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April 27, 2011

Cruelty-Free Fashion Is Her Passion

Young entrepreneur makes a living making animal-friendly apparel

  • Leanne visits Melvin, one of the resident goats at Farm Sanctuary's California shelter. Leanne Hilgart

When Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart started her clothing line, Vaute Couture, she wasn’t quite sure how large the market would be for her label’s specialty: warm coats that are free of wool, leather, and all other animal products. She was happily surprised when business rapidly took off. Now her products are flying off the racks, often selling out in pre-orders.

An animal advocate since elementary school, Leanne shared how she turned her love for animals into a successful business.

 

When did you first realize you wanted to help animals?

When I was 10, my school had a social studies fair and we were asked to choose a topic we wanted to learn more about. What I really wanted to know was where does our meat come from? What about fur? What did “test” mean when we tested on animals for makeup and medicine? My project was on factory farming, fur farming, and vivisection, and I titled it, “Being Cruel Isn’t Cool.”

I visited my uncle’s dairy farm a few weeks later, and after spending time in the barn hanging with the cows, my dad yelled for me to come in for dinner. Steak dinner. I was trying to be polite and eat now, think about it later. But something inside me just refused. That was the last time I ate meat.

For the next seven years, speaking up for animals was my favorite thing to do, including a campaign I did at my high school educating the school board, principal, and science department on where the animals we dissected came from and why it was so detrimental to society to be teaching apathy and discouraging critical thinking by requiring dissection.

What inspired you to get into the animal-friendly fashion business?

Nothing has ever felt quite as right to me as speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves. While doing an internship for Sittercity.com, I saw how the very young CEO, only in her late 20s, was making an impact on the world. I realized that business could be a very valuable way to affect change. I went back to school to get my MBA to round out my business skills and start a business for the animals. I knew I wanted to do something in an area where I could really make advancements for the animals. When I looked into coats free from animal products and a quick Google search pulled up tons of interest, I knew I’d found my voice for the animals.

How did you go about starting Vaute Couture?

I quit my MBA program (for which I had a full-ride graduate scholarship) and got to work immediately. Working 60 to 80 hours a week, I used my life savings and a small loan from my parents to do the fabric research (which took 8 months) and development, and I built a community online that helped me choose the first designs. In total I spent a year developing the line before launching for pre-orders.  

Have you had a good response to Vaute Couture?

I’m shocked at how much support there’s been. When I first came up with the idea I wasn't sure how many women would want a warm dress coat free of animal products, but it has been such a love-filled experience to talk, email, and meet with these people. We’re all in this together – to show that it’s not hard to be compassionate, and it’s not about sacrifice, but empowering ourselves.

Do you think the demand for animal-friendly apparel is growing?

Before the label, animal-friendly fashion had been focused on accessories: bags, belts, shoes, and graphic tees. I really want to develop clothing that isn’t yet out there – warm, stylish coats and winter accessories. I’m always seeing more mainstream labels branding whatever they can as animal-friendly, like Express labeling their faux leather jackets as “no-leather leather” and their faux fur as “cruelty-free.”

Our top-selling coat is the new Belden, which sold out in sizes small through large before the production run was even over. The Friends Not Fashion tank top and sweatshirt also sold out in about a week and I had to scramble to do a new run asap!

What advice do you have for young people who might want to follow in your footsteps?

My best advice for anyone who wants to “follow in my footsteps” would really be to “follow in your own footsteps” as far as you can go, and keep running! Think about who you are and where your life has taken you, and figure out how you can do for animals with who exactly you are. As hard as it is, don’t try to ignore or push down those parts of you that are different. The stronger you are with the voice in your head and heart, the more successful you’ll be later. 

Visit vautecouture.com for the latest news and styles, and keep up with Leanne on her blog at onoursleeve.com.

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