How Did You Get There, Vegan Fashion Designer Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart?

by Noah Davis

Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart is an animal lover with an entreprenurial spirit who founded a vegan fashion line. Vaute Couture is finding success — recently opening its first brick-and-mortar store in Williamsburg — but the founder quit her Ford Modeling contract and her MBA program, worked 80-hour weeks, and had to reinvent the female dress coat in order to get to this point. Over iced coffees, Hilgart talked about talked about unusual fashion, unusual work, and business as usual.

How did you end up with a vegan fashion line. Are you a fashion person or an animal person first?

Since I was eight, I’ve been raising money and awareness for animals. I would coordinate my friends to make arts and crafts that we would sell door-to-door to raise money for the local shelter. My business sense wasn’t there yet, I probably spent more on materials than we made, but my parents let me give all that money to the shelter. Then, my high school was dissecting cats, and I waged a campaign to require the right to alternative options for conscientious objectors. It was a really long fight, but I ended up garnering support for a bill that turned into a law requiring alternatives in all K-12 schools in Illinois.

I find that everyone has their own voice with their activism, and I developed mine in college, where I was running groups and focused on spreading awareness for animals and a compassionate lifestyle in a way that was really welcoming and recognized the compassion in everyone. Everyone is compassionate; not everyone knows all the ways we can easily help and not hurt others in our daily lifestyles.

Skipping forward, I can tell you that I searched for the thing that would be my contribution to raising awareness for animals, helping fight for their rights in a way that was productive, would get the most out of what I had to offer, and was something no one else was doing. This was outerwear. No one had made a warm dress coat that was vegan, and it was always there as an excuse as to why we still had to use animals for some things: “Well, we can’t completely get rid of animal products, we’d freeze without a wool coat.” And thus, this was my mission, to make sure there was no excuse to wear animals ever again.

Okay, going back, what were you studying DePaul?

I went to school to be a teacher, well, a principal by way of the typical teacher first career path. I wanted to start a school that would encourage others to speak up for what they believed in, for those who were treated by the system like bad kids because they were not cogs, not rule followers. Their voices were quieted and this was a disservice to society. But then, reality hit. During student teaching I realized that I never felt more not myself in my life. I couldn’t handle the confines of the system long enough to work on something new. I failed before I had started. I know now it’s important to give up early when it’s not right, but at the time it felt like a huge failure. I spent the next few years trying to figure out what exactly I was mean to do.

The first question was, what could I not keep myself from doing — when was I giddy, inspired, effortless? It wasn’t in my education classes, it wasn’t in my classes at all. It was outside my classes, where I was coordinating my animal rights organization, spreading awareness through events and collaborating with other groups to see what we could do together. I realized this was, in the “real” world, something you might call “marketing and events.” I swear it was more to me than that. I got an internship with, which is a company that matchmakes parents with their ideal babysitters.

It was at Sittercity where I saw how a business could really touch a lot of things. I realized that starting a business — creating one to do good in every facet — was a great model for activism. It’s kind of like Kant. If the process itself is ethical — a moral end in itself — then you’re not just creating a business that gives a little bit of the profit to a nonprofit. You in yourself are creating good with each element of the business. Therefore, each element is a driver for change. On top of that, we can create a new voice for the animals that can reach more people, and connect with them in a new way.

I realized I had to create a business but I needed to figure out what it was going to be. I thought I needed an MBA to balance out my knowledge sets. I started a full-time MBA program at DePaul. I entered all these business plan competitions, and when I got there, nobody would really understand what I was trying to do. I didn’t fit a formula, my ideas weren’t normal or proven. I was terrible at getting and asking for approval.

Was this the fashion line idea?

No, I was working on other concepts. I felt like I needed to water it down to make it something that people would understand. I wanted to make it eco or something that would reach a market that could sustain it. It was almost too broad, though. I would do my elevator pitch, and the judges wouldn’t understand why I wanted to help so many things. They wanted to see the bottom line.

