The Dish

Why Cruelty-Free Fashion?

By Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, the vegan fashion designer behind Vaute, the first all vegan label to show at New York Fashion Week.

People sometimes ask me if “vegan fashion” is something they can eat. A lot of people think of vegan solely as a dietary choice (not eating anything from an animal like meat, dairy, or eggs) but vegan is a whole lifestyle, and about choosing to live in a way that doesn’t exploit animals in any arena, including in what they wear. So vegan fashion is about not wearing anything that comes from an animal, including fur, leather, wool, angora, down, and silk.

It’s easy to think that these fabrics are naturally taken from animals in a kind way, but animals raised for their fibers are looked at for how much they can produce and how quickly and cheaply. Their well being is considered an extra cost, and they are killed after they are considered not as productive. That’s why I’ve dedicated the last 7 years of my life to developing the future of fashion, so that one day the world will look at wearing animals as a thing of the past. I started VAUTE as the first vegan apparel label, in 2008, to create winter coats that were warmer than wool and prettier than down. As a Chicagoan, I saw outerwear as one of the last frontiers for living a fully vegan compassionate lifestyle and I wanted to inspire others to see that what they wear does make a difference. Fashion isn’t just art, it’s a complex industry that affects the earth, the workers, and animals involved through massive world wide production.

When I started VAUTE in 2008, there were some wonderful pioneers in vegetarian fashion, focusing on taking a stand against fur and leather, like Stella McCartney, as well as some amazing companies like MooShoes and Matt & Nat making shoes and bags that aren’t leather. Today, ethical fashion is making strides and growing steadily next to the conscious fashion and conscious food movements. In 2012, we were the first all vegan label to show at New York Fashion Week. More celebrities are adopting a vegan lifestyle and requesting vegan shoes for the red carpet. And more companies are starting each year to work on creating alternatives for different types of traditionally animal fiber apparel and fabrics, as well doing inspiring work in bio-tech and other innovations. A lot of vegan fashion companies are focusing on environmentally friendly textiles too like out of organics and recycled fibers, and some focus on local production and living wage production, or supporting communities of women in other countries.

Each daily choice adds up! Choosing what you wear to not be from an animal is a simple step and a fun way to show you love all beings on this planet, and support companies that are not harming animals in the making of their products.

So, how do you incorporate more vegan fashion in your wardrobe?

When shopping, you can check labels the same way you do with food. Textiles typically go into three base categories: animal, plant, and synthetic.

Shoes & Bags: Animal skins like leather and suede can be hiding in different parts of the shoe, so make sure to read the label (typically under the tongue, inside the shoe, or on the bottom) for “all man-made materials” or “fabric”

Clothing: Sometimes animal fabrics are named something else so it’s hard to know that they are made from animals. These are all not vegan: Shearling, Angora, Cashmere, Wool, Leather, Silk, Pashmina, Mohair. Look instead for synthetics and plant based fibers like cotton, acrylic, polyester, bamboo, rayon, modal, nylon, tencel, and linen.

FAQ: Now that I know what goes on behind those leather boots or wool coat in my closet, what should I do?
A: There are a few options. Some people like to overhaul their entire wardrobe (goes well with reading the book “the Art of Tidying Up”) to pieces that make them feel good and represent who they are. If you choose to do this, you can make choices to donate or give away your pre-gan shoes, bags, and coats, or sell them on or Then, purchase new vegan items from companies you love that you’d like to support. While often times clothing that pays workers a fair wage and are using innovative materials are more expensive, you can invest in a piece or two you really love, and fill in your wardrobe with vintage or thrift, which is environmentally friendly and also really fun to create your own looks that no one else has. I have found many nylon, cotton, and acrylic sweaters thrifting from Minnesota to Tokyo to Portland.

Another option is to just make a choice to wear out your non-vegan items until they are worn out. It’s important to do what feels right to you and know that everyone goes vegan or more vegan at their own pace, and in a way that is functional for them. It’s so important to figure out what works for you so it’s something you can continue to gradually do more of and feel is sustainable and doable for your life and lifetime.