by Ashley Gilday
Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, founder of VAUTE, has been called the “rebel of Fashion Week” by CNN; “breaking runway history” by CNN; “the most influential designer” by PETA; and “1 of 40 redefining green” by Grist.org. She spent her life savings, quit a Ford modeling contract and passed on a full ride MBA scholarship at DePaul University to start VAUTE. Her mission was to create the future of fashion: high tech, high ethics and high design. That meant working with high tech mills to create innovative new textiles and apparel construction methods. In the process, she has set a new standard in outerwear. She’s the “fashion expert” at Alicia Silverstone’s theKindLife.com, and was named Conde Nast and Mazda 6’s “female game-changer” in 2013, opposite Bre Pettis of Makerbot. U.S. News & World Report said, “Hilgart is paving the way for future compassionate designers.” She speaks worldwide on textile innovation, conscious capitalism and social entrepreneurship.
Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart of VAUTE: “Rebel of Fashion Week”
Ashley Gilday: How long have you lived a vegan/plant-based lifestyle? What was your inspiration to adapt this way of life?
Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart: I stopped eating animals when I was 10 and chose factory farming, vivisection and the fur industry as my Social Studies fair project. I knew we were doing something to animals that no one was talking about and I had to know what that was. It just didn’t make sense to me that an animal went from being a living breathing being to being on my plate. Something was missing there. I went vegan 7 years later, after learning the relationship between dairy farming and veal — that they’re essentially two parts of the same process — and if veal was the first thing off my list, how could I be a “cheese-a-holic?” I stopped eating dairy then. With a dad who grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and an obsession with all things creamy, it wasn’t easy. But now, vegan food is an adventure.
AG: CNN has named you the “rebel of Fashion Week.” How do you feel about that label?
LMH: Great? 🙂 Honored that CNN cares and I really appreciate the label “rebel” since that’s such an aspiration for a fashion image: someone following their own rules, breaking the norm, etc. What else can I hope for, then? To make a statement within the fashion industry that following your own morals is actually what’s aspirational for fashion vs. following trends bought with money (like fur)?
AG: What’s your favorite piece at VAUTE right now?
LMH: I’m really into my waxed Kaitlin jacket (pictured). We had this fabric we made with Polartec that’s furry and in this berry color and originally I wanted to make coats with it a couple years ago. But it didn’t structure in production the way I expected it to from R&D. So, it’s been sitting on our shelves in our New York City factory and I realized people had been asking for me to make a coat that’s good for west coast winters: rainproof and windproof, but warm too. And then I realized we could use this fabric as a liner inside the waxed coats, so we did. It’s SO comfy, but surprisingly warm too. I have worn it nearly the whole winter until it got below freezing, when of course I dug out my Lincoln from a couple seasons ago. That’s the warmest coat I developed: head to toe insulated with Primaloft ECO.
AG: You are originally from Downers Grove, Ill., but have lived abroad for a career in modeling and are currently living in Brooklyn, New York, near your flagship store. What brought you back to the states?
LMH: I was always planning on coming back to America, but when I was in Asia I did consider staying for a year. I wanted to be a TV host and I knew I had to stick around longer than a couple months to make that happen. It seemed like a great opportunity to get people into veganism and conscientious living, after MTV would trick them into thinking I’m cool. But then I decided to start VAUTE and I quit everything to come back and start the company.
AG: Do you still model? What is it like to be a model? Did you feel there were pressures to be a certain size?
LMH: Right now I don’t have a schedule that allows for castings and bookings. But, I do occasionally do a campaign in relation to VAUTE where I can also make sure it’s in alignment with my values, like for John Bartlett or Conde Nast’s Mazda6 campaign. Modeling is interesting. You get really good at learning that rejection isn’t personal, that it’s about fit. You could be not right for 100 jobs, and 100 percent perfect for one. I also learned a lot about perceptions (on) modeling abroad. In Taiwan, the photo shoot teams would talk about me in Mandarin, which I could mostly understand. But I couldn’t speak it well enough so they would talk to me like I’m dumb and often make fun of me. This gave me so much respect for people who had moved to America and learned the language, and so much annoyance for those who couldn’t realize how brilliant these people were. They are clearly better at languages than I am!
Absolutely there’s pressure to be a certain size. There are pressures to be a lot of things. That’s true with everything. What is that E.E. Cummings quote? “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” I think it’s scary for some people to start looking at other parts of their lives beyond food. It seems impossible. But it’s not. Just do what you can and keep going, keep learning, and creating a life that you can be proud of because you aren’t intentionally harming others.
