Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart

Founder/Creative Director at Vaute Couture.

SS: What made you go vegan and why?

LMH: When I was 6 a girl down the street got a rabbit fur coat for Christmas. I didn’t know anything about the fur industry- anal electrocution, steel leg hold traps, etc.- but I did know that some rabbits had lost their lives so that a little girl could wear some silly coat. I had a feeling early on that we were doing things to animals that no one was talking about. When I was in grade school we had a social studies fair and were asked to choose a topic that we wanted to know more about. I chose the Fur Industry, Factory Farming, and Vivisection and titled the accompanying paper “Being Cruel Isn’t Cool” (which was later purchased by the now defunct Wild Wear- as my first vegan slogan tee design.) When I visited my uncle’s dairy farm a few weeks later, I was called in to dinner after playing with the cows. We sat down for steak- and while I told myself to be polite and try to eat enough to go unnoticed, my body held staunch opposition and refused to swallow. I never ate the flesh of an animal again.

Seven years later I spent a week at YES! Camp (now YEA! Camp) where we ate vegan all week. As soon as I learned that the Veal and Dairy industries are one in the same, I went from cheese-a-holic to strict vegan, and never looked back. To me it’s not in the details- it’s in the fact that animals are not ours to eat, and it’s a beautiful thing that the earth and our health are better off when we don’t eat others. I can’t comprehend the idea that for the most part animals are treated as if they don’t matter- as if they are only as valuable as what they can be used for, as machine parts, and therefore live painful lives and cruel deaths all because of business and tradition. There’s no simpler way to stand for nonviolence and respect than to stop eating others.

SS: Has it been difficult for you? If yes what was difficult and did it get easier?

LMH: I’ve found that anything worth doing is difficult- in the sense that you aren’t just choosing a path or choice because it’s easy, but you’ve questioned the norm, questioned what you’ve been expected to do. Difficult though is a funny word, as it can suggest something negative, but in fact I see difficulties as a growing process that can be enjoyable. What kind of life is it to never question anything, and therefore not choose things for yourself? Taking a new look at what I ate was fun and an opportunity to try new things and really explore what I was putting in my body. It opened up a new world of food to me at an early age, and now I’m revisiting all my childhood favorites with the new vegan options that keep popping up everywhere. (Yum Sweet & Sara s’mores! Cinnaholics in SF! Lagusta’s Luscious peanut brittle! and on and on!)

SS: What are some animal rights related things that you participate in?

LMH: Three years ago I was modeling in Hong Kong during my summer off from my MBA. I had realized that business touched so much that it was an opportunity to do good through each element, each interaction. I was set on starting a business that would speak up for animals where they were lacking a voice, show that compassionate living is easy and wonderful, and push forward an industry by creating an animal free alternative that was better than mainstream options. I hadn’t determined what that was until one night in Hong Kong- during 110 degree Typhoon season- I remembered how much I’d whined and shivered during the endless Chicago winters without a warm coat, and without one that would actually fit my style. When I googled “vegan coats” and found women on the Post Punk Kitchen and the Quarterlife Crisis (veganchai) blog looking too, I realized that I wasn’t the only one. When I discovered no one had ever really attempted to reinvent the winter dress coat from wool shell and silk liner, I realized that this was an opportunity to do the winter dress coat better- for everyone- even non-vegans. I then quit everything and started the label that fall of 2008, spent 8 months on fabric R&D, and launched for preorders that summer. I’ve collaborated and worked with the HSUS, Farm Sanctuary, PETA, Woodstock Sanctuary, and other nonprofits that I adore, as well as spoken at the Farm Sanctuary walks, the AR Conference, and universities about finding your own personal voice for the animals.

SS: What are your favorite animal rights organizations?

LMH: The Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY is my most favorite place on earth. I love the anit-fur work that the Humane Society of the United States does, and I’m designing some tees & tanks for them. And I also adore PCRM- who has gotten many Universities to stop insanely cruel and unnecessary animal classroom experiments. Living in NYC, a day trip to Woodstock Sanctuary always makes giddy... I’m on my way there right now for some star-gazing, apple picking, and Thanksliving- a celebration for the rescued Turkeys.

SS: What would you say to somebody who is considering going vegan?

LMH: Nothing has brought me more peace than to know that I am not intentionally harming other living beings in my daily life. It is not a sacrifice, but an empowerment, to think of others in all you do. And hey, this is not a game of how to be perfect- it’s about each of us doing our part to lessen suffering together.