Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart is the founder of Vaute "the world's first vegan fashion brand, founded with a mission of taking animals out of the fashion equation, by creating something better, using innovative, high-tech, sustainable textiles, cut and sewn in NYC's garment district with love."
Hi Leanne! I'm so excited to talk to you today. I've been following your journey for a few years now and I have to say your passion and tenacity is incredibly inspiring. You've been featured in Business Insider, Nylon, CNN, and the list goes on!
Before we dive into things, could you possibly give the DreamJobbing community a bit of insight to your background? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a Chicago suburb called Darien, about 10 minutes from the McDonalds HQ in a family full of science people- my brother has been programming computers since he was a kid, my dad is an engineer and inventor, and my mom is a pediatrician. They all were a little worried when I wasn't reading at the genius level my brother was- I was the artist, I was the animal lover- the girl in the backyard building hotels for the roly poly bugs, finding lost dogs, and rescuing hurt geese. I started a dog walking and sitting business in the 6th grade. My favorite book in grade school was the Kids Guide to Social Change- I was starting letter writing campaigns, doing petitions in the lunch room, and calling cosmetics companies with a list of questions about their animal testing policies until they got so annoyed with me, because, well, I was 10, I was a pretty annoying kid. :)
I heard that you were an education major and studying to be a school principal before starting your fashion line. How and why did you decide to make that change and was there a specific turning point for you?
It's funny how we we can get so far down a path that we chose a long time ago, without really asking if it's the path we still want to be on. It's never too late to change streams. It might be stressful, you might lose friends, you'll definitely feel lost. But then you can be found.
I had always loved organizing my classmates to do projects and campaigns, so I got the idea that I'd be a good teacher & principal. In reality, I was built for business. I am terrible at following rules and while unacceptable in education, this is an asset in business. I had made it all the way to the final quarter of my education degree: student teaching, when I realized that this wasn't what I was meant to do, someone else would be so much better at this than me. It hit me gradually- the way you just don't feel like yourself, you don't know how to operate intuitively, and you are feeling very dull and diluted. I lost so much weight. I looked deflated. I cried every week of student teaching. Until one day I was walking in CB2 with my partner at the time, and he sat me down and said to me: “You don't have to do this. You don't have to become a teacher."
We forget that because we've invested time, money, and energy in something doesn't make it any more right to continue spending more time, money, and energy on it. My parents weren't thrilled, as we'd invested a lot in this degree. They wanted me to at least try one year as a teacher. But I already knew I couldn't. I must be entirely committed to something- if I am, I'll give it more than everything. If not though, I'm out. I spent the next 5 years trying to figure out what was that thing that I wanted to show up for 1000%.
You have had an incredible journey so far with Vaute and it seems like things are just ramping up and only getting bigger and more successful! It's truly amazing! I love that your line is the first vegan label to show at New York Fashion Week. That's such a huge accomplishment.
What do you think has been the biggest challenge in starting your own company, and specifically a company in the fashion industry?
Aw thank you! That's really so sweet. It's funny when I started I didn't tell anyone (okay, two people), because I knew no one would get it. A vegan fashion line? What does that even mean? “Can you eat the clothes?" was literally a question I got for the first couple years. Now big brands are seeing the demand and doing their best to add animal free options. It's amazing to watch the world change.
When I started, I had no official background in fashion except sketching for fun, and modeling- which made it possible for me to understand how clothing was marketed, and I had ideas of what to make but no idea how to make them. I couldn't sew (still can't!), I had never stepped in an apparel factory, definitely never taken a fashion class. It was also the bottom of the recession so to start a new company with a new line of clothing with innovative textiles meant there were no bank loans (my bank told me then I'd have to be in business for 2+ years to even apply), business plan competitions didn't get me- they wanted something more like what they had seen had worked already, and retail stores weren't buying new collections, in fact many of them were closing. All of the traditional routes for getting capital to build the business were out, so I had to figure out how else we'd fund production: I ended up building a preorder system in 3 days with my amazing web guys, Element Eleven. This was before Kickstarter was popular and before IndieGoGo did anything except films.
The biggest challenge? It actually wasn't any of that. The biggest challenge is this: When everything is up in the air-- when you are waiting to see if the $6K in fraud orders from stolen credit cards on your website will get repaid to you or not (turns out to be or not), or if you have a new location after your landlord gave you two weeks to move out because he wants to open a liquor store, or what customers will say when they find out your black fabric turned out dark green (because most our fabrics are custom made), or what will happen when the $40K in your bank account is held by your credit card processor because they don't believe your orders are real until you ship all the coats for those orders, but you need the $40K to finish making those coats-- When all of this is up in the air, the challenge is to realize- this is it. This is running a business, this is life, to be an entrepreneur is to be comfortable with this “wait and see" headspace, to do your best with the given circumstances, to always know you'll figure it out, and to live your life anyway. This is the key.
