Even as a kid, Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart had a radar for unfairness. If she wasn’t sticking up for her classmates in elementary school, she was thumbing through a “Kid’s Guide to Social Justice” for tips on how to call her state representative.
But no issue registered a stronger blip for her than animal rights. At 6, Hilgart became enraged after learning a neighbor’s coat had been made of rabbit fur. At 8, she convinced a group of friends to sell their art door to door to raise money for an animal shelter. And in 5th grade, she wrote a school paper on factory farming titled, “Being Cruel Isn’t Cool,” a slogan she eventually sold to a T-shirt company.
Hilgart never lost that passion for animals, even as life took her elsewhere. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with studying to be a school principal, or modeling in Asia, or getting an MBA, but none of those careers combined her skill with her passion. None of it felt right.
That’s what makes Vaute, the vegan fashion label she launched in 2009, so exceptional. It’s felt right to Hilgart from the very beginning.
Creating cruelty-free outerwear that’s warm and fashionable, Vaute combines activism with practicality in a way that consumers have responded to. Hilgart bootstrapped the company for 6 years from $68,000 in initial sales to more than $850,000 last year and has her eyes set on an expansion big enough to disrupt the entire fashion industry.
Vaute’s Wefunder campaign is a large part of that expansion, as the investment money will help with expanded production, inventory, and the company’s first official marketing run. It’s a big vision, but not too big for an entrepreneur who, in some way or another, has been thinking about this her whole life.
“I think that who you are as a kid is a great inspiration for who you can be because it's before anyone tells you what you're good at and what you should do,” Hilgart said. “It's kind of who you intrinsically are. As a child who loved strangers, animals, and art, I grew up to be someone who created a fashion label to speak out for animals.”
The idea for Vaute came to Hilgart in 2008. She was in the middle of completing her MBA and was modeling in Hong Kong, a job that afforded her a lot of time to think. She’d finish casting and shooting, then go back to her 200 square foot apartment and brainstorm business plans.
The Chicago native tossed around idea after idea before eventually realizing stylish outerwear hadn’t been reinvented in a while. Growing up, she’d spent her winters either too cold in a dressy coat or too lumpy in a thick hiking coat. The concept of designing a warm but dressy coat was the launching point, but the clincher was that she could do it without using any animal fur, wool, or feathers.
“This isn’t a company for vegans,” Hilgart said. “This is a company for people who I can make a solution for in their lives that will keep them from wearing animals. One day it’ll be about people not wanting to wear animals, and I’m excited for that day, but right now it’s about creating something amazing for people who, in buying our clothing, will end up not wearing animals instead.”
After coming up with the idea behind Vaute, Hilgart quit both her modeling career and business school to throw herself into the company. The first year didn’t go as planned. The inexperienced Hilgart thought she could start the company in September with no collection or textiles and still be ready to sell that winter. After realizing that was unrealistic, Hilgart then worked throughout the winter and had final samples ready in the spring.
The first production run was so popular that it was funded just through pre-orders. Still, the long-term outlook of the company was unclear, because the only way to make new fabric for next year’s line was to use the profits from the previous year. One down season and Vaute would shut down.
That never happened, though. Sales grew steadily year after year even without a real marketing run, plus Hilgart brought on a round of angel investment in 2015, both allowing for continued product and brand expansion.
With more investment money for inventory and their first real ad campaign, Hilgart thinks that after a decade of groundwork and growth, Vaute is close to changing the outerwear category forever. So far the push has been positive — the company’s first paid ad converted so many new acquisitions that Hilgart saw a 4X return after only one day.
That’s good news for Vaute and its investors. It’s also good news for animals, as three coats made with vegan materials saves 1-4 animals like sheep and geese from one year of things like factory farming and live plucking.
That there is an overlap in those two missions is a credit to Hilgart, who is creating her own personal brand of good news one quality coat at a time.
“People start fashion lines because they want to create art or to have their designs in the world, “Hilgart said. “I’m not precious about that at all. For me, it’s all about what impact I could make. Fashion is the vehicle for my activism. If I wasn't doing this, I would be doing something else for the animals.”
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