Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart; image courtesy of Vaute Couture

Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart; image courtesy of Vaute Couture

Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart

Who: Founder, president and creative director of Vaute Couture in Brooklyn, N.Y.
What: Sustainable, vegan and ethically manufactured men's and women's fashion
When: Launched in 2009
Where: 234 Grand St., Brooklyn, N.Y. vautecouture.com

Vaute Couture's mix of coats, dresses and other apparel stands on its own as a witty, wearable fashion label, but for founder Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, making clothes is also a form of activism.

"The key for me is innovating with fabrics that are better than traditional materials [like leather and fur] that use animals," said Hilgart, who launched Vaute Couture in 2009, combining years of modeling experience with a business education. "I am telling the world that we don't need to wear animals."

The designer first gained a following for her super-warm, feminine coats, and then she branched into other apparel including playful vintage-inspired dresses, skirts and tops in eco- and animal-friendly fabrics like organic velvet, waxed canvas and recycled-fiber satin. Not long after, the mainstream fashion world took notice. In 2013, Vaute Couture was the first all-vegan collection to go down the runway during New York Fashion Week.

The brand continues to make headway. This spring, Vaute Couture is adding more clothing options and accessories (including gloves and handbags), and it also has its first wedding dress in the works. Hilgart also participates in animal rights campaigns, and her Brooklyn boutique regularly hosts animal adoption events.

The designer recently sat down with The Stylish Kind to share her creative vision and tips for creating the ultimate wardrobe.

Vaute Couture Spring '14  -- CLICK THROUGH FOR MORE

Vaute Couture Spring '14  -- CLICK THROUGH FOR MORE

Do you remember when you first got the idea for Vaute Couture?
I came up with it while I was in Hong Kong on a modeling contract in the summer of '08. Two weeks later we started the website and [design work]. That being said, I did spend three years before that going through other concepts. It was a little bit like dating. When you [find the right one], it's like, "Oh this is right. Here we go."

Have you seen a strong shift toward more sustainable, cruelty-free fashion over the past few years?
Yes. What I have seen lately is not only an acceleration of the movement, but the big companies like Free People and Express [selling] clothing like vegan leather. They see there's a market for it. It may not be their intention to create a [full] vegan label, but the intention is to make their customers happy. That's where I've seen the big shift, which is really interesting.

What's the biggest challenge you've overcome so far?
Saying yes to me and not just saying yes to everybody else. I didn't realize it was a challenge until I fixed it. I had always thought that I needed to give everything to my mission, and I did it to the detriment of myself. This year was the first year I got my own apartment, and that changed everything. I could really listen to myself better, and I was able to ask, "What do I want out of my day?" I thought that was a luxury, but now I realize it actually makes you more productive.

What do you do for relaxation?
Work-life balance is doing all the things together that I love: Being with animals, being with people I love, creating together. Rest for me is being outdoors or doing absolutely nothing. I decided that every other week I want to have an afternoon where I just sit in bed with [my dog] Audrey and watch movies or journal. I write a lot, and I do a lot of Pinterest quote pinning. And I love being outside -- just being upstate, apple picking or hiking. It's nice to just feel the ground and touch the earth.

What's the best way for someone to transition her closet to a fully sustainable, cruelty-free wardrobe?
The most sustainable thing is to get most of your wardrobe from vintage and thrift. If you do that,  you can invest in some [new] pieces from an eco-friendly brand you really love and want to support. You get those cleaned, you get them repaired, you keep those as pieces you'll have forever. Seek out those companies, get inspired by the ones that are focusing on different arenas of clothing and find the ones that fit your personality. Invest in those pieces knowing that you're balancing your wardrobe budget with thrift. You fill in the rest with secondhand. What's so special about that is just people end up with a wardrobe that's all them. It's not something that's just from magazines or what other people are wearing.  

Do you recommend transitioning your closet slowly or all at once?
It's a personal choice. It's a little bit like when you go vegan [with food]. Do you go vegan right away or do you slowly go vegan? Everything about going vegan -- or making any positive change in your life -- is about making it doable for you. If you can do it 80 percent for a year or two years until it gets easier, until you figure out the functionality and your routine of what you eat and what you wear, that's great.

What's your favorite movie?
"Defending Your Life." I first saw it when I was 6 or 8, but now I love it even more. It's about questioning how brave you are and how much you allowed what other people think to rule your life. How much did you choose how you wanted to live your life, and how much fun did you have? Those are the questions I want to ask myself all the time. The film does that, but in a light way. Life should be fun.