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Opening New York’s First (Intentionally) Vegan Clothing Store: An Interview with Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart

Photo courtesy of Leanne, by Melissa Schwartz of scwartzstudios.

Photo courtesy of Leanne, by Melissa Schwartz of scwartzstudios.

Remember how we mentioned that the very first Vaute Couture store, Vaute Here, is opening on Sunday in Williamsburg?! YEAH ya do! If you’re half as psyched as I am, you’ll want to read all about owner Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart’s adventure in opening her first shop — how she chose the space, what she learned about creating a store, and what you’ll find in the shop when it opens (it’s more than coats! Yay!). Read on for a little Q-and-A between Leanne and me.

Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart is the founder and owner of the New York-based vegan clothing company Vaute Couture. She’s been featured on, has an MBA, and is a model. (To quote a movie, she’s “so hot it’s like looking through a shimmering jet engine.”)

Samantha Cohen: What has it been like to set up your first shop?
Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart: This has been one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. Unlike what most people probably think, my (or any other designer’s) life is usually full of logistical and operational details and processes, with design being about 2 percent of what I normally get to do. As a bootstrapped, self-funded venture, I’ve been working nearly all by myself, besides the occasional intern or amazing confidante to help during the craziest times, for the past three and a half years. That’s operations, production management, marketing, sales, customer service, design, finances, and product development.

This past fall I barely made it out alive, working from morning until past midnight, nothing but work, to keep up with this insane third season. (Not that I’m complaining–I’m very, very grateful to do what I love and have the best customers in the world, that is for sure. I just want to give an idea of why building the store was so wonderful for me.) After I took my first vacation in two years this January, I started hiring my first team to help with operations and customer service, while building the space.

So, getting to create and design so much for the store has been like being 5 again! I was always the artist in the class growing up, but I never thought I’d get to do art again in my life, especially after I went to school to become a school principal. So these past two months, I was giddy; so many creative projects, so much fun to be had! I loved watching the space take shape, and create its own personality.

I loved discovering salvaged pieces that no one wanted and giving them a new life, watching them come together in a new space to add up to something that had all my favorite things at once. I found that I had to abandon ideas I previously had for the store (name, colors), to make way for the colors and the name that the store grew to have. I realized that when you give up preconceived ideas, better ones are waiting. Things speak to you, and you just have to let them become what they are supposed to become. I sound like such a hippie! But it’s true. (SC: Take the briefest glance at Leanne’s coats and you will see she is a refined lady, not a hippie.)

SC: Best/worst parts of putting the store together?
LMH: Hm, I think I’ve already mentioned some of the best parts… worst parts were of course how much it costs! Whew! Besides rent, the renovations and materials (while salvaged) were quite a lot, especially for this self-funded venture. But, of course every risk I’ve taken has been no risk at all because there was a momentum here that I couldn’t ignore. And when life takes you somewhere, the only thing you can do is let go and trust yourself and that no matter what you’ll make it happen.

(Cliche incoming!) The biggest risk of all is not taking any, but I really mean that. I find that when you put your all into something because you know it just has to be created, it just has to be put out there into the world, and when you do this without any guarantees or expected outcomes, that so many other beautiful things come that you never could have dreamed. The harder you work, the more the stars align. (And this is a gazillion times truer when the work you do is for others.) Okay, I’m on a hippie, sappy tangent, clearly, sorry!

SC: What will customers find in the shop when it opens on Sunday?
LMH: A custom-made photobooth (an actual vegan one! Most aren’t vegan, with gelatin in the instant photo processing), a starry lightbox fitting room, all the casuals stacked in salvaged lockers (complete with farm animal pinups and love notes in the doors), and a weekly VOTE, where we get your input on new designs, colors, etc.

Oh, you mean clothes? We’ve got our coats and casuals, and winter accessories, too. And the new spring line (printed dresses, jumpers, overalls, tunics), plus a bunch of new things like HSUS and Sea Shepherd jewelry pieces, new charm necklaces, totes, knits, and art soon to come. (SC: OVERALLS!)

SC: How did you choose the location?
LMH: I was stressed out of my mind overworking on Thanksgiving weekend, and I thought, “What can I do that would be productive but good stress relief?” And I decided to look on Craigslist for a spot in Williamsburg that I could daydream about opening my first store at. Two days later I was making appointments to just start my research, when one store, located on the same street as THREE of my favorite Wburg restaurants (Food Swings, M Shanghai, Caracas) told me they had to give their landlord notice by that Thursday. It was Tuesday. There was no way that the first spot I ever looked at could be THE store, let alone could I decide this in two days!

But I went, that rainy night, to take a peek with my guy James. We stepped up to what I thought was the space, when I noticed the store next door and said “Wow…what’s that? Awesome neighbors.” Just then, the leasor came out of THAT store and said, “Leanne, THIS is what I’m renting out.” I walked in, and it was just better than I could have wanted. The leasor told me she’d hold off her landlord for one extra day so I could look at other places for comparison.

That Friday I looked at other stores until I told one about this space. The agent stopped, shook my hand, and said “Congratulations. WHAT are you doing here?” I walked back to the space, and signed it then and there, the first spot I’d seen, less than a week after I had found it on Craigslist. I felt like it had been handed to me. And I absolutely love it. It’s my safe haven, my bliss. This space is the ultimate comfort for me.


  1. Comment by

    anne louise heritage

    on #

    Good luck with your venture, from a vegan textile producer[hand loom and knitting].

  2. Comment by


    on #

    Nice interview… Vaute Here’s a very welcome addition to Williamsburg (and the world!) — definitely going to check out the store when it opens!

  3. Comment by


    on #

    Great interview! I love Leanne’s “hippie tangents” – her words are very inspiring. Also super excited to check out the store (in my hood!) on Sunday, can’t wait!

  4. Comment by

    Colin M.

    on #

    Very cool :) Passing this along to all those in your neighborhood! Best wishes and Aloha