One of the most simultaneously exciting and difficult things about going vegan was the amount of clothing I had to get rid of. I realized that the commitment I was making wasn't just about what I eat — all of my many old leather jackets, and wool and cashmere clothes went to charity, and I ushered a new era of vegan fashion into my wardrobe. It worked out well for me, since my wardrobe actually really needed an update anyway. I enjoyed buying new vegan boots, and more ethically-made shirts, but one major challenge remained: where would I find a warm and stylish vegan winter jacket or coat?
I was stumped — until I heard about Vaute Couture. The vegan fashion brand (pronounced "vote"), not only happens to make some really cute, stylish clothing — it was also the first vegan brand to show at New York Fashion Week, and was founded by a young woman, to boot. Vaute's designer and founder, Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, spoke with me about how she's managed to create her own successful, ethical vegan fashion brand — and all at only 32 years old, no less.
It turns out animal rights has been Mai-ly Hilgart's passion since she was 10, when she wrote a paper on the subject, and it became her cause.
"When I got into animal rights and social justice issues, no one wanted to talk to me; everyone thought I was really weird," Mai-ly Hilgart tells Bustle. "I went from having a lot of friends and being queen of girls scouts and band to being like, 'no one will sit with me at lunch.' I cried every night, but it made me stronger."
Looking at Mai-ly Hilgart now, it might be hard to imagine her being bullied. By the time she was in college, she was already a stunning model — a job that helped her imagine the way fashion could be used to further the cause of animal rights. She noticed that no one was creating exclusively vegan couture — and saw an opening in the market.
"Generally speaking, fashion [was viewed as] almost amoral, like morality had nothing to do with it, because it’s art," Mai-ly Hilgart says. "But the thing is, apparel production is so huge and affects so many elements of the world. It’s textile production, people, workers, environment, animals — all that stuff — it's just as important as food."
Our culture of fast, mass-produced fashion does indeed have a huge environmental and ethical impact. Whether it's the questionable labor practices and sweatshops needed to produce fashion at a cheap, quick rate, or the huge impact that manufacturing all these products in other countries has on our economy and environment, making ethical vegan clothing isn't only about helping animals. In fact, the textile industry is the second-biggest polluter in the world, second only to the oil industry.
"I want people to love the jacket first — realize it’s warm, warmer than wool, because we use high-tech materials — and then realize it’s vegan. I want them to think 'Oh, so this is what vegan looks like.'"
Mai-ly Hilgart wanted to launch a brand that not only didn't use animal products, but that also paid employees a fair wage, and allowed seamstresses to make clothing by hand, right in New York City, "the way they used to". She decided to start with what she knew so many of us need — warm winter coats and jackets.
Her goal was to create jackets that even non-vegans would want to wear. "I want people to love the jacket first — realize it’s warm, warmer than wool, because we use high-tech materials — and then realize it’s vegan. I want them to think 'Oh, so this is what vegan looks like.' The word's been around long enough that people definitely have a connotation with it. And we want to change that connotation."
For the same reason, Vaute produces lots of cute-but-clever vegan tee-shirts that also serve to challenge certain image-problems the vegan stereotype can have. The company makes dresses, sweaters, hats, and men's clothing as well. (Oh, and they just started making couture formal gowns, for all those vegan celebs.)
Aside from the environmental and human impact, how exactly are animals affected by the fashion industry? Many people don't realize just how cruel the production of leather, wool, and down is. You might know that cows are killed for leather, but think the down in your jacket is simply the result of geese feathers that are naturally shed. Unfortunately, this isn't the case.
"With down, they live-pluck the geese — which is like getting your fingernails ripped out," Mai-ly Hilgart explains. "Producers do this every few months; as soon as it grows back, they do it again, until they slaughter the geese a few years later."
And what about wool? Aren't the sheep just sheered painlessly? Again, that's not the case. As PETA's Fashion Campaign Coordinator Christina Sewell wrote in an article for Bustle about why wool is just as cruel as fur,
Time and time again, when PETA or one of our affiliates has taken a closer look inside the wool industry, egregious abuse has been uncovered. At this farm, as has been documented previously at other facilities, the shearers work so quickly and carelessly that many sheep are left with gaping wounds. One sheep's leg was turned into an oozing, bloody mess by a shearer who inflicted a wound nearly a foot long that appeared to cut down to the bone.
Sheep's coats are also often riddled with bug eggs, so some manufacturers also practice mulesing, a cruel procedure where the sheep's skin is sliced off without anesthetics, so that it will scab up and prevent bugs from living on them. On top of that, these same sheep are all also eventually sold to slaughter for meat, if they don't die under the inhumane conditions first.
These are just a few of the horrendous facts about the production of wool, and it is what moved Mai-ly Hilgart to design "vegan wool" coats, which not only look great, but are also super warm, water-resistant, and made from recycled products.
Of course, because these jackets are all handmade under ethical conditions using sustainable fabrics, they aren't cheap. Most of Vaute's coats run between $350-$550. If that sounds like a lot of money to you, Mai-ly Hilgart understands, but suggests that if you're able to, you consider making the investment in shopping more sustainably.
"Most of my clothes come from church resale shops and thrift stores," she says. "But then, the pieces I want to support are the pieces I save up for — and I know that my money is supporting ethical practices." In other words, buy your fast fashion used, and buy fewer, nicer staples that will last you longer.
Whatever you decide, what matters most to Mai-ly Hilgart is not that you buy her clothing, but that you make ethical choices that are most sustainable for you.
"Eating vegan or shopping ethically has to be something that you can grow and maintain," she says. "I know people who try so hard to be so perfect so quickly, and it’s so overwhelming because there are so many things to consider that they eventually give up. So they were 100 percent vegan for like a month — and that’s not actually helping anyone in the longterm."
What matters is that you find a way to make more ethical choices in a way that's realistic for you. Remember: eating vegan for just one day a week has a greater environmental impact that being a locavore who eats anything locally-grown seven days a week. You don't have to get rid of all your unethical clothes the way I did — you could just consider making one of your next big purchases from a vegan or sustainable, ethical company instead.
And rest assured: trends may come and go, but respecting other living beings will never go out of style.