In a January 31 blog post, Vaute Couture owner and designer Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart announced that she’d be presenting her “first solo show at New York Fashion Week, as the first all vegan label to show at” the high-profile event. Following her success at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, I reached out to Hilgart, via Facebook message, to learn more about her Brooklyn, New York-based company and the ethics on which her brand is based. What follows are the interview questions I sent Hilgart and her thoughtful responses thereto.
DB: Prior to joining Ford Models you were a college student pursuing a career in education. Given that teaching is part of your brand, what is your approach to cultivating new customers who might not have previously been part of your audience or thoughtful in terms of what they wear?LH: Everyone has their own voice as an activist, and I realized that mine was to bring anyone who had raised a level of connection with animals on any level to reach greater levels of awareness to first the issues that face all animals of that species, and then to issues reaching all animals. For example, in college when I started the animal-rights group, I invited anyone who missed their companion dog or cat from home to join us in spending time with the homeless animals at the city shelter. Afterward over hot cocoa (in the winter we’d play in the snow with the dogs – the best time ever), we’d discuss the greater issues of overpopulation, relating it to the dogs and cats they were getting to know, and then from there, I’d invite them to assist in the Howard Lyman event I was putting together on campus, or the circus protest. Similarly, with Vaute Couture, I focus on two things: creating a welcome, warm environment where a connection to animals or the earth can be expanded upon and … creating fashion that is the next level of innovation in fabrics, so that even the girl who doesn’t allow themselves to care initially can fall in love with our pieces. And when that happens, and they learn that they are made without animal fibers, then I hope that they can start thinking of themselves as someone who would live a kinder lifestyle in little ways, and gradually over time gain confidence in their own purposeful participation with the world. I think more than anything, everyone has a kind heart, but they need to unlearn that they should not care or that it is silly, naive, or fruitless to care. This is the biggest thing I hope to teach.
DB: While working with Ford Models, did you have a say about which designs and garments you’d model? Do you work with vegan models? And which cosmetics lines/products do you use when presenting your collections?
LH: My agents definitely knew that I was vegan and respected that. I could tell them what I didn’t want to audition for or jobs I wouldn’t take. I try to work with as many vegan models as I can – it’s much easier in New York City than it was in Chicago, and most of our editorial models are vegan. We work with a few cosmetics companies for shoots and shows who use only vegan and cruelty-free makeup when working with us, like Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics, Christopher Drummond Beauty, and DeVita.DB: Your primary motivation for launching Vaute Couture was to communicate, through your work, that there is “no excuse left to wear animals,” according to language on your website. The same argument has been made with regard to eating animals. In your experience, what motivates the unconvinced to wear the body parts of slain animals? And what roles do convenience and peer pressure play in the decisions people make about the fashions they wear?
LH: I don’t think anything motivates the unconvinced to wear animals or eat animals. I think they are unknowing participants in a large profit-minded machine that doesn’t care about animals, and that they either … don’t know yet about how animal fibers are made and/or … that what they wear and purchase even makes a difference. Most people I meet don’t even consider what they wear to be even a moral question (unless it’s something as obvious as fur), until I pose it to them. It seems that art and business (of which fashion is both) often believe they are exempt from ethics, when to me, business is the most important arena for ethics, because it has the ability to create so much good or so much bad through every aspect of the production process as well as their interaction with society.
DB: I’ve read that fur is once again popular among fashion designers. If this is the case, is its popularity rooted in the same kind of defiant attitude we see in our politics?
LH: I think fur is popular among designers (though the numbers show, thankfully, that it is actually on the decline for the actual sales of fur, according to the Humane Society of the United States), because the fur industry is spending a lot of money to make it appear popular and cool by buying designers and magazines. Also, I often wonder if by knowing that lives had to die for a material like fur, that it makes fur feel more valuable to them, like by wearing or designing with it they are saying they must be pretty important to have something that cost 40 lives … I think there’s an elitism inherent there that some designers value because it makes them feel more important, whether they consciously realize it or not. I think the defiance is interesting, too – because yes, for someone to choose to do something that they know others might see as “wrong” such as designing with fur is … to say, “I don’t care, this is my art!” and to suggest they are on a higher realm of intelligence because they put their art above doing something they might see as “nice.” But what I find so laughable is that in the end, they are just doing exactly what the fur industry wants them to do, and by designing with fur, they are not being defiant in any way, they are being the biggest followers of all and playing the pawn for the fur industry.
