Armoire x Wildfang: Advice from the Founders
We’re excited to announce we’ve recently joined forces with Wildfang, a female-founded brand based in Portland, available to rent for the first time ever through Armoire! To kick off the partnership, we hosted a panel with the boss ladies behind the brands: Ambika Singh, founder and CEO of Armoire, and Taralyn Thuot, Creative Director at Wildfang. (Not to toot our own horn, but we threw a pretty great party too!) Our conversation covered everything from smashing gender stereotypes, to recent oh shit moments to the importance of putting values ahead profits.
Scroll on to hear from the boss ladies themselves!
We are so excited to be here tonight celebrate bringing together these two amazing brands. Can you tell us a little bit about the companies you have built?
We wanted Armoire to be somewhere where clothing was the armor. Women could feel big and strong when they wanted to feel big and strong, and could feel safe and warm when that was important too.
When I was a grad student at MIT, I was learning about personalization technology. I saw the apparel industry was going through massive shifts, with a lot of movement in how capital flowed through the system and who was addressing customer pain points. I came back to Seattle with this idea that we could use data from our customers to curate a better experience.
It’s a tough proposition, but its incredibly inspiring to see all of our customers and the amazing people I work with. They keep me, without question, knowing we are doing the right thing: delivering joy and building something I can be proud of. It’s been an incredible ride!
Wildfang is all about f*cking with gender norms and gender stereotypes, and empowering women to feel comfortable in who they are and how they want to express themselves. Like Armoire, we are trying to fuel exposure for women in places where they traditionally haven’t been seen. Obviously, the business community is one of those. Obviously, politics is one of those.
Wildfang started in Portland six years ago, and we are still in Portland now. We started online first, and about three months into being a tiny little online business, we had the opportunity to move into a retail space. We had a lot of our customers reach out and want to meet us and try stuff on, so we were like let’s give this retail thing a shot! It was a huge success. I mean, we had customers divert their flights to come to Portland. Now we’ve gone from one Portland store to two, then opened LA and NYC last year. I’m super proud!
We started out curating all of our products through carrying all other brands. Funny that when we were trying to create an assortment that had never been created before, it was really hard to do so from brands that already exist. Pretty quickly we realized we needed to start to create our own products to truly deliver on what we were saying our brand was about- being inclusive, being truly menswear inspired but fit for women- so we started making all of our own products. Now, here we are today!
As female-founded companies who are building businesses for women, what has been the more significant barrier that you’ve faced?
We walk into a lot of rooms with people that don’t look like us, and we walk into a lot of rooms where the people walking in on the other side don’t look like us. Not only is Wildfang female founded, our CEO, Emma Mcilroy, is also a queer immigrant. Looking different than a lot of the people that walk into those rooms can make it hard to build trust.
We are also first-time founders, so it can be challenging to build trust because of that as well. We have never done this before, we don’t look like what you are used to, but trust us, invest in us, work for us. Now, that can be a real challenge!
I can add, and you’ve probably had this too at Wildfang, that our business and our customers are also not what they are used to. We have a lot of challenges explaining to venture capitalists and people from the press, that we should be able to serve many types women!
We’re trying to bring ourselves in the room, but we’re also trying to bring you guys, our members, into the room! We understand you and know you because we’re one of you, but it is not always apparent to people.
What was your aha moment?
This is my personal take on the aha moment: I didn’t have one, and I think that if I was still waiting for it I would be exactly where I was before starting. There’s lots of insightful things that happen all the time. We dig into the numbers or talk to you guys and learn that what we thought was happening is completely different than what is really happening.
These are the aha moments that are incredibly powerful, but at no point did the clouds part and God never spoke to me… I’m still waiting. If you are waiting for the waters to part and the solution to become apparent, know that this didn’t happen to me. I think the best advice is just to keep moving. Whatever little insight you have, build on that. Get a little smarter each day. As long as you are pushing the ball forward every day, you’re doing great!
