The following is from an interview David Brensilver conducted with Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, whose all-vegan Brooklyn, New York-based company Vaute Couture recently enjoyed a high-profile solo show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. Originally published on Brensilver’s animal-rights blog The Daily Maul, these interview excerpts are reprinted here with permission.
DB: Your primary motivation for launching Vaute Couture was to communicate, through your work, that there is “no excuse left to wear animals,” according to language on your website. The same argument has been made with regard to eating animals. In your experience, what motivates the unconvinced to wear the body parts of slain animals? And what roles do convenience and peer pressure play in the decisions people make about the fashions they wear?
LH: I don’t think anything motivates the unconvinced to wear animals or eat animals. I think they are unknowing participants in a large profit-minded machine that doesn’t care about animals, and that they either … don’t know yet about how animal fibers are made and/or … that what they wear and purchase even makes a difference. Most people I meet don’t even consider what they wear to be even a moral question (unless it’s something as obvious as fur), until I pose it to them. It seems that art and business (of which fashion is both) often believe they are exempt from ethics, when to me, business is the most important arena for ethics, because it has the ability to create so much good or so much bad through every aspect of the production process as well as their interaction with society.
DB: I’ve read that fur is once again popular among fashion designers. If this is the case, is its popularity rooted in the same kind of defiant attitude we see in our politics?
LH: I think fur is popular among designers (though the numbers show, thankfully, that it is actually on the decline for the actual sales of fur, according to the Humane Society of the United States), because the fur industry is spending a lot of money to make it appear popular and cool by buying designers and magazines. Also, I often wonder if by knowing that lives had to die for a material like fur, that it makes fur feel more valuable to them, like by wearing or designing with it they are saying they must be pretty important to have something that cost 40 lives … I think there’s an elitism inherent there that some designers value because it makes them feel more important, whether they consciously realize it or not. I think the defiance is interesting, too – because yes, for someone to choose to do something that they know others might see as “wrong” such as designing with fur is … to say, “I don’t care, this is my art!” and to suggest they are on a higher realm of intelligence because they put their art above doing something they might see as “nice.” But what I find so laughable is that in the end, they are just doing exactly what the fur industry wants them to do, and by designing with fur, they are not being defiant in any way, they are being the biggest followers of all and playing the pawn for the fur industry.
DB: In addition to producing garments made exclusively from vegan materials, your website indicates that the Vaute Couture “line is also made of recyclable and recycled fibers, and produced locally in NYC’s garment district.” Is it by design that this ethical and responsible approach challenges, explicitly, the notion that coveted fashions need to be derived from “rare” or “exotic” materials – including those derived from animals?
LH: Well, our fabrics actually are rare. … They are at the cutting edge of sustainability and weatherproof innovation, and are often custom made for my line, taking months to produce.
DB: Why do you think fashions made from fur elicit a more visceral reaction from many people than clothes made from leather and other animal-derived materials?
LH: It’s interesting, because wool is actually just as, if not more cruel, than fur. Sheep raised for wool are first of all slaughtered after they are done being “productive,” oftentimes at the end of a grueling cruel live-export journey. But it’s during their lives that they endure a cruel factory-farmed existence, with repeated careless shearing that slices slabs of skin off on a regular basis. And so, an animal whose fiber is repeatedly taken from them while they’re alive is often enduring even more cruelty altogether than one killed for their fur at the end, because in addition to being killed, they endure this terribly cruel process over and over until they are slaughtered in the end. Most people don’t think about this. The problem isn’t if the cruelty is necessary – certainly, it is not the intention of a factory farm to be cruel. But, it is the intention of a factory farm to be efficient and to be as productive as possible, and the well-being of animals involved only get in the way of the bottom line, resulting in incredibly cruel living conditions, production conditions, and painful slaughter. This is why animals don’t belong in business; their needs and well-being aren’t part of the equation. But none of this is obvious to the public. Most people think that sheep get a haircut and that’s what wool is. So, unless it’s for fur – where we can so clearly see that an animal died for someone to wear their skin, there isn’t the same kind of reaction. And for leather, I’m not sure, but I think perhaps because people have desensitized themselves to eating meat, and since leather comes from cows, they tell themselves, “If we are OK with one we must be OK with the other.” People are funny, myself included, with what stories we tell ourselves, the blanks we fill in. It’s interesting to stop and ask yourself, “Why do I think this?” because often the answer isn’t there. I ask myself that a lot, until I really look at what has brought me to that conclusion.