In 2008, Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart quit her budding modeling career and renounced her full ride at a prestigious university for a risky venture—she wanted to create the first warm, stylish, vegan winter coat. And she succeeded.
Wanting customers to have no excuse to wear animals, Hilgart developed dress coats that are warmer than wool by using fabrics made from recyclable and recycled fibers.
This was not Hilgart’s first foray into animal rights activism. In fact, her desire to help animals began as early as age 6, when a neighbor received a rabbit fur coat for Christmas.
“I had no knowledge yet about how animals were killed for fur, but I knew that rabbits were dead so that a little girl could wear a silly coat—and that, I knew, was wrong and unfair on a very basic level,” she said in an interview over email.
“I always had a problem with others being treated unfairly,” she continued. “And I always had trouble not speaking my mind. So, those two together meant that I would stick up for anyone I thought who needed it.”
“Animals need someone to speak up for them, and I knew early on we were doing something to them that no one was talking about.”
With conviction and ingenuity, Hilgart launched her vegan line, Vaute Couture, in 2009. Though the country was in the midst of a recession, the reception that she got was overwhelming.
She received hundreds of pre-orders for her coats and continued to finesse her product by working with mills that also produce the fabric for Patagonia and North Face.
As the Vaute Couture website notes, “The entire first production run was funded entirely by her earliest supporters.”
In 2010, Leanne moved herself, her rescued dog Whitman, and Vaute Couture to New York City. In early 2012, she opened her flagship store in Williamsburg.
This past February, Vaute Couture hit the big leagues as the company became the first fashion line to boast an all-vegan show at New York Fashion Week.
Little did the crowd know that Hilgart had decided only a month prior to the event to set up a show.
“With a month to put together my first-ever solo show, and at the scale it was, I was definitely taking a leap, stretching myself to accomplish what I didn’t really know I could do,” she said.
“In the month, I designed and produced the collection, the show, and worked with the PR agency STATE to invite everyone.”
“I panicked the whole week before that no one would show up. I’ve never had that type of reaction to work I’m doing, but this was definitely an undertaking on a different scale and level than I’d had before,” Hilgart stated.
“It all came together beautifully, and I love bringing in talented friends and organizations that I admire to be a part of a project … to show the world the full breadth of a compassionate lifestyle.”
When asked what inspires her and the line, Hilgart said: “I’m always inspired by borrowing from my favorite guys, childhood ballet class, and fashion in Asia. I wear a lot of vintage from the ’80s, ’50s, and Tokyo, so you’ll see that in there too. This season was inspired by ‘Sailor Moon’—the oversized bows, fit and flare, and heart cutouts.”
Hilgart told Ecouterre in an interview that the “Sailor Moon” story has a deeper message.
“There’s a clip that says, ‘Even with just a little more courage than the average person, anyone can be a soldier for peace.’ I think that’s so true. People just need a little more courage,” she said.
As for the future of Vaute Couture, Leanne Hilgart has big visions.
“We are ready to grow in a major way, take on investors, and put on a full tour, as well as open a new flagship. We will start moving into media as well, to inspire others to take compassion into their lifestyle.”
Marykate Torley is a graduate of Arcadia University, where she got her B.A. in Print Communications. For more articles by Torley, visit her website: www.mypompandcircumstance.com