I have two. One is not mine, but it is the origin story of Wildfang. Our founders Emma and Julia, did have a total aha moment in the middle of Urban Outfitters in the men’s section. Emma picked up a graphic tee and Julia picked up a great blazer and they both were like, “why is this in the men’s section… and why is clothing gendered?” It kind of was this we really like this stuff so why is it not served up to us? moment of realization. Not only was there a huge gaping hole from a product perspective, there was also a huge hole from a shared values perspective.
Now for my personal aha moment. We all worked at Nike before leaving and starting Wildfang. I was doing concept direction for Nike women, and I think was a little bit edgy for Nike. Emma and Julia approached me wanting help on the fashion side of things. Emma’s background is in marketing and Julia’s in HR and operations, and they were starting a fashion brand. They had no experience in design, trend, or anything like that. I was like wait a minute guys; you need me! I’m coming along on this journey!
Fine, fine, so you didn’t have a big aha moment. What was your oh shit moment? I know you’ve had some of those.
I pretty much have an oh shit moment every day. Startup is bonkers! Having worked for a big corporation for ten years, which I have great things to say about, startup is just a completely different life.
The craziest was pretty much on day one of Wildfang. We had kind of built this rag tag team of people to help us launch the brand, maybe four full timers at that point. We had put up a manifesto and a video when we launched, and had an email sign up. 30,000 women signed up, which was mind blowing since we expected 2,000! After that moment I was like okay this is what startup is like. You just have to break down walls and figure out how to turn shit into lemonade!
I think it’s all about perspective. Our most recent problem was that we signed an 18 month lease two blocks from here on 9,000 square feet. Thus far, we had grown incrementally, adding a little more space at a time. Suddenly, we were going from about 1,000 square feet to 9,000. Any kind of math would tell you, we’re going to do fine in there.
Within two months we had completely outgrown the new space. We were all working on top of each other… and the clothes. Someone told me “if you think about the clothes coming at you as a wall of success.” It was a huge oh shit moment, but hey man, shit happens!
I have to layer on one recent one that you guys are going to f*cking love! I design most of our product including our graphic tees. I’m not a graphic designer, so cut me a little slack. I designed this one graphic that says more feminism, less bullshit and then all these other things you should have less of. We got the shipment of tees and I had spelled patriarchy wrong… yeah, that’s called irony. Not our biggest oh shit moment, but definitely a hilarious one.
It’s all about how you can reframe it. How can you rely on the people who are around you? Can you use a combination of a great attitude and your team?
Yes! If you are going to fail, at least fail better!
What do you know today that you didn’t know when you started?
I’m going to get super cheesy for a moment, which is not my normal M.O. I know what it feels like to change people’s lives. Last year when I was in New York opening our store, I met this amazing trans woman who came in, shopped with us and left with a head-to-toe velvet suit. Last week, she reached out and was like, “I just want you to know that I stand up straighter because of Wildfang. The confidence Wildfang gives me literally gives me posture. No one speaks to me in this world and you guys speak to me.” I was like oh my god, we are changing people’s lives!
On the dark days, those moments are what pull you through! In startup, you are not deciding if you want to be successful or not. No, we have to be successful! We have to make this work! There are other people around you who are part of this and they rely on you. It’s so much more powerful than trying to flip something for 10x profit on investment.
You both run companies that have a slightly different point of view than the rest of the world. Along with the people who are supporting you, you also have critics.
How do you deal with that? What do you say to the people who constantly tell you that you are going to fail?
For our critics, it’s not a one size fits all answer. Some of them, we value their criticism and it helps make us better. Sizing is a big one for us. We are a small business trying to be really inclusive with our sizing by going up to size 20, yet we still have folks reach out to us saying things don’t fit. That is super f*cking valid! It is really important to us in those cases to hear the criticism, try our best to address it, and continue to evolve and be better. I find this critique really valuable to listen to and use it to help build our brand better in the future.
Last year was the 45th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, and it is hugely at risk right now. We knew we had to do something that made an impact so we reached out to 7 states, there’s probably more now, that only had one abortion clinic left in their state. The access for women was basically non-existent. We worked with the South Dakota clinic, which was the last abortion clinic in the entire state, and we raised $100,000 for them. We even had an option to buy an abortion for a woman.
