The Unlikely Story of the Activist Who Shook up the Fashion World

Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart couldn’t find a winter jacket that was beautiful and cruelty-free. So she designed one.

In 2009, she launched Vaute Couture as a concept, with pre-orders and no physical product or investors. Her new customers supported the brand on pure faith, buying into Leanne’s story, and her vision to change the world. The demand and the hundreds of early supporters were just the validation she needed to forge ahead with production and build what she hoped would be the future of fashion.

Just seven years later, she’s trailblazer in the world of vegan apparel, manufacturing and shipping her expanding line of socially conscious and animal friendly designs worldwide. CNN called her “the rebel of NY Fashion Week” and just today, Vaute closed on an official manhattan flagship storefront.

I want to set a new standard in fashion.

I sat down with Leanne when she visited the Shopify offices in Toronto this winter. She was running a pop-up in town, while honing her Canadian distribution and setting up a new factory. Upon meeting her, you’re instantly disarmed. You can't help but be swept up in her warmth and her drive. She’s the natural face and heart of her brand because so much of her own story is sewn into every piece. And because you want to hear her tell it.

(header photo: PETA)

The Problem

The brand was born from a simple need: warmth. Chicago winters have a way of getting under your skin, wind working its way into your sleeves and under your collar. As a native of the Windy City, Leanne takes outerwear seriously. It’s a market, however, cornered by brands that use fabrics and manufacturing practices that don’t jibe with her ideals. Silk-lined wool dress coats, and down-filled activewear jackets surely were the go-to shields against the icy gales, but what if there could be cruelty-free alternatives just as warm and beautiful?

It was a question Leanne asked herself, then answered through eight months of fabric production research. The answer was yes. And without a background in fashion or business, she became a designer and an entrepreneur.

“The winter coat had never been reinvented, because it's always been good enough for everyone, no one's ever had a reason to put in the hard work and the blood, sweat, and tears to make it better. I had a reason. I didn't want people to wear animals anymore. So, that was my inspiration for working harder at creating a better coat, that everyone would love whether they care about animals or not.”

Finding Her Voice

Leanne was advocating for animal rights before she even understood where hamburgers came from.

“When I was a kid, I wanted the school to stop dissecting cats in the anatomy class across from my locker. I went to the principal and he laughed at me. I went to the school board and they ignored me. But I showed up at the school board meeting with a three-point poster-board, and photos of what happened – how they got the cats, how they were killed – and I said, ‘Guys, this is not okay. We're teaching disrespect for life. It is completely unnecessary.’ There was a reporter there who did a piece on it and we ended up having a lot of people call in. There was a bill going on at the time with representatives in Illinois, giving alternatives for dissection. It actually made it into law.”

The voice of an advocate, is a hard one to hone. She’s lived as a vegan since she was 10, struggling to be heard, and to formulate her messaging in a way that didn’t alienate. “No one would sit by me at lunch,” she admitted, “Everyone just thought I was the weirdest.”

No one would sit by me at lunch. Everyone just thought I was the weirdest.

When the idea for Vaute was materializing, much of the residual childhood fear of rejection still lingered. Leanne felt she had to reserve some of her views, hide the aspects of herself that she thought were too controversial. Now she’s found her people.

“When I moved to New York and I started being around people who care as much as I do, it was so liberating. I chose to be very loud about who I am and what I love. The clearer you are as an individual or as a brand, as to who you are and what matters to you, the better you are at filtering those other people out. There's this analogy: when you're growing, you're in the elevator, and people get off the elevator and you're alone for a couple floors, and then people get on the elevator. You feel that aloneness for a little bit, but it's kind of refreshing.”

Much of the brand’s purpose, besides providing cruelty-free fashion options, is to educate. It’s a tricky balance, and Leanne has found it with love. She has partnered with organizations to help amplify their messages. She injects her purpose and cause into the label’s presence on social, but always from the angle of support and understanding.

“It’s not condescending, it's not a judgement. It's like a, "I forgive you. I get it”. At one point, I ate meat. I ate meat until I was 10 years old. I didn't know, and I loved meat, and I loved animals. And whenever I post, I always come from that perspective.”

A lot of her sales and traffic come from “vegan coat” organic search, but she was determined to make a product that people just loved: win them over with beautiful coats, gently educate later. She understands that a lot of people, even her own friends, care deeply about the causes close to her heart, but just don’t know how to change.