I used to hold my breath, lock myself in my apartment stricken with panic and anxiety, only allowing myself to focus on doing more, something more, anything for the business to fix this. When things were up in the air I'd punish myself, when what the business really needed from me was to live my life- when you have done all you can do, you must live. And before you do all you can do, you must fill yourself up with life, so that you can do your best.
Do you have any advice or thoughts to share with people who don't quite know what their passion is yet, or aren't quite sure what would make them the most happy in their life and careers?
YES. Ask yourself what tools your life is giving you and only you, to serve the world in a way that only you can.
There are so many things that we are drawn to that we don't take seriously because they feel unproductive or unsuccessful or unmarketable, but when we add them together they create a mass of tools and talents to fill a need that only you have the ability to fill.
For me my never-started career in education taught me how people learn, my year as an RA in college gave me a sense of building community, my life as an activist gave me the ability to talk to people who aren't really open to talking about anything let alone difficult subjects, and my accidental modeling career taught me how to run a casting and a shoot- how to create the art of visual expression of a product. These things together made it possible for me to start and run VAUTE from an intuitive place, instead of always looking to others for how it's typically done.
Before VAUTE, I felt very lost and alone for years. At a marketing internship the VP said to me, “I don't understand you, Leanne. You seem to like to do everything- what are you good at?" I didn't have an answer. When you stop asking “what can I be" and start asking “how can I be of service?" it's easier to see what tools and talents you have been given, and then it is easy to just start taking steps and building on what you know, in service of a better world. Do what feels good, do what excites you, do what you feel you are built for, even if it's just one part of you. That part will lead to the next part and to the next as you accrue tools and learn lessons to make the impact you are built for.
I love this quote that you have on your site, “Sometimes you have to let go of good to make room for incredible." For the people who really want to start their own company but might be listening to their fears and terrified to take the first step, is there anything that you could say to help them on their journey?
What are you afraid of? I will tell you that entrepreneurship is filled with peaks and valleys and in those valleys— you will still be okay. At rock bottom- you will find freedom, you will find lessons, and you will find a new invincible you.
When our landlord wanted to open a liquor store in the space we were renting, within a couple months I lost our headquarters and (profitable) store, went through a breakup and didn't have a place to live for a couple months. And in this space was the chance to let go of old Leanne - and the version of me I had outgrown to make room for who I needed to become for the next stage of growing VAUTE. Did old Leanne go kicking and screaming? Absolutely. But once you surrender to your own life and face your fears, there is nothing more liberating or empowering. And now we have a beautiful flagship in Manhattan and an amazing team I adore so very much and we are setting up to scale.
Letting go of good is a gift. Sometimes we are thrown into the chance for incredible when something inside you screams: “you've outgrown this" and sometimes when life tells you: “something bigger is waiting for you." Ask yourself what's the worst that could happen, make yourself a list of 5 things you're going to do tomorrow (no excuses) and say “let's just see". If nothing happens, try 5 different things and think: “Let's just see." Don't wait until you're “prepared" because you never will be. Trust yourself, trust you just need to show up and you'll find out what the next steps are from there. You don't need to have the whole plan laid out- you just need to start doing something. Your plan will change anyway, better to be fully listening to the world to see what it wants and how it reacts to you then head down in a plan that isn't going to work. Know that you'll figure it out. Enjoy the adventure! And make sure to call your mom every day.
What is next for you and Vaute?
We're growing! We are currently preparing to raise to build a textile house with the right partners, to change the world of fashion and replace animal textiles in the fashion industry, so that one day the world will look at wearing animals as a thing of the past.
This summer we just opened our Manhattan Flagship Store at 114 Stanton in the LES (come visit!) with free Dunwells Doughnuts (vegan!) to the first 12 visitors each day, and soon free Oakland Coffee if you bring in a mug, cause Billie Joe from Green Day started this sustainable coffee company, and can't beat coffee and donuts, right? :)
Vogue UK & PETA UK just named us Best Wool Free Brand and while we're known for our coats, our new ethical gown collection was just featured on Vogue.com. We are hard at work developing more exciting ethical things for 2017 I can't wait to show you!