As a Chicago native, Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart (EDU ’04) knows about frigid winters. But as a vegan, she struggled to find a fashionable, warm coat that didn’t rely on animal products like wool. While attending DePaul University, she resorted to wearing one coat for style and two sweaters underneath for warmth. “It certainly ruins your outfit if you have to wear two layers and then your coat!” Hilgart says.
In the hopes that no one else would have to compromise their beliefs or their style to make it through winter, Hilgart decided launch her own line of vegan coats. Today her company, Vaute Couture, offers not just coats but shirts, jewelry and more—all without using fur, leather, wool, silk or other animal products. Vaute Couture also emphasizes products that are eco-friendly, fair trade and otherwise ethically produced.
Hilgart didn’t have a fashion design background when starting her line. Rather, she had a passion for raising awareness of social issues. She came to DePaul because she loved how the atmosphere encouraged advocacy and service. “It seemed like no matter who you are or what you’re into, there was a group for you and a place for you to become the best version of yourself,” says Hilgart, who founded DePaul Voice for the Animals as an undergraduate and the DePaul Business Corps as an MBA student.
Hilgart hit upon the idea for Vaute Couture while taking classes in brand management and entrepreneurship at the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business. She left grad school in September 2008 because the timing seemed right. “Like everything in entrepreneurship, so much of it is the momentum, so I was ready to take what I had learned at DePaul and start the business then,” she says. After eight months researching vegan fabrics that could stand up to cold weather, she launched for coat preorders in June 2009.
What Hilgart started as a small startup in Chicago is now growing to a studio in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The company has received positive reviews from sites including Oprah.com and TeenVogue.com, and was named 2010 Company of the Year by VegNews Magazine. Vaute Couture doesn’t have a storefront, so Hilgart uses the Internet, pop-up stores and traveling events to bring shopping opportunities to customers.
Starting a business can be daunting, but Hilgart has advice for future entrepreneurs. “Think about what you can offer to make the world a better place in a way that only you can,” she says. “Then just run with it and don’t let anyone water down your idea or try to make it more normal or doable or easy. Instead, just put in your full passion and don’t wait for approval. Just do it.”