Yeah, criticism… we got some fucking criticism! But to that criticism, I’m like maybe you just don’t belong at Wildfang. Maybe you just aren’t right for our community. Sometimes when it comes to criticism, it’s talk to the hand and sometimes it’s a genuine thank you for your criticism, this is valuable.
We have the same sizing challenges at Armoire, and we have look challenges. We want to be the curated closet for all boss ladies, which is challenging as a small business. I mean, it took us 3 years to get to Wildfang!
I want to stand for the things I believe in. That is 100% what I want. The other side of it is that I want to pay my payroll every month! I remember when we posted Megan Rapinoe… I mean, how do you not like Megan Rapinoe?! Some of our own customers were like, “if you are going to stand up behind her, I cannot support your business anymore,” and we lost their business. First thing I think is: oh my god, the payroll!
There are no simple decisions, and at some stage you are compromising on one or the other. My values and what I want the business to stand for are incredibly important, but sending everyone home with a paycheck is also incredibly important. It’s all in how you balance those things out. One of the best things, which I’m sure is happening at Wildfang too, is that our core customers are fully supporting our values.
One of the reasons why we are continuing to grow and be successful is we are now in a universe where people have a million options at their fingertips. People get the chance to vote one time a year in the political elections, but people get to vote every single day with their dollars. People want to spend their money where their values are aligned.
These are both brands where social change is important. Tell me why does this partnership matter and how did it come about?
While we are negative nancy about sometimes not being in rooms that accept us, the rooms that do accept us are powerful!
Mind you, we had gotten a pitch together before meeting with Emma, so I was planning on following the script. She literally sat down for two seconds and in true Emma fashion was like “when the f*ck are we starting this.” We completely skipped the whole pitch! Basically, I think it was the combination of the right room and the right humans. And to Wildfang’s credit, you guys had never worked through a retailer before and let alone rental!
Obviously our brands have shared values and shared stories, but from a business perspective, we have products that can be intimidating to people. When we are selling products that are traditionally off limits for women, obviously for some women they feel a little unsure. What’s so exciting for us, is that now people can test out Wildfang without feeling intimidated by some of the hurdles that you have when you are purchasing a piece. We saw it as a great opportunity to help more people find confidence in a different look or different type of product than they normally wear.
How do customers support Wildfang and Armoire, and how do we find other businesses that are like you? I can’t imagine the two of you are alone in what you are trying to build.
For us, our customers are the brand. You are the motivation, the thing that keeps us going. We certainly hope we are delivering the same level of value that you deliver to us, but we would love for you to hold the torch. Our biggest channel of growth has always been our customers. We are incredibly grateful to all of you for shouting from the rooftops, as I know you are. Thank you! Please keep doing it. We really appreciate it.
Help us serve you better by bringing us the Wildfang’s in your life so we know who we should be building partnerships with. Tell us how we can show up in physical places where you think we should be, or even in think spaces that you think that we should be or stands we should be taking.
While we are obviously an apparel retailer, we are also a community and a brand. That’s part of the reason why our retail stores have really fun experiences, whether you buy from us or not. We just love building a community, so help us by coming and hanging out! When we post something funny that resonates with you on social, tag a friend or repost it in your story. There’s no prescribed purchase requirements to become part of the Wildfang family. We just want you to be a part of it in any way you can!
If you could go back to the first day of entrepreneurship what would you tell yourself?
It is super cliche for anyone who has taken a business class or read a business book, but the people who you surround yourself are everything! On day one, it’s only you. You think you can do it all yourself because you have to! What you can’t see on that day is that very quickly you can’t, so you better find these people as fast as you can.. and hold on to them with all the love in your heart!
You know how they say there’s never a good time to have a baby? It’s the same thing with a company. You’ve just got to realize that anything you do is better than not doing nothing at all!
Answers were edited for length and clarity.