Working as a civil rights attorney, fashion lover Melanie Elturk found it hard to buy hijabs that matched her sense of style. She would either have to buy them overseas or repurpose scarves and pashminas to wear. Seeing an opportunity, she founded Haute Hijab which sells high-quality, comfortable head coverings in an array of materials, colors, and at various price points. She also built a worldwide, inclusive community that represents the vast diversity of the global Muslim population.
We spoke to Elturk about how she’s grown her successful global business and why her community motivates her every day.
Can you tell me about your personal relationship with wearing a hijab?
Melanie Elturk: At home, there was always an expectation to wear a hijab at some point, but the question was when. I wore it on and off as a teenager, and I had a complicated journey where I would remove it with my mom who’s catholic. However, I made a conscious choice my freshman year of college to take ownership of wearing a hijab. Previously, I was somewhat indifferent about it but when I got to college I was like “I wear a hijab” and no longer took it off.
You founded Haute Hijab out of personal frustration with not being able to find stylish options, how did that lead to a business?
It was twofold, my husband was very entrepreneurial and a visionary, and he had this idea for a platform because I’ve always been into fashion. He saw it as a great opportunity for me to create something new. Two things hooked me; one, I knew other girls like me had a difficult time finding high-quality hijabs that fit our aesthetic as American women. You either had to get them overseas or through fast fashion but they were neck scarves and pashminas, not hijabs. They weren’t the right material, weren’t breathable, etc. I knew that if I was able to offer something better that it would be a viable product. The second part was the community aspect, I really wanted to bestow confidence in girls who wear a hijab. I really wanted to build a community where we could talk about faith and fashion. I wanted to show that a hijab is not an impediment but propels your life forward. That’s what keeps me here. I’m an attorney and could have done a number of things but that’s what’s really keeps me going.
How did you build the initial platform and what was the initial reaction?
We became a household name fairly quickly. We started as a modest clothing brand and then evolved into a hijab-only brand. When we were building the brand, we were thinking first “should we design it or do wholesale?” In the meantime, I started a Facebook page and this was in 2010 so the super early days of social media. A modest/hijab brand didn’t really exist so when we launched in the fall of 2010, every single hijab on the website sold out within two days. We launched with vintage scarves to sell as hijabs, these were curated and hand-restored by me. We’ve always been into restoring materials and sustainability. After that, the clothing line came out, we got bigger and moved to Dubai from Chicago. Then we got investor interest and had more access to fabrics, and started creating stock. We saw that 60-70 percent of revenue came from hijabs not clothes, so we decided to focus on just this category.
What role did your blog play in the company’s growth?
Our growth was an amalgamation of a lot of different things — Facebook, the blog, Instagram, and me. All of these things created a community and the blog was a way to connect with girls who weren’t on social media. On the blog, the pieces that really resonated were How-Tos; things like how to wear a hat with hijab, how to take care of your hair with hijab, how to dress modestly for your body type, or how to match hijab to prints. We provide the world’s best hijab for the world’s most powerful women. Muslim women are determined and ambitious, they don’t let anyone stand in their way. We said, “let us worry about your hijab and you can go out to conquer the world.” Also on the blog, we talk about things people don’t talk about, divorce, for example. I want to talk about the things people are too shy to talk about. Another topic is the over-sexualization in clothing and how wearing hijab is the privatization of our sexuality. We talk about things of value. We try and represent every voice, every ethnic background, and every style. The Haute Hijab is community is eclectic, vibrant, and different.
How has your business grown, especially internationally?
In all honesty, we’re an international brand in that we ship everywhere and speak to women on a global platform, but sales-wise 80 percent of Haute Hijab sales come from the U.S. The majority of our customers are American, I’m American and our team is American. However, this past year was our first real foray into the international market with our launch in the UK. They’re our biggest market after the US. We have our own fulfillment center and operations and we’re going to continue to expand into the EU and then eventually Southeast Asia. With each market, we go in to learn the women’s needs there. That’s how we think of being a global brand.
You’ve spoken about the complexities of taking external funding as a business, what recommendations do you have for small business owners?
Every business is different and goes through its own growth trajectory. It’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into. When you take money from a venture capital firm their goal is to get a return on their investment many times over. Yes, they like you because otherwise, they wouldn’t have invested in you and they believe in your success but they’re beholden to their own company and partners (LPs). If you’re in it for hypergrowth of your company or with the plan to IPO then good for you but understand their intentions, so you can deal with that. With outside money you’re in a marriage, you’re in a business relationship. Do you like them as people? Do you trust them? You can also take money from a bank, for example. Take Hamdi Ulukaya who founded Chobani, he built his company on loans and never took outside money, and then gave everyone who worked for him equity in his company. That won’t work for every single startup but just know what you’re doing. External funding is seen as a gold standard, like “wow you raised 3 million”, however, I don’t define raising money as success. There’s a lot of money out there and if you’re a hustler you can get it. However, what are you building? Who’s really behind you? And, are they really behind you? So again, know what you’re getting yourself into.
What trends are you excited for in 2022? Will they be seen on Haute Hijab?
The desire to get glammed up is coming back. We’re going outside again! I’m interested in embellishments and elevated designs, not just jersey which is like sweatpants for your head [laughs]. Getting back into dressing up and products that reflect that is something I’m looking forward to. Well-designed, beautiful outfits.
What can we expect from you and the brand in 2022?
We’re focusing on our UK growth and cultivating a community there with Haute Hijab. I’m very excited to get to know our UK customers on a personal level. That’s going to be really exciting. Then the rest of the EU – especially France with their hijab ban, they’re so threatened by hijabs! We need to help French women feel confident and we want to help solve their problems. We want to touch all different Muslim communities in the world.