Between the summer of first year and second year, I got a modeling contract in Hong Kong and spent three months there. I was just modeling, and my brain needed something to do. Every night, I would go through a different concept and try to flesh it out. I was looking specifically for one that didn’t need too much capital to start up because it was the middle of the recession and there was no bank funding. I had always wanted a coat that was cute, warm, and cruelty-free. I didn’t think anyone else would want one, especially at the price it would cost to do that with no compromises. I Googled it, and I found tons of discussion boards with women asking for a coat exactly like that. I talked to girlfriend over Skype, and she said if I didn’t do it, no one would. I thought okay, I’ve got to do this.

I didn’t tell anybody except her and my ex. I realized that asking for approval of my ideas was something I never did in my life before business school. I had always just followed that driver inside me that said, “It must be done.” I just thought I was going to do it.

And then you did.

I came back, quit my MBA, quit my contract, and started on 80-hour weeks.

Did you have a plan?

One of the smartest things I did was that I didn’t write a business plan. That’s not the case for everybody, but I had spent so much time writing business plans the previous year that I had it in my head. When I started this, I just did it. The advantage was that I could constantly re-strategize. I could look at the situation and figure out what would be best. Every night, I had a piece of paper out and I was re-strategizing everything. It was exhausting, but it was the only way to survive. I found that whenever something conventional didn’t work, I would be forced to come up with something unconventional. Inevitably, it would work better.

Was funding the line with pre-orders from individual customers one of those ideas?

Typically for new lines, you get pre-orders from boutiques. They give you 50 percent up front and 50 percent on delivery. That’s how you fund the line. But I started in 2008, in the depths of the recession with a brand new product and an entirely new concept. No one has ever tried to make a winter dress coat with high-tech materials. It’s a high price point and a new brand. It was not going to happen.

We were using custom fabric, which meant we needed to make a lot of coats and pay for the materials upfront. I needed to figure out a way to fund it. Chloe Jo-Davis, who runs the Girlie Girl Army, heard that I was developing vegan dress coats and she knew that wasn’t something that existed. She wrote a blog post with some photographs. Someone asked her if she could pre-order. Chloe asked me. I told her they could, and my web guys and I spent three days building a pre-order system.

And that worked?

I was shocked. Happily thrillingly shocked. I had hundreds of people in the middle of the summer spend hundreds of dollars pre-ordering coats that they had never seen from someone they had never met. I felt so lucky and thankful, because without them we would not have been able to produce the first line… and it also told me that yes, I am working on something that isn’t out there, that people want. I’m not here to create fashion. I’m here to push the industry forward, and to say, “Listen, we don’t need to wear animals, period.” It used to be that warmth was an excuse. You needed wool to be warm, especially for a dress coat. No, you don’t, actually. My coats are warmer than wool.

You crowdsourced the first designs.

When I first started, I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t think I was a designer. At the same time, I wanted to know that if I was going to put so much time, effort, and money into something, people would want it. Humbly, I did not believe that I could design something that people wanted. Two of the first four basic designs were a pea-dress coat hybrid, which is the coat I always wanted, and the longer Vintage-inspired coat. I put a call out to illustrators, not designers, all over the world to come up with a visual representation of these styles. Then, we asked the world what they wanted us to make. In six days, we had 8,000 votes.

That’s a nice proof of concept.

Totally. We saw which ones won. I took the drawings, which were not flat sketches, and did the real designing process: taking it to a point of construction, ensuring a great fit, making it something that was wearable, and giving it a price point that worked. We did that for two of the designs. For the other two — the pea coat and the Bomono, which is a bomber/kimono hybrid — are the ones I designed from scratch for the first season.

I still work with a couple designers that I like here and there if I needed something different, but I found that I really enjoy designing, so I just do it.

Why did you decide to open a store?

Because I was self-funded and working so much just to keep things going, I’ve always been squashing ideas. Last Thanksgiving weekend was an extra insane weekend, and I was going crazy trying to keep things together. I wondered what I could do for five minutes that would cheer me up but still feel productive. I went on Craigslist for a spot that I could daydream about. Surprisingly, I found a few options. One girl had an amazing spot, but she needed to tell her landlord what was going on by Thursday. It was Tuesday. I hadn’t even thought seriously about opening up a store, but my heart is always right about things. It felt like I should go see it. I stopped by and it was amazing. I was able to afford the entire space, which meant I could use the back for shipping instead of outsourcing it. It made budget sense, and it made sense for the customers because it streamlined everything. Anything I can do to make people happier, I’m really excited about. We closed on the space two weeks later. And I started building the store from salvaged materials.

