Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart: The Change She Wishes to See in the World

by: Katie Grimmer

October 5, 2012

Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart was a vegetarian and created her own animals rights group by the time she was just 10 years-old. Twenty years later, Hilgart, a vegan since she was 17, has a successful high-end animal and eco-friendly clothing line and is designing for the stars such as Alicia Silverstone and Emily Deschanel.

Hilgart, 30, was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. She grew up with harsh winters and no vegan alternatives that would actually prevent the cold from seeping through her coats. In the summer of 2008, Hilgart dropped everything she was doing —her contract with Ford modeling, her MBA with a full-ride scholarship, and began research for her new fashion line in the beginning of one of the worst recessions.

Vaute Couture (pronounced vote) began preorders for the chic and functional coats one year later and since have more than doubled in preorders every year. Now, the woman who started it all has her own flagship store in Brooklyn, Vaute Here, is starting as Alicia Silverstone’s Fashion Expert on the Kind Life and has a strong cult following around the world.

Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart interview for The WILD magazine
photo by Bridget Laudien

Vaute Couture is a very unique name. How did you come up with it?
Somebody said the best way to name a company is to come up with a made-up word. If you do, you’re the only one in the search results. I realized that haute couture with a “V” for vegan sounded like vote.  When you buy something, you’re voting for everything behind it. You are very literally supporting with your money, your time and your attention and all of the things that the company is created from and what it says. In addition, we also vote for colors and styles. I wanted to make sure the designs we started out with people would wear. I’m here to fill a need and to make something that people need in their life.

What has inspired you?
I’m reading Steve Job’s biography and he talks a lot about creating the future — that’s what’s inspiring to me. To say: what is the future? The future of fashion to me is that we no longer have to make something that’s only beautiful or functional… but that we can create something that is all of those things yet also caring and considerate of everyone involved. We need to. The world is at a crisis in terms of production and how it’s affecting the earth, the animals as well and then the workers too.

You do so much animal rights activism within your brand. Do you participate outside of it as well?
When I decided what I wanted to do with my life, I realized that business was a huge venue for making a difference for animals. I find almost everyone is compassionate at heart. With the label I can make it easier to put this compassion into action. While reaching people through art and fun, I also focus on raising awareness on issues through symbolism in my designs as well as collaborations with my favorite nonprofits. Everyone has their own voice for the issues they care about… and to me, that’s mine: to say that a kind & thoughtful lifestyle is not only easy, it’s empowering when you can choose how you affect the world.

What’s the next step for Vaute Couture?
I have a lot of ideas of where we can go when I have a real full team. Part of that is potential department store partners, part of that is additional flagship stores in another location in the States and I’m thinking internationally in the next few years. I’m also working on a full ready-to-wear section. I’m really excited because there are a lot of things that are made with wool for fall and winter that are impossible to find in terms of being vegan and chic. As long as we can grow the team, which I’m planning on doing in the next year or so, then there’s so much that’s going to happen from that.

Do you have time to do anything outside of Vaute Couture?
I just read somewhere that if you ask an entrepreneur about work-life balance, it’s really just life balance because your work is your life and it should be that way. If I had picked a business to start that was not me, I would be unhappy and being an entrepreneur is hard enough. If it’s not something that’s exactly who you are, it’s even harder and I can only imagine.

I find that vegans are so creative when it comes to food. Do you have a favorite meal?
A banana split at Lula’s is my all time favorite, cashew based, handpacked, all in the cutest apothecary setting, with vegan gummy bears on top. Does that count as a meal?

What is your WILD wish?
For life to always be an adventure. I realized that my life is off-track if it’s not an adventure. You should always be where you never know where the world will take you and delight in what the world is preparing for you.


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