No one missed the leather—or the fur.
At New York Fashion Week's first all-vegan show in early February, the clothing was made from organic, recycled, and high-tech fabrics—beautiful tops, satin dresses, even winter coats. Models strutted the runway alongside rescue dogs adorned in bows. And only cruelty-free makeup and hair products were used to primp everyone involved.
"It was beautiful and amazing," says designer Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, who's behind the Vaute Couture line. "People are realizing that we can all make choices about the things we buy and wear, instead of allowing fashion magazines to choose trends for us."
Hilgart, 30, of New York, is on a mission to bring vegan fashion into the mainstream. That's right: Going vegan extends beyond what you put on your plate. Vaute Couture caters to people who care about where their clothes come from and how they're made—and also love style and fashion. The company produces clothing made without any animal skins or products that have been tested on animals. In addition to fur and leather, vegan designers don't use wool, sheepskin or lambskin, silk, or rabbit fur.
Hilgart's success is indicative of a push toward eco-friendly, cruelty-free clothing, experts say. The Humane Society of the United States lists more than 300 designers, brands, and companies on its fur-free list, and Stella McCartney and Steve Madden are among the big names getting in on the trend. Target, Bakers, and Payless all offer vegan shoes in addition to regular kicks. "Leanne is paving the way for future compassionate designers," says Michelle McDonald, fashion outreach manager for the Humane Society's fur-free campaign. "Animals are killed in the most brutal ways—even skinned alive—for fashion, and many consumers want nothing to do with it."
Indeed, life on a factory farm often spells death for the animals used to make material for clothing. Lambs' ears are punched and their tails chopped, and the males are typically castrated without anesthetics. They're sheared so quickly they end up bloody and mutilated—all in the name of wool, according to the Humane Society. Baby geese are strung upside down while their feathers are ripped out to create down stuffing. And when the animals are no longer useful, they're slaughtered. "It ends up being a very cruel process," Hilgart says. "But it can be hard to realize, because it's not something we all think about."
That lack of awareness is what Hilgart is working to change. She launched Vaute Couture in 2008, but she's been an animal rights advocate since she was 10 years old, when she and her friends went door to door selling homemade artwork to raise money for a local animal shelter. When she was 12, she sold the title of her social studies fair project, "Being Cruel Isn't Cool," to a national T-shirt company.
Fast forward more than 10 years, when Hilgart was working as a Ford fashion model in Hong Kong while also pursuing an MBA at DePaul University in Chicago, her hometown. She realized that the best way to make her voice heard was through entrepreneurship—creating a business that would do good work in every facet. Vaute Couture was born, and Hilgart started with outerwear. She spent a year researching and developing her first line of winter dress coats, which combine recycled and recyclable fibers. "One of the last excuses people had to wear wool or down was that they needed to be warm," she says. "I realized that I could find and develop something better—an innovation for all, and not just a vegan alternative. I wanted my coats to be warmer and more protective than wool, so there would be no reason not to wear them."
Vaute Couture has since expanded to include dresses, skirts, tops, pants, and sweaters for both men and women. All are made from vegan, eco-friendly, low-impact fabrics, which means they have a low carbon footprint.. Staples include organic velvet and moleskin, 100-percent recycled zero-waste satin, waxed canvas, bamboo jersey, and washi paper knits. Hilgart also commonly uses vegan "leather" made from recycled fibers, and knits made with organic cotton fiber. "I can't just use the readily-made fabrics that most designers can," she says. "I have to custom-make them, and that takes much longer."