The vegan aspect is a huge part of appeal line, but how does the non-vegan community respond?

A very small percentage of the country and the world is vegan, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t what they call “Vegan at Heart.” I have two markets. One is “Vegan at Heart,” which is people who want to live more compassionately, and they do in little ways. That’s amazing, and they add up. That’s my crowd in college who would come hang out with the dogs. They love dogs, and they would understand more and more. They would want to make as much of a change as they can, and that’s incredible.

On top of that, I started the label because I wanted to show people that they didn’t have to wear animals and that there is a better way. If you create a sub-par version, it’s a negative thing for veganism and for everyone. I can’t put that out there in the world. I wouldn’t have put that out there in the world. That’s why my fabric research took so long. My parents are science people, and I focus on problem solving. I consider what I do to be more from an invention standpoint, not a fashion/design standpoint. The look of it is an important but small part of what I do.

I had been in business for a month or two when I was asked to be in this event on Michigan Avenue. Before, I had been in all eco-events. This was just a shopping event, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. I get there, and we put one of the coats at the entrance of the event. Everyone was talking about it and asking where they could get it. I would tell them about the veganism or the eco-consciousness, and they liked that but it certainly was not what sold them. What sold them was that they found a very warm, lightweight coat that was adorable. When I was building a winter dress coat, I was shocked to find out that no one had tried to reinvent the materials of a winter dress coat. It had always been wool or a wool-blend. If it wasn’t, then it was not warm. If it was a cheap poly-blend, it might look warm but it wasn’t. When I realized that, I realized I could go another way with high-tech fabrics made from recycled fabrics and materials. I could create something that had the warmth and protection of a Patagonia or North Face coat with the look of a dress coat. That combination was something that women all over the world, no matter what they cared about, were happy to buy.

How do you spread the word?

I haven’t done any paid advertising, so everything is word of mouth or editorial. Oprah’s covered us. Marie Claire. Teen Vogue. But we are mostly niche. We have a very strong following of people who really believe in the brand. This year, we are planning to get a lot more mainstream so women can realize not only that they don’t need to wear animals but, more importantly, they can be very warm and dress the way they want.

How many employees do you have?

I have three people on staff and two interns. And it’s been incredible. I can focus on developing things and higher-level things like partnerships. I loved doing stuff like writing the customer services emails, but it didn’t leave time for other stuff.

We are looking at potentially bringing in investors. I’m not sure. We might go another way, but we need to figure out something so we don’t miss out on opportunities to make vegan fashion more mainstream. That’s the next step. I have some investors interested, so I think that we will probably do that. Once we do, we would hire a full staff and probably move into an office space. Our storefront could be entirely the store.

In the next few years, I’d like to open other flagship stores. One on the West Coast, either Portland or San Francisco, and some internationally. We have a lot of customers in Japan, and then maybe in London or maybe Australia. Those three are our major international markets. I’d also like to get a tour going. I would tour myself before. I would go to different cities and meet everybody, which was so amazingly fun. I would like to do a pop-up shop tour to bring it to everyone in person. Not everybody can guess their size. We might do a full tour with staff to create a really fun experience for everyone.

At this point, we’re going from the stage of me having to do everything myself and creating a very tight, efficient business model with no funding to the next stage where we have a staff. We can take what I’ve built and bring it to the mainstream.

That’s a good place to be.

It is. It’s really fun. It’s really exciting. There’s a lot of stress that comes with it, but yeah. [Laughs]

Who should I talk to next?

Jessica Marquez, who I found because her beautiful needlework art was in In Style Magazine and I Facebook-stalked her to realize we had two friends in common and she was veg-is launching her first book, Stitched Gifts. Her company name is Miniature Rhino.

Previously: Kate Wolff, Standup Comic

Noah Davis is frequently lost. Top photo by Bridget Laudien; second photo by Thomas Smith III.