“They say ‘It's too much of a sacrifice, it's too hard for me. I care about this, but I'm just not willing to go to change my style or to spend all this extra money.’ I think there are so many people in that space. We have to make it easy for them.”

The cause is woven into every part of the business, and Vaute partners with two non-profits every month. The website releases t-shirt designs specific to each organization – from animal sanctuaries to large international non-profits – donating profits back to the these partners.

Becoming an Entrepreneur

Like many people who find themselves running small businesses, Leanne didn’t set out become an entrepreneur. She was an education major, and modelled for a while with Ford Models. It’s an unlikely resume for a fashion designer and business owner, but she derives a lot of her skills from her past, and plays up her strengths.

“When starting a business, you should look at your life and ask, ‘What are the tools I've been given that no one else has been given, that add up basically to strategy where I win?’ I always give the analogy of Slumdog Millionaire: he knows the answers to every question not because he knows the answer to every question in the world, but because his life has set him up for those particular questions. I modeled for Ford Models, and because of that, I know how to run a casting. I know how to run a photoshoot. I went to school to be a school principal and I was an Education major, I want to educate people through my brand. And then I was an RA, so I run my team like an RA would – I know how to plan events and think about collaboration.”

If you rewind even more, though, it seems that her path to entrepreneurship started much earlier. At 12, she sold the title of her Social Studies Fair project – “Being Cruel Isn’t Cool” – to a national t-shirt company. As a youth, she also developed recycling programs, and sold her art door-to-door to raise money for local animal shelters.

“Write a job description for yourself, all your random talents. Then start a company around these things, and you find you intrinsically know exactly what to do. For me, the marketing I know is from being an activist my whole life. The type of marketing I do is grassroots. I don't say, ‘Oh, marketing, darn it. I don't know. Let me call an expert. Let me hire a consultant.’ I already know how to reach people. You already have tools – just put them together.”

Ask yourself, says Leanne, "What I am meant to do? What fits who I am? What's natural for me?" And for her, it’s what’s she’s always done: striving to make the world a better place.

Make a job description for yourself, all your random talents. Then start a company around these things, and you find you intrinsically know exactly what to do.

Vaute Couture is Born

In 2009 as the US recession was hitting its rock-bottom, Vaute was born with a production run funded by early pre-orders. She had no outside investors. Leanne did her research, carefully selecting mills and factories that shared her social consciousness. Vaute’s line has, and always will be, manufactured locally and ethically, with Leanne herself having an intimate relationship with the entire process.

“There are the ethical benefits, of course, and also I can be physically in the factory. My production director is in there every day. I go to lunch with our factory owner. We're not like a typical fashion company that's screaming, ‘Get it done yesterday!’ We know how hard she works for us, and she really believes in the brand, and she's a wonderful person. It's about people.”

Vaute made the decision early on to not only pay fairly, but to create experiences for the factory employees that are more meaningful. Each piece is each made start to finish by the same person, unlike a conventional factory model where workers will specialize in buttons or collars. “That way they own it,” she says, “They're artisans.”

The downside of local manufacturing, she tells me, is the cost. And to her, it’s the only one. While much of her customer education centers around cruelty in fashion, she also finds herself educating customers on price point, and why it’s worth paying for clothes made ethically.

“It's more expensive because we paid someone fairly so that they can have a family and take a care of their family. If you just look at shopping differently, it all balances out. People are used to looking at a price point that's high for brands that make things overseas. But those other companies are using their name to get a high margin, while still paying someone very poorly.”

In 2013, Vaute stormed New York Fashion Week, breaking history as the first all vegan fashion label to walk the runways in the international event. It was a move that garnered her a massive amount of press. At 5’5” she stood tall against the fur trim and leather details that marched that same catwalk.

“Most of the labels that do Fashion Week are very, very large companies. So for us to do that, it needs to be a make-or-break moment, because it's not sustainable to do all the things that the big companies do with a bazillion times more people and money. But when it's strategic, I'll do it. So, in 2013, we showed at Fashion Week because I wanted us to be the first all-vegan label to do it. And so we did, and they put us on the grid, next to all the big, big labels. That's when things really made it to a new level.”

photo: Joshua Katcher

New York Fashion Week has the single biggest impact on the business, but it’s not a move she’d necessarily recommend to every brand.

