An election year is that perennial opportunity to shake off any frustrations and revisit what’s important and all that is possible. It’s a time to remember that each one of us has the power to effect change. And once you’ve digested the profundity of this truth; you can get on with telling the world! And if you are looking for a way to wear your beliefs (literally) on your sleeve… then do we have the brand for you. Fourth Wave Apparel takes a fun, tongue-in-cheek approach to getting a feminist-driven message of social and political activism out loud and clear.
The Hunt For Vote-Related Products
As we searched recently for cool ‘vote’ related items we found our way to the Fourth Wave Apparel’s Etsy shop run out of Boise, Idaho, by entrepreneur Noelle Ihli. And we quickly went from taking note of the cool ‘vote’ tote we were hunting for to scrolling through the dozens of fantastic tops and tees emblazoned with clever feminist messages. So, of course, we needed to get in touch with Noelle to learn more about her journey and the brand.
The Next Wave: Leading the Pack With Feminist Wit
Noelle started Fourth Wave in 2013 after finding a lack in the market of comfortable and stylish tee shirts with feminist messages (and a dearth of creativity in the messages that did exist). The original designs were all based on vintage posters, pins and vignettes from historic women’s rights movements. And with that she was off! Today the collection has grown to include a wide array of political and activist messaging.
It’s been no surprise to us then that the shop is ranked in the top 1% on Etsy. And that purchasers have been from every state in the US and 24 countries (and counting). We were also interested to learn how such a strong feminist business like Fourth Wave Apparel co-exists with the conservative politics of its home state of Idaho. Although the vast majority of women-owned businesses are, in fact, not located in major media markets. And with media (and investors) often focusing on those of us in NYC (✋) or LA, etc., we collectively miss an opportunity to understand where true women-owned innovation and growth is really happening.
So, of course, we needed to learn more about Fourth Wave and got in touch to hear more…
A Chat with Noelle Ihli, Founder, Fourth Wave Apparel
How did Fourth Wave start?
Other women inspired me to start Fourth Wave Apparel. I watched a documentary on women’s history and realized that 1) I’d never heard most of these AMAZING stories that made me feel really proud to be a woman, and 2) I wanted to wrap myself up in all of them.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good way to do that. I wanted something I could wear; some physical symbol of courageous women throughout history. And while nowadays, the market is full of apparel with inspiring messages for women and girls, when I started Fourth Wave, the best thing I could find was a Hanes Beefy Tee that said “Feminist as Fudge.” (It didn’t say “Fudge.”) It wasn’t really something I could wear around. So I decided to make my own shirts. I knew nothing about screen printing, but I decided I’d figure it out as I went.
You have ranked in the top 1% of Etsy shops for three years now; has interest in the business surprised you?
It’s definitely surprised me. I intended to make a few shirts for myself and some friends. But then their friends wanted them — and their friends — and after a while, I had this amazing realization that I was sending shirts to people I had never met all over the United States and halfway around the world. After the 2016 election (when I made Fourth Wave my full-time day job), things really started to snowball for us. That groundwork I’d laid of good customer service; a product I really loved; and a growing groundswell of customers met this galvanizing moment in history. So we just went for it. We’ve leaned into Etsy as a platform, and just kept doing what we know we need to do: Making our customers happy, treating them like friends, creating stuff we love, and creating messaging that unites and inspires.
How has the message grown and changed?
You can find “girl power” type shirts and even feminist shirts in lots of places now. Even Walmart… That wasn’t the case previously. We’ve moved more into the realm of political and activist messages, essentially turning ourselves (and others passionate about progress) into walking march signage! You won’t find those shirts about politics and “controversial” or progressive messages in Walmart. And that’s exactly where we want to be. We aren’t Walmart and don’t ever want to be. We want to help amplify people’s voices and messages about important topics.
What’s been most difficult?
Growth is hard even though it’s cool and exciting. I’m an introvert. You don’t see a lot of introvert leaders and business owners celebrated (partly because they often are quiet and don’t love the limelight). So, it’s been a challenge to feel like I have what it takes to lead and grow and assert myself even though I don’t have this revered extrovert personality. Screen printing is a male dominated industry, so it seems fitting that we’re a feminist/activist screen printing company. That has its challenges at times when it comes to gatekeeping and opportunities. But it’s also given us a lot of opportunity to be creative and do things our own way.
Women-owned businesses thrive outside of large media markets (despite what the glossy coverage of big cities leads us to believe); tell us about running a business in a small city?
It’s an ideal environment for networking and really getting to know other women in business, raising my kids, and generally feeling like I have a good work/life balance. And since we do a lot of our business online, it helps keep studio rental costs down and cost of living down. Boise has been really perfect for us, honestly.
Many might not realize that there is a burgeoning art scene in Boise; but Idaho is still historically conservative. Has that been an issue with such a bold feminist message?
Definitely. Boise itself is actually pretty progressive. We usually elect democrats to local offices. But Idaho itself (and lots of neighboring cities to Boise) are very conservative. Sometimes I worry my truck is going to get keyed with all its feminist bumper stickers, but that hasn’t happened so far. It’s another reason we do most of our business online –there really isn’t a good way for us to be successful here in a brick and mortar way, like we can on the web. I’d say that conservative force in Idaho helps united and forge stronger bonds among those of us who lean progressive. There’s a lot of very passionate and active activists here. If you want something to happen, you know you have to get out there and make it happen. It won’t without your presence and voice.
What’s next? (Besides an election!)
Right now that’s all we can really think about, hah! We’ll keep continuing to work to make our business more eco-friendly, more sustainable, and better aligned with walking the walk we talk: Pushing the needle on progress.
5% percent of all profits are donated to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which has a 100% rating on Charity Navigator for its effective work in helping students at HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) and predominantly black institutions through leadership, lobbying, job recruiting, and scholarships.Fourth Wave on how they give back and why they have chosen Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
Finally, Fourth Wave, like most (if not all) of our favorite women-owned business are focused on giving back. So as you enjoy the products of these awesome businesses on FromAtoSHE you also help others. We think that’s a pretty good deal. So get shopping!