by Nicole Rivard
Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, creator of Vaute Couture, a high fashion vegan clothing label, is hard pressed to pick just one highlight from 2013.
First, she made history by becoming the first independent fashion house with animal-free built into its brand to show a vegan line during New York Fashion Week. As a result, she inspired CNN to do a story about how Vaute Couture is poised to change the fashion industry instead of focusing its piece on fur making a comeback during fashion week. And she impressed Business Insider enough that it named Vaute Couture one of the most innovative businesses in New York City.
The CNN story garnered 7,000 shares, which is unheard of for a fashion story, Hilgart says.
“I thought I was just going to give the reporter one quote,” Hilgart told Friends of Animals recently from her flagship store in Brooklyn.
“But I didn’t just say here’s my quote about why I don’t use fur. I opened up my heart to talk to the reporter…and told her why I’ve dedicated my life to this. It’s not just about fur. It’s about animals being treated like cogs in a machine and industries. They aren’t meant to be in these industries. We industrialized everything, and we forgot to say we should not be including sentient beings in these machines because they aren’t part of machines.”
Having a big media outlet like CNN give her a chance to say that vegan fashion wasn’t simply an alternative, but instead the future of fashion, meant a lot to her.
However, Business Insider’s recognition meant even more.
“They didn’t just say Vaute Couture was one of the most innovative ethical businesses, or vegan businesses— it was of any business in New York City,” Hilgart said.
“Business Insider recognized that this is relevant, and it’s relevant to everyone, because I am innovating in a way that people don’t need to wear animals again… in a way that’s actually better.
“I have been an animal rights advocate since I was a kid. And it made me an outsider. It made me ignored. People didn’t want to talk to me. They just didn’t understand why I cared so much. For Business Insider to say not only that it was important and innovative but relevant to everyone…for the little girl who went from being super popular to being completely shunned for caring about animals, that was a really big deal to me.”
Being cruel isn’t cool
Hilgart has been anti-fur since she was six, when her neighbor came to school wearing a rabbit fur coat.
“I just thought, ‘these rabbits have no life because you have a stupid coat,’” Hilgart recalled. “I didn’t even know how they were killed yet.”
That knowledge—about anal electrocution and trapping—came later at age 10 when she focused her social studies project on the fur industry, vivisection and factory farming.
She named it “Being cruel isn’t cool,” which ended up being the slogan on the first t-shirt she ever sold.
Hilgart became a vegetarian after working on that project and decided to become a vegan as a teenager. By that point she had already ran a campaign in her high school against dissection. Her efforts helped get a bill signed into law in Illinois that requires every public elementary and high school district to offer students a substitute to dissection and bar them from penalizing youngsters who opt for such alternatives.
While a career that protected animals in some way seems like it would be an obvious choice, Hilgart got a little lost after high school. She entered college with the hopes of becoming a teacher, but became disenchanted while student teaching. While modeling part time, Hilgart got into marketing and realized she was naturally good at spreading messages, especially ones that had to do with animal rights, and that she could have the biggest impact if she shared that message through an animal friendly business.
“With animal rights, I found ways to reach people who didn’t really think they cared about animals and get them to realize that they do, and all the things they can do in their life as a result,” Hilgart said.
“And I realized that with business you create a process, and that process is done every time you make something. So that’s exponential change. It’s like a megaphone for your activism.”
Hilgart drew from all her life experiences and decided that the business animals needed her to create the most was vegan fashion.
She embarked on a mission to create the perfect animal-free winter dress coat, inspired by a lifetime of bitterly cold Chicago winters. She did eight months of fabric research and development, and then let the community vote on designs. In 2008 she launched her first Vaute Couture collection of coats made of locally-produced recyclable and recycled fibers that were warmer than wool, windproof, snow resistant, rain resistant and heat retaining.
The name Vaute Couture is a nod to the French phrase for high fashion with a V for vegan, plus Vaute sounds like vote, Hilgart, says, “Which is what we do when we buy, we vote for everything behind it.”
Six years later, innovation, not fashion, continues to drive her designs. However it’s hard to ignore the style that Hilgart achieves without even trying.
“One aspect of how I design is from an invention standpoint,” Hilgart explained. “My parents are both science people so a lot of what I do is development. It’s figuring out how fabrics can be combined, or what fabrics can be used in a new way, or discovering the newest fabrics that mills have been working on. Then it’s figuring out how I can use them to make something better than what’s out there. It’s not about creating fashion it’s about creating innovation and clothing items that are better than what’s out there.”
Most designers do the opposite. They think about what kind of look they want to make, and then choose from millions of fabrics.
As for this designer’s future, Hilgart said she’s ready to talk to investors and perhaps open another store on the West Coast or in Canada. Her flagship store in Brooklyn, surrounded by other animal friendly businesses like Skinny Skinny (organic and vegan body and home care) and Food Swings (vegan junk food), is just a 12-minute walk from her home.
“I have a rescue, Audrey, and she can’t take the subway because she’s scared of it so I moved close enough that I can walk her there,” Hilgart said.
She is also adding sweater and evening gown lines to Vaute Couture.
She said she found beautiful fabrics made from bottles mechanically recycled in Italy for the evening gowns.
“I have some amazing celebrity fans who say, ‘I can’t wear a coat on the red carpet, are you going to make a dress some time?’ ” Hilgart said. “I also get a lot of wedding dress requests.”
She thinks that gowns and sweaters are a great way to get people thinking about their entire wardrobe when embracing a plant-based lifestyle.
Hilgart believes the biggest myth about adopting a plant-based lifestyle is that it’s a sacrifice. “The way we make choices as a society is not to make them. We end up being silent participants in structures that have been set up by industries and tradition,” she said. “And when we silently participate in those things, we aren’t making those choices. So choosing to take back your proactive interaction with the world through your daily lifestyle choices by what you wear and what you eat, that’s empowerment. That’s the opposite of sacrifice.”
Despite the success of 2013, Hilgart said she worries about the future just like any entrepreneur.
“But just after the fear subsides is the best,” Hilgart says, adding that one of her favorite quotes is: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”
For Hilgart everything she wants now is quite similar to what she wanted as that budding six-year old animal rights activist. Looking back, she says she was her own best role model at age six.
“I believe that who you were when you were six, is a great role model for who you will become. It’s kind of like before you start listening to people telling you how you should act and what you should do and all of that stuff.
“For me it was making arts and crafts stuff with my friends to sell door to door for a local animal shelter. That is what I did when I was a kid. That’s kind of what I do now. I create art to open people’s hearts up to thinking about how they can live differently and to raise awareness and money for animals.”