring that those equal rights extend to every single woman—whether she looks like you, acts like you, whether she’s from the same ethnicity or race as you or not, or whether she shares your sexual preference. It has to be something that is shared by all. As soon as we leave one behind, we missed the point.
Feminism is really complicated because it may not be the first way people identify as a woman. Identity is so complex and multi-layered. Somebody might identify as a woman first. Somebody might identify as Black first. Somebody might identify as queer first. We try to ensure that we’re representing all those issues and not making it purely a gender conversation. Because in order to be a really great feminist, you have to understand that women are very multifaceted, and you have to support all those facets.
HG: What impact do you hope Wildfang will have on the fashion industry?
EM: I want to genderqueer everything: I want to genderqueer how women are represented. I want to genderqueer what women are told what they’re allowed to wear. I just want to fuck with all the gender roles because they seem to all work against us. I’m just over them. I want women to be able to wear anything they want. I want women to be able to make choices for themselves, whatever those are—whether it’s about their body, about their career. I just kind of want to fuck up all the gender roles that exist.
HG: What can we expect next for Wildfang?
EM: You’re going to see us make a lot of noise in the midterms. We’re going to raise an awful lot of money for She Should Run and really encourage people to get out to vote. The most recent primaries in California were depressing in terms of voter turnout, and [we’ve] got to fix that. We can’t just sit around on Facebook and click and share stuff. We have to actually get out and vote. So we’re going to try to have a really active voice in that. Then [we have our] L.A. store coming up. I don’t feel like I can say a ton right now, but there’s a couple partnerships that you’ll see from us that will be pretty exciting.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.