DB: Celebrity seems to drive the success of many fashion designers. Even if fur is enjoying a renewed popularity, are you optimistic that we’ll eventually reach a tipping point with regard to celebrity-driven consumer ethics?LH: I think there’s a split going on, where some celebrities are recognizing that the megaphone of their stardom can be used for good, and they are being even more careful about how they live and what they promote, so that they can be doing even more good in the world by setting a good example. And then of course, there are those who focus on elitism and want to appear the most luxurious and have the most rare expensive things, and in fashion those things sometimes are animal fibers (like elephant-skin shoes). But, really, the fabrics that are on the cutting edge – the 3D printed fabrics, the high-tech materials, those are nearly all vegan and those are the future. So as we start to see more innovation in fabrics and materials, hopefully we will start to see that become the new symbol of elite status in fashion even for the second set of celebrities.
DB: In addition to producing garments made exclusively from vegan materials, your website indicates that the Vaute Couture “line is also made of recyclable and recycled fibers, and produced locally in NYC’s garment district.” Is it by design that this ethical and responsible approach challenges, explicitly, the notion that coveted fashions need to be derived from “rare” or “exotic” materials – including those derived from animals?
LH: Well, our fabrics actually are rare. … They are at the cutting edge of sustainability and weatherproof innovation, and are often custom made for my line, taking months to produce.
DB: Why do you think fashions made from fur elicit a more visceral reaction from many people than clothes made from leather and other animal-derived materials?
LH: It’s interesting, because wool is actually just as, if not more cruel, than fur. Sheep raised for wool are first of all slaughtered after they are done being “productive,” oftentimes at the end of a grueling cruel live-export journey. But it’s during their lives that they endure a cruel factory-farmed existence, with repeated careless shearing that slices slabs of skin off on a regular basis. And so, an animal whose fiber is repeatedly taken from them while they’re alive is often enduring even more cruelty altogether than one killed for their fur at the end, because in addition to being killed, they endure this terribly cruel process over and over until they are slaughtered in the end. Most people don’t think about this. The problem isn’t if the cruelty is necessary – certainly, it is not the intention of a factory farm to be cruel. But, it is the intention of a factory farm to be efficient and to be as productive as possible, and the well-being of animals involved only get in the way of the bottom line, resulting in incredibly cruel living conditions, production conditions, and painful slaughter. This is why animals don’t belong in business; their needs and well-being aren’t part of the equation. But none of this is obvious to the public. Most people think that sheep get a haircut and that’s what wool is. So, unless it’s for fur – where we can so clearly see that an animal died for someone to wear their skin, there isn’t the same kind of reaction. And for leather, I’m not sure, but I think perhaps because people have desensitized themselves to eating meat, and since leather comes from cows, they tell themselves, “If we are OK with one we must be OK with the other.” People are funny, myself included, with what stories we tell ourselves, the blanks we fill in. It’s interesting to stop and ask yourself, “Why do I think this?” because often the answer isn’t there. I ask myself that a lot, until I really look at what has brought me to that conclusion.
DB: Talk about the “special programs” page of your website, through which you’re planning to offer discounts to “students, teachers, (and) nonprofits,” fundraising partnerships, and other opportunities.
LH: Yes! I love to work with nonprofits, and I used to be a teacher and a student – I know that it doesn’t leave a lot of income to be creating a wardrobe with, so I’m creating some programs and discounts just for them. I can’t say much else until they’re fully fleshed out, but I’m working on it now, so please stay tuned!
DB: Your website encourages visitors to “love our hood” and recommends vegan-friendly neighborhood businesses. How important to your store’s continued success and growth – and to any vegan-focused start-up – is a local community of like-minded entrepreneurs?
LH: I’m lucky that Williamsburg (Brooklyn), the neighborhood my flagship store is in, is super vegan friendly and I love suggesting lovely places for visitors to go nearby to support some really amazing people! I don’t really know these people personally very well, but I do have many friends in the vegan community who have dedicated themselves to spreading awareness for animals and making it easier to live compassionately, and yes, this has made all the difference in my life. There’s a great blog post from Seth Godin where he says, “The easiest way to thrive as an outlier … is to avoid being one. At least among your most treasured peers. Surround yourself with people in at least as much of a hurry, at least as inquisitive, at least as focused as you are. Surround yourself by people who encourage and experience productive failure, and who are driven to make a difference. What’s contagious: standards, ethics, culture, expectations and most of all, the bar for achievement.” And I completely agree. It is incredibly nourishing to talk to people who get it who are also taking risks and putting their all in, to spread awareness for animals. It doesn’t mean you need to only have vegan entrepreneur friends (and that would be counterproductive because then how would you spread awareness to anyone else, as well as learn new perspectives?) but to have a few people who get you, in all the different ways you are truly you, is a beautiful thing.
Learn more about Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart and Vaute Couture at vautecouture.com.