Vanguard by Shopify Studios is a weekly podcast that explores the human stories of entrepreneurship from unexpected corners of our current moment.
Melanie Elturk is the CEO of Haute Hijab, a brand that makes high-fashion hijabs. Melanie left a successful legal career to build a global brand dedicated to the hijab. This is how she came to that decision.
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Tanya Hoshi, Emma Fedderson, and Anshuman Iddamsetty
Senior Supervising Producer
Jason “Metal” Donkersgoed
Melanie: For so long people considered Islamic fashion, or Muslim fashion, an oxymoron. What are people going to say about a fashion brand catered to the hijab? It’s as necessary as the T-shirt you put on every day. Or the socks that you wear every day. You wear it every. Single. Day. And so why not have options so that not only are you wearing it out of devotion, you’re wearing it because you want to look beautiful in it.
I’m Melanie, CEO of Haute Hijab, and we are the leading US hijab brand.
Anshuman: This is Vanguard by Shopify Studios. It’s a podcast about how people from unexplored subcultures and unexpected communities make money today. I’m your host, Anshuman Iddamsetty.
Melanie Elturk has many taglines for her company, Haute Hijab.
Melanie: The world’s best hijabs for the world’s most powerful women. It’s a little provocative, I think, for some people ’cause it undermines that belief, held by some, that women in hijabs are not powerful. In fact, they’re the exact opposite. They’re controlled or they’re oppressed.
Anshuman: Melanie is working to change that by providing hijabi women with new ways of presenting themselves. So they can focus on doing what they do best.
Melanie: If you look at Ilhan Omar or Ibtihaj [Muhammad] in the Olympics, and you look at these incredible women who are just fiercely focused on what they’re meant to do on this earth. That is the woman I am so proud of and…I want to make hijab easy for her, so she can go on and rule the world.
Melanie: Because I truly believe that when a woman is in full control of herself and her destiny... There’s nothing more powerful than that.
Anshuman: Today on Vanguard, I speak with Melanie Elturk, CEO of Haute Hijab. How’s your day been so far?
Melanie: The worst.
Anshuman: How? Explain!
Melanie: I know, it’s too damn early.
Anshuman: But you made it. You’re here. That’s half the battle.
Do you remember the first time you put on the hijab? What was that like?
Melanie: Oh wow, I’ve never been asked that question before. I cannot pinpoint the exact moment. Gosh, I’ve never even thought about it. I can remember the first day I wore it to high school. That was it, I was a full-time hijabi. The only reason it came easy is because I had my best friend with me who also wore the hijab and the two of us made this pact together. We were going to wear hijab, but we weren’t going to let it affect our personalities. And we weren’t going to let it affect who we were and how others perceived us. Perception: shy or introverted and kept to selves. And we were not going to change ourselves because we now wore hijab. I think that set the tone for my journey in hijab, and the rest of the trajectory for myself, and how I was going to have a relationship with the headscarf.
Anshuman: So was high school when it first occurred to you that hijabs can be something else?
Melanie: Yeah, it was in high school. So all I knew, and all my friends knew, was either this black or white hijab and that’s because—I mean, where did we even get them from? I have no idea. I think maybe my dad got them from overseas when we were in Lebanon, or I have no idea. But that’s all that was available.
And so it wasn’t until probably my junior year in high school where I branched out of that and wore a different color. And what I did was, I went to vintage stores in the area. I was always, always into fashion, so being broke, I would go to Salvation Army and Goodwill and all these other thrift stores and repurpose clothing from the ’80s and sew them into different things to make them current. And one day I was shuffling through the scarves and these really beautiful silk scarves and stunning patterns, and I thought, Oh my gosh, this is the same size of what I put on my head. Let me see if I can makeshift this into a hijab. And so I did and it opened up a whole world for me. It was like this epiphany of, like, I don’t have to wear just black and white.
Anshuman: It just seems to me, having options would make it easier to observe your faith. Isn’t that the goal?
