by D. R. Hildebrand
Last year, in early March, I took a short subway ride from the annual New York City Vegetarian Food Festival in Chelsea to the opening of a boutique clothing store in Williamsburg. I had read about the designer and her innovative water-proof, wind-proof, sub-freezing-suitable outwear and I wanted to meet her and see the clothes in person. Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, newly relocated from Chicago, was attracting evermore attention for her one hundred percent cruelty-free label, Vaute Couture—and she hadn’t yet even opened her doors.
But this was just the beginning. Two months later, in a national competition hosted by Macy’s, Ms. Hilgart was chosen from an applicant pool of 1,800 as one of fourteen “emerging designers” with “promising mainstream success.” The reward was a week-long workshop aimed at teaching these designers the business aspects of the industry and how to penetrate the greater marketplace. Hilgart excelled, and less than a year later Vaute entered New York Fashion Week.
When I arrived for the fitting two days before the show I was already elated, not just as a vegan and a model but as a friend, to be a part of this experience. There had never been a sustainable, vegan label showcasing solo at New York Fashion Week, and Hilgart was poised to correct that. As enthusiastic as I was for this inimitable occasion, it wasn’t until I put on my “look,” right there in the factory where it was made and I saw the decency, the ethic of the environment all juxtaposed to comparable factories overseas that I realized the extent to Vaute’s uniqueness. Much more than just the apparel itself would set Hilgart’s brand apart from the tiresome trends and the status quo of fashion’s most meaningful week.
Photo by Gregory Vaughan
Everything, it seemed, was different. From the subtle to the overt, Hilgart created her own rules: instead of opting for the artificial, militaristic look of sameness and severity, she chose models who were diverse and approachable and styled each one uniquely. Instead of confining the show to a runway, which would permit the audience just a few elusive seconds to view a single outfit, she integrated a showroom design that encouraged guests to photograph, to engage, and to linger. Instead of creating an ambiance of darkness and mystery she opened the atmosphere with music that was inviting and lighting that was serene. And instead of having her models walk out with every imaginable being from snakes to peacocks to baby tigers in some false display of survival or allure or power, Hilgart presented dogs—in the hopes of finding them homes.
Backstage, the mood was professional yet light. There was a clear sense that everyone involved was eager not only to create something beautiful, but something lasting. It was a fashion show, yes; it was art and creativity and newness, of course; but it was a statement to boot, a very proud and unequivocal one with a conscience at its core. Every element of the exhibition reflected this. Makeup was done by DeVita. Hair was styled by Salon Champu. Women’s shoes were made by Love is Mighty, men’s shoes by Brave Gentleman. Refreshments came from Vegan Treats and Vita Coco. Sponsors included the Humane Society, Farm Sanctuary, PETA, and PCRM. From the casting director to the DJ to the volunteers and many of the models, nearly every piece of the show was fair-labor, sustainable, principled, and vegan. As Hilgart commented afterward, “I’m not here to create fashion. I’m here to create ethical options within fashion.”
Photo by Gregory Vaughan
My own outfit exemplified this. I wore a warm, ivory-colored organic cotton Sherpa turtle neck, a camel organic velvet coat with a recycled thinsulate quilted liner and brown tagua nut buttons, and gray waxed canvas pants, most of which was unlike anything I had ever seen or heard of. The innovation behind each item not only made the rest of Fashion Week look lame but caught the attention of leading media as well. By the following day CNN reported it on its homepage and soon after ran an almost four-minute televised segment on Hilgart and the unnecessary use of animals in fashion.
Notably, after commenting on the elegance and sophistication of the clothes, the news anchor concluded the story with an observation that couldn’t have better summarized the entire affair. “Well,” she said to the correspondent, reflecting on what she had learned, “you made me think.” As thought is the origin of compassion, that is the point. Nothing will change without thought when it is thoughtlessness that defines the current state of fashion: exploit, waste, pollute, kill—over and over and over with a few bland modifications in color and cut so the world will clap and call it new, and ignorance will persist unchallenged.
Hilgart has chosen to think. She has chosen to challenge. Originality has never looked so good.
Note: For all news on Vaute Couture and for exclusive backstage footage of the show, like their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/VauteCouture