“It nearly killed me. I was on the couch for two weeks after. I was like, ‘Pass me a cup. I can't move.’ I was sick. I had dislocated my collarbone. I went through a breakup that same week. It was all of my bandwidth. Every day. And you do that to get it to a new level. But I can't do that on top of everything else every season.”

We showed at Fashion Week because I wanted us to be the first all-vegan label to do it.

Growth and Growing Pains

Since 2013, Vaute has been growing, adding more and more to the line: swimsuits made from recycled carpet fibres, knits from recycled cotton, and gowns. The brand has also found new channels, and in turn, new audiences. They also expanded production and warehousing into Canada – an obvious market for warm winter coats.

Vaute entered brick and mortar retail in 2012 in Brooklyn and has since had temporary pop-up spaces in Manhattan and LA. It’s been a successful experiment, because it’s allowed Leanne to have genuine conversations with people. She’s attracting a new type of customer because of the foot traffic, and embraces the chance to educate. Today, the brand is committing to retail for the long term – signing a 10-year lease on a flagship store in Manhattan.

“When we have a storefront, people can walk in and just buy a coat because they love it. They don't even need to be aware of the cause. And then, they'll keep in touch with us and we can educate them after.”

The ecommerce business sees most of its traffic from organic search, but also from editorial. Because of the cause and the story behind the brand, Vaute is fortunate to keep the press rolling in. “When you become an expert in a field and you can be authentic about your story,” she says, “I think that really helps people want to be part of it.”

Because the brand was founded on pre-orders, and the support of her earliest customers, it’s a method that stuck, flipping the usual “on sale” strategy on its head: starting with sale prices and then working up.

“Pre-sales really build anticipation of the new collection, and also show our earliest supporters the best deal. We do the big sale in the beginning, and then it gets more and more towards normal price. I do that because I want people who have been in it with us to get the first pick.”

Pre-sales really build anticipation of the new collection, and also show our earliest supporters the best deal.

The business, of course, did not come without the usual growing pains. Cash flow has been something Leanne has balanced carefully, but being profitable while bootstrapping had its limitations.

“When we couldn’t meet demand, we’d end up with only being able to take what the profit margin was from last season to put into making fabric six months before the next season. Then we're selling out again. And then it just keeps going like that.”

Two years ago, they were hit with $8000 in fraud orders and Leanne lost her apartment, and moved in with a friend. Another year, her credit card processor questioned the brand’s sales, and held all of the money – money they needed to produce and ship the coats from those questioned pre-orders.

What she learned from the process was the importance of building in slack, but also that at some point, you really can’t do everything yourself.

“My eternal struggle is asking for help. I've always done things on my own. But when it got so enormous, I had to figure it out. I had no idea what an investment meeting even looked like. I said ‘I'm just going to show up and maybe it'll work, or it won't work’. So, I just showed up and it was clear and easy, and very simple. We raised our bridge round in two months. And it was pretty effortless. The actual raise was easy. The getting to it was the hardest thing I've done in my life.”

She’s since hired a CFO, taken on investors, and is seeking new angel investors who want to “disrupt the fashion industry”.

“Bringing on some investors the first time meant I could hire our Director of Collection and our CFO, formerly a Business Manager for talent like Steven Tyler. It means that instead of January coming and me being exhausted from fall-winter season being so insane, I'm pumped. With the support and these amazing powerhouses, we can do more.”

The actual raise was easy. The getting to it was the hardest thing I've done in my life.

This year, Vaute launched a swim collection that is not only made from a sustainable fabric and produced ethically, it also ticks another box on Leanne’s list of things close to her heart: supporting women. The line was completely developed by an all-female team, because she says, a lot of fashion for women is designed by men. “We know what looks good on us,” she says, “We know how we feel our best.”

Leanne flew back from her Peru trip to personally try on the suits – she insists on it for every piece developed in the collection. Representing all bodies was also critical.

“We use models of all sizes: plus, petite, etc. I had sizes XS-XL models plus a trans model at our Swim Launch party and we photographed all of them.”

Since opening up to outside help, the future of Vaute looks as bright as her starry swim print, and Leanne can step back from the “everything” to focus on what she does best – growth, directing, and creating. But mostly, caring. The brand has recently signed on to a project with Google to help it scale, and is planning even more new items for the fall collection.

“Asking for help has been a huge game-changer for us. Because now things are changing so drastically and we're setting up this infrastructure and I'm so excited about what we can do. But I had to first get over that hurdle. It doesn't need to be just me.”