Melanie: Absolutely. Absolutely. For you, an outsider looking in, it seems simple. We’re making your life easier. But unfortunately, I think our community can be resistant to change. And that’s because there is this underlying fear that we as American Muslims will eventually lose our identities. And there’s so much fear in losing who we are that people can be inflexible and unwilling to change and to evolve. I just wasn’t willing to live in that box anymore. And that is kind of metaphorical for my whole life. It wasn’t even just about the hijabs I was going to provide to the world. But even in my own role of stepping into the CEO of a hijab brand and leaving behind my legal career—in our community is insane. If I wasn’t married, it’d be like, “Good luck getting married.”
Anshuman: At this point, Melanie was working as a lawyer, super successful. And then, her husband had an idea: why not create a company that sells fashion hijabs?
Melanie: I was like, What, you’re crazy, are you serious? Is that crazy? Again, my mind went to, you can’t say that. Like, Islam is not fashion, you can’t mesh those things together. He’s like, You put in so much time and effort to make these modest looks, and you have to go to store and layer and put this underneath. Why don’t you design something readymade. And I was like, Yeah, you’re right—logo, aesthetic. It just took one week and we had a website up. And it was just a placeholder with our brand logo, Haute Hijab, and it said, “Coming soon.”
Anshuman: Meanwhile, their Facebook page exploded. They got 1,000 followers in their first week. And that’s when they realized people were paying attention.
Melanie: I didn’t know what we were going to do, but we made a deadline that this is coming in fall, and it’s April, so I have six months to figure this out.
Anshuman: Six months.
Anshuman: That sounds impossible.
Melanie: It was. And it didn’t happen.
Melanie: From the gate, we wanted to differentiate ourselves. This isn’t a side hustle. This isn’t something we were running out of our basement—even though we were running it out of our apartment. We wanted it to be huge. And we wanted it to be professional. There’s a stigma in Muslim community—you’re not professional, you didn’t take things seriously. We wanted to break that and say, Mo, we’re doing this right. Wholesaling wasn’t an option, we need to do this from scratch. I went back to my roots and what I did was source vintage scarves as I did in high school, but hundreds and hundreds of them. And I washed them all individually in my bathtub at home and ironed them, and we put up a photo studio in my house, and we photographed them and that is how we launched. Vintage scarves made to be worn as hijabs, and that is what we first put out.
Anshuman: Oh wow.
Melanie: And that was in fall 2010. And we told everybody the process—like, hey—we were so transparent from day 1 about what we’re doing. Giving sneak peeks of photos, but letting them know, Hey, this takes a lot more work—still launching but clothing is coming soon.
Anshuman: And when the store finally opened...
Melanie: ...We sold out every hijab except two by the end of the night.
Melanie: It was crazy. We weren’t expecting it. We had no idea what the reception would be. This was supposed to be clothing, and, like, here we are putting out vintage scarves. It’s vintage, a fancy way of saying used. I’m okay with it, but not everybody will be maybe. I don’t know. That’s how we started, and we did that every single week. They’re one of a kind—the majority would sell out in one day, so we’d have nothing on the site. Happy but also pissed. I have to do this all over again, and they won’t stay in stock. It was this crazy rat race where I would do all that work with the photography and product descriptions and then launching on the site, and then, boom, they’re all sold out.
Anshuman: By this point Haute Hijab had been operating out of Detroit, selling vintage scarves. And that all changed when Melanie’s husband got a job offer in Dubai. Suddenly, they were faced with the question: Could the company operate overseas?
Melanie: Before we left, I had decided, All right, I think I can keep this going. Then when we finally moved and we’re now in Dubai, I remember, like, in the first couple weeks of living there, my husband is at work, and we were living in a hotel at the time. We didn’t have our own place yet, and I remember I hopped in a taxi and I just said, “Take me to the fabric market,” and he’s like, “What fabric market?” I was like, “There’s got to be a fabric market! Where’s the market?" Like, I need to go to the market, and he’s like, “Hold on.”
Melanie: So he gets on the phone and he calls a friend, apparently, or whoever, and he gets off the phone, and he’s like, “I know where to take you.” I was like, “Great! Take me there!” He drops me off, and, oh my God! I walk into this fabric market and the fabrics! I was like, Jackpot! This is crazy! I just landed on this huge goldmine of fabrics that are beautiful and perfect for hijab and they’re stunning, and I got so excited.
