photo courtesy of Dominic Neitz
Q: You have said that at age 12 you created your very first nationally sold Animal Rights t-shirt. It seems that you were questioning the use of animals as commodities from a very early age. Can you tell us more about what led to your animal consciousness at such a young age?
A: I always felt responsible for speaking up when I saw that someone was not being treated fairly… like if someone was bullied, or treated like they were less important. That bothered me. I couldn’t stand by – it would make my blood boil and I couldn’t think about anything else until I said something. When I was 6, a neighbour got a rabbit fur coat for Christmas. I didn’t know anything about anal electrocution or fur farms, but what I did know was that some rabbits must be dead so this little girl had a silly coat. It was outrageous to me. It was a matter of fairness & selfishness. When I was 8, I started coordinating my friends to make arts and crafts that we sold door to door to raise money for the local animal shelter. Around the same time my mom started donating everywhere- and she would give me the stickers, which I’d put in my sticker album. When she donated to PETA, I received the “Unseen they suffer, unheard they cry, in agony they linger, in loneliness they die” stickers, which made me stop. I always knew we were doing something to animals that no one was talking about. There they were, dead, ending up on our plate every meal. How could that be something that functioned in the world in a fair way? So in school, for my Social Studies Fair Project, I chose Vivisection, the Fur Industry, and Factory Farming. My teacher told me later she was bracing herself for what I’d write- gory, gross details. Instead, I surprised her with Peter Singer and animal-free vivisection alternatives, and entitled it “Being Cruel Isn’t Cool.” That became the slogan I sold to a company who made it into tees, stickers, and stamps. They paid me in tee shirts. Ha.
Q: Can you talk about the creation of VauteCouture, and what has both surprised and challenged you about this process?
A: I studied Education in college. I thought my role in the world was to encourage children to be proactive in creating a better world. And then… I hated student teaching. I’m not good at rules, or being told what to do or how to do it. So, I thought to myself- alright, what do I love? What am I a natural at? Who am I- essentially? And I realized, I love creating things- art, organizations, and campaigns. I’m natural at raising awareness & bringing people together in a warm and welcoming way. And I am therefore, an essentially creative person whose life goal is to advocate for animals in a welcoming and warm way. I don’t know if I had this full of an answer at the time, but I did know that running my AR group in college was something that came effortlessly to me and was so much fun. So, I equated that with Marketing & Events in the real world, and applied for Marketing internships, though I had never taken a marketing class in my life. Two months later I was taking everything I had learned from running service and activism groups and applying it to national grassroots campaigns for Sittercity, and it was magical. Everything I naturally loved about understanding people made sense and was useful, as became my drive to help others and spread helpful information. At the same time, I was very inspired at Sittercity. The CEO was in her 20’s, the company was young, hip, cutting edge, and innovative. It made me realize that business was an amazing vehicle for making a difference because it touched so many people’s lives (good or bad), and interacted with the world on so many levels. Business would be my ultimate activism. I just had to figure out where I was needed most.
At the same time, I assessed my skill set and realized I could either get a partner who was great, where I wasn’t, or I could get my MBA and get a basic understanding of those things so that I could start the company on my own. I chose the latter. I enrolled in DePaul’s MBA Program and during the summer off, I modeled in Hong Kong. It was there where I brainstormed various ideas of what could make the biggest difference for animals, while making the most sense of my skills and passions. When I googled “vegan winter coats,” something I had almost glossed over (“Who would want, let alone, pay for one?”) I was shocked at the intensity of discussion boards and blogs full of women searching and searching for one that was at once warm, a dress coat, and vegan. I realized that people thought the only way to have a warm dress coat is to wear wool, and therefore, without an option, people were considering wearing/using animals as criteria for a comfortable life. So, to create a comparable vegan alternative would be to abolish this excuse to use animals in your lifestyle. A friend said- “Who else is going to do it? You love animals, fashion, start-ups. It’s you.” And so, I did. In the fall of 2008, I went home from my Hong Kong contract, quit my Ford Modeling Contract, my full ride MBA, and started on 60-80 hour unpaid workweeks in fabric & design R&D, to start Vaute Couture.
As for the process? The lessons? I could go on for ages on this one. To start- what surprised me was how important learning on the job- playing with real money (yours), real goals (your mission) will do to motivate you- when stakes are high, your try is not a try, it’s a must. I thought not having an apparel background would set me back- and certainly it wasn’t easy not knowing how things are made or what they are called. But you’d be surprised what you can learn when you know you absolutely need to. When everything is riding on you, your ears are more open, your eyes are sharper, and you know that you are responsible for making this happen. I knew the animals depended on me for this. I had to make this happen. And I brought in my perspective of a science mind, a marketer, and an artist into the development of the line. It was fun having these interactions with people in the fashion industry. They could tell right away that I didn’t quite belong. It makes things more fun.
Q: Your work has been acknowledged by such celebrities as Alicia Silverstone, and Oprah Winfrey (at Oprah.com). What role do you see celebrities playing in moving the animal advocacy question forward?
A: Celebrities can be wonderful advocates if they are sincere (as Alicia & Oprah are), because they live in a publicized world where millions of people listen to them, admire them, and respect what they have to say. For them to take this ability seriously, and use it for spreading awareness for those who cannot speak up for themselves is very admirable, especially if it’s an issue or stance that isn’t considered popular. In the diffusion model of movements, celebrities are early adopters who spread the message to the early majority. They’re not for speaking to the innovators and early adopters who are in the movement already; that’s not their purpose in the movement. They help us reach more people who live in a more normalized headspace, so we can tip the movement into something more mainstream and welcome more into joining us into an animal free lifestyle.
Leanne is our December 2012 Animal Ambassador, read her letter and bio here.