AG: Many people love animals but don’t want to learn the truth about how animals are used in the production of our food, clothing, cosmetics, toiletries, etc. How do you feel we can we inspire people to change without turning them off?
LMH: Vegan isn’t about sacrifice. It isn’t about terrible things happening. It’s the opposite! It’s about choice. It’s about empowering yourself to make choices in your life that lead to things you want in the world, like life, love, freedom and happiness for others — the opposite of all those terrible things. Once we realize that these terrible things are happening whether we watch the video or not; that choosing not to be silent participants in these systems is what we can do to stop this. Then it becomes a question of “what else can I do?” People get turned off when they think they can do nothing.
AG: Is there a good resource that you recommend to help people educate themselves on the production and material sourcing of non-vegan clothing?
LMH: PETA has some good information on the production of clothing that is worth checking out.
AG: Having your own business requires a lot of hard work, determination and sacrifice. What inspires you to keep moving forward?
LMH: I go through periods of wanting to quit everyday. Entrepreneurship can be very painful. What keeps me going? That I’m here to do this. Wanting to quit and quitting are two different things. Being afraid and smelling your fears up close are two different things. Knowing you are here to serve a purpose will keep you going in a way that otherwise you would consider yourself crazy for the things you put yourself through. (Although I do question my sanity on a regular basis.)
AG: Someone is planning a trip to Brooklyn and Manhattan. Name a few local favorites for food and drink.
LMH: In Brooklyn, spend your morning with a horchata latte and PB&J doughnut at Dunwells. Go thrifting on the north side of Williamsburg and stop at Smorgasburg or Brooklyn Flea. If it’s the weekend, then grab a Buenos Dias salad and Green Face at Champs Bakery. See an afternoon flick at Nitehawk, and finally, grab some mac-n-cheese balls from Champs Jr. to bring into Gutter for some bowling.
In Manhattan, walk everywhere with a headphone splitter and your best friend. Start with Vegan dim sum at Buddha Bodai. Stroll up to Central Park watch everyone on the New York City hustle while you’ve got no where to be, no schedule to be on, and take a boat ride. (Mind you, it must be a little warmer out than it is now. 😉 ). Grab dinner at Peacefood Cafe uptown (don’t forget the tiramisu and strawberry shortcake). Then see something at Rockwood Music Hall, or order Franchia to be delivered to Duet 35 for a private Asian karaoke room with your best friends.
AG: Where is your favorite place to eat when you are back in Chicago?
LMH: Oh, c’mon, that’s easy! Chicago Diner. I was a waitress there the summer between my last year at DePaul (The best! Wished it never ended!) and my quarter student teaching in the burbs. (Hell for me: I’m a terrible rule follower and a teacher. Dress code? Forget it). Did you ever have summer dream jobs? That’s what the Chicago Diner was for me. I just found out Jenny Brown of Woodstock Sanctuary waitressed there before I did. How crazy is that? The scramble and the Reuben and the cookie dough Chicago Vegan Foods milkshake are my standard for all of those things. I can barely order a vegan Reuben anywhere else without making a face after the first bite.
AG: What advice do you have for those of us who eat vegan or plant-based, but are not yet incorporating vegan into other areas of our lives?
LMH: Vegan to me is so much more than food; it’s about harming less by choosing how you interact with the world through your daily choices. But keep in mind (that) no one is perfect and it’s a waste of energy to beat yourself up if you didn’t know about something or whatever. Try your best, of course, and keep learning.
AG: Since we share the same love and respect for animals, I have to ask: what is your spirit animal and why?
LMH: I don’t know anything about spirit animals! Ah, is that terrible? But I absolutely love sheep. There is nothing like getting to know a rescued sweet sheep at Woodstock Sanctuary (Louise!) or Farm Sanctuary (Samantha!). But I love all animals! Let’s be real!
AG: Are there future plans for more VAUTE stores? If so, can you give us a hint where?
LMH: Yes! Working on one for Manhattan now — stay tuned. And working on one for Toronto, starting with a pop-up shop. Love it there so much.
AG: Besides your flagship store, where else can VAUTE products be purchased?
LMH: VauteCouture.com and on tour! Stay in touch for our tour stops.
AG: We’re digging your recent collaboration with BHAVA on the Stella ankle boot. Any collaborations planned for 2015?
LMH: Planning a lot for VAUTE right now. Collabs will come after these next steps are figured out.
Ashley Gilday readers use coupon code LIVEWELL20 at checkout at VauteCouture.com for 20% off their spring and summer collection. Use coupon code LiveWellFreeShip for free shipping on tops.
Leanne Mai-Ly is a true inspiration. She is living her dream while paying it forward. Tag this piece #LIVEWELL on social media and spread the good word!