Melanie: So I bought them, and then I asked people, Do you know any tailors, do you know anybody that will sew anything, like, cut and sew? And I got different leads, and I immediately went to go find them, and they’re like, “Yeah, sure, we’ll sew them, but we can’t cut them for you.” So I was like, Fine. So I went home, and on my hotel bed I cut these fabrics. It was so terrible. They were not straight at all. It was so bad. I cut them all and then, like two days later, I went back to those tailors, and they hemmed them on four sides, and we mailed them back to our employee that we hired in Chicago and we just figured it out. I just slowly figured it out.
Anshuman: But while Haute Hijab was growing, Melanie was still juggling her thriving law career. This wasn’t sustainable. Something had to give.
Melanie: I’m working as an attorney all this time, and I’m running this business at the same time, which we all know, you can call it a side hustle, but it takes over your life. And so, why am I doing this to myself? I remember a friend of mine being like, “You know, you’re always talking about how you’re done with this, and you’re over it, and you don’t really know if you want to keep going, and you might sell the company.” She’s like, “You’re dumb.” She’s like, “You’re being an idiot.” And I was like, “Why?” She’s like, “Think about the space without you in it. Like, think about it. Who’s out there? Who’s doing this? Now you’re not there. Just think about the void.” And I was like, Whoa. It really, really hit me.
Melanie: It hit me because, like I said, not every brand who’s out there... A lot of the brands that are out there, and they’re doing phenomenal, and they’re doing really great things, and I’m not trying to downplay or knock anybody else, but the intentionality and the purpose that we bring is so different than what you’ll find with most other brands.
Melanie: I felt the burden of responsibility at that moment, and I couldn’t shake it, so I think that was a very pivotal moment, when, after that happened, I had that long conversation with her. That was when I really stepped into the role, and I said, “I’m not going to downplay this anymore. I’m going to up play it, and I’m going to pump it out, and I’m going to be proud and be confident in the fact that I am a CEO, and that I am running this business, and that’s it. This is what I’m doing and I’m proud of it, and I’m not going to downplay it anymore.”
Anshuman: Recently, Haute Hijab got a new office in New York.
Anshuman: They’ve come a long way from selling vintage scarves out of their apartment.
Melanie: We were in a coworking space for the longest time. Really surreal moment walking in, and something beautiful that happened was when we moved into the new space—we’re a Muslim-owned and -operated company—half our team is not Muslim. But prereq of coming on is respecting faith principles. And so something that’s common when you move into a new home is blessing the home. I felt the same way of our office—new space and I don’t know what energy was in here before. Played a chapter in Quran and did team prayer. Very surprisingly, everybody on the team joined. I don’t know people’s comfort level. Everybody joined, and we were all sitting in a circle on the ground. And I basically led this prayer, and it was a prayer of gratitude and asking for so many things and asking for protection and for the right way forward and good intentions and blessings, and I named everybody by name and it was very emotional. And like almost everybody in that circle started crying, and it was very, very moving, just thinking about it is making me choke up a little, but it was just such a powerful moment that it just set the tone for not only this new space but for everybody to know what we’re doing goes beyond creating product. It’s people’s lives.
Anshuman: Without blowing up the spot too much. Can you give us a sense of what the future holds for you?
Melanie: As far as the future, we’re super, super focused on making sure that we can provide every category within hijab. Athletics is next, but there’s still so many verticals that need to be filled, like bridal and swim hijabs, and medical, and so much work to be done. We’re still very focused on that. But then, we’re also focused on eventually global expansion. Because ultimately, our goal and our vision is to be the leading global hijab brand, and that brand doesn’t exist today. There is no single hijab brand that is global yet, but we’re really confident we’ll be that brand.
We’re kinda just heads down. Just operating and hitting the pavement, and then we’ll be fundraising again in probably six months from now. That sucks, but you’ve got to do what you’ve gotta do.
Anshuman: It never stops.
Melanie: No. No, it never stops, but it’s good.
Listen to more episodes of Vanguard by Shopify Studios, a weekly podcast that explores the human stories of entrepreneurship from unexpected corners of our current moment.
Feature image by Franziska Barczyk