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Heroines for the Planet: Vegan Fashion Extraordinaire Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart

March 21, 2011

Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart doesn’t just wear her heart on her sleeve, she designs clothes so you all can, too. She’s the founder and designer of the vegan fashion label Vaute Couture, the very first apparel line to develop high-style, high-performance fashion without using any animal-derived materials. Leanne’s passion for animal rights trickles down into every aspect of her renegade fashion house, and while she pushes the envelope in the fashion industry with cutting-edge ethical and compassionate alternatives, she redefines what it is to be fashionable. But, it’s her depth, sweet spirit and genuine love of animals which I found to be most impressive.

Just after her trip to the Paris fashion shows, I had the pleasure of chit-chatting with lovely Leanne about her design process, the importance of listening to what your life is telling you, and the future of vegan fashion.

Lindsay Brown: You were pursuing your MBA while modeling just a few short years ago. What sparked the change to leave that all behind and start up Vaute Couture?

Leanne Mai-Ly Hilgart: I didn’t leave it all behind so much as it was the next step that seemed absolutely right. As soon as I discovered the idea, there was an urgency to make it real that I couldn’t shut up. Vaute Couture was exactly what I was meant to do, as it combined all the seemingly accidental passions of mine throughout my life (animal advocacy and activism, start-ups, and art) into a coherence that made absolute and complete sense. I don’t think anything is an accident, and if you listen to what your life is telling you, you’ll know exactly what to do next with exactly what you’ve been given.  You know how some people say when they met that person they were meant to be with they couldn’t get married fast enough? I was getting my MBA for the purpose of starting a business for the animals, and so when I was modeling in Hong Kong and hit upon the idea for Vaute Couture, I knew I had to hit the ground running. I couldn’t wait another second.

Lindsay: It seems that you were listening to that inner-voice inside of you since you were a little girl. You started being an advocate for animal and environmental rights at just 8 years old. Why did you parlay that love into fashion?

Leanne: Animals are my life purpose, Fashion is just my vehicle. I chose fashion when I discovered that there was no one recreating the winter dress coat – a stylish one warm enough for below freezing weather but without animal ingredients – I saw an opportunity to represent animal rights within the industry and the cherry on top is that art has always been a love of mine, and it was something I had put on the back burner for several years that now I get to do each and every day.

Lindsay: How does Vaute Couture source all of its fabrics?

Leanne: It took us eight months of fabric research to discover the base of our opening coat line, and we continue to research every single day. Our fabrics are from high-tech, innovative mills. And of course, anything from Vaute Couture is vegan and fair trade.

Lindsay:How would you sum up your design aesthetic?

Leanne: I love balance – and my two favorite dichotomies are boy-meets-girl and east-meets-west. I often design with geometrical details on a classic feminine silhouette, and pull together two concepts that make me smile. I also love the hourglass silhouette and comfy sweet knits that remind me of ballet class.

Lindsay: London, New York and Milan were buzzing with new takes on mink, fox, and raccoon furs during the recent shows. As you know, the fur industry has tried to re-brand itself as a purveyor of “ethical fashion.” Those words are as much of a PR scam as “clean coal” is, in my opinion. Why do you think many of the big fashion houses feel the need to use fur? And what are your thoughts on ‘ethical fur’?

Leanne: It’s so terrible! Smaller labels are sometimes financially supported by the fur industry, and at a time when bank loans are difficult to get for any small business, being offered blood money like that to use fur in their collection for a hot, up-and-coming designer is often an offer they can’t refuse, as production costs are a very difficult to thing to handle on our own. The fur industry knows how to get fur out there – just as the meat and dairy industries do the same. The result is exactly what the fur industry wants: an image that the fur is glamorous, fresh and sexy. The idea that that fur is “ethical” or “green” is such a joke, as the fur industry attempts to soothe those who want to feel better about what they know they shouldn’t be wearing. Why do designers use fur, aesthetically? It gives a third dimensional design element that isn’t as common with other non-animal fabrics … but faux fur is terribly realistic nowadays, for those who want to design with that look, there’s absolutely no reason not to use it.

Lindsay: So what does the future of Vegan Fashion look like? Is going mainstream the goal?

Leanne: Going mainstream is definitely a goal. I want to make fashion move towards not using animals, and instead, use eco-conscious, vegan materials. The fashion industry cannot continue to exploit animals, workers and our Earth.

Thanks for this interview, Leanne. I look forward to sharing a vegan meal together soon!

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