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How Melanie Elturk Went From Civil Rights Lawyer to Founder of the Leading U.S. Hijab Brand

The entrepreneur spills about her approach to fundraising, community-building and the connections between sustainability and faith.
Melanie Elturk. Photo: Courtesy of Haute Hijab

Melanie Elturk. Photo: Courtesy of Haute Hijab

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

Considering that companies from Dolce & Gabbana to Nike have tried to tap into the modest fashion market in the past few years, it might come as a surprise that there's really only one brand — Haute Hijab — that's sought to comprehensively tackle the hijab category with offerings for everything from "workout to wedding day."

But according to Haute Hijab's founder Melanie Elturk, that focus came about almost by accident.

"We launched with vintage scarves, but we only sold those to fund our modest clothing line," Elturk says of Haute Hijab's 2010 beginnings. "Eventually we looked into our numbers and realized that 70% of our revenue was actually coming from hijabs."

Almost 10 years later, that "afterthought" product has become the core of Elturk's business. Today, Haute Hijab sells everything from everyday jersey hijabs to barely-there net underscarves to black-tie-appropriate head coverings made with pearls and lace. Along the way, Elturk and her husband-slash-business-partner Ahmed Zedan have built the leading hijab brand in the U.S., added 17 employees to their team, amassed a cultish social media following and raised $2.3 million in their latest financing round. 

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So what convinced Elturk, a former civil rights lawyer who had been on track to become a judge, that she should take the leap into running a fashion business? I hopped on the phone with her to find out. 

Read on to hear how she built a committed community of customers, why so many investors "don't know shit" and the connection she sees between sustainability and her faith.

How'd you decide to quit your law job and pursue entrepreneurship full time?

I was working as an attorney for six years while I ran the business on the side. It got to a point where I had to make a decision: either continue my legal career, or see where this company would take me. The transition came only after the business was financially secure enough that it could sustain both myself and my husband.

I prayed on it a lot; I'm a really religious person. I thought about the effect I could have on the most people and where my skills would be most used. It was terrifying — I wasn't one of those attorneys who didn't love my job. I loved what I did. I miss it greatly. 

How did you decide to cut all of the ready-to-wear offerings and focus solely on hijabs?

Hijabs were a total afterthought compared to the time and energy being put into clothing, but it was perfect [once we realized they were our bestsellers] because hijabs have a much higher margin. You don't have to worry about sizing. They're cheaper, so people buy more of them as an accessory versus clothing. It's just a much easier product and there's virtually no competition. 

Why do you think there have been so few competitors in the hijab space?

Unfortunately our community doesn't encourage children to enter fields like fashion or entrepreneurship. We've put ourselves in this box of being doctors and lawyers and engineers. That's starting to change, but when I first started this company, I almost didn't want to tell people what I was doing because they would be like, "Don't you have a law degree?"

I also think we as a community weren't taking enough pride in the hijab because we were so used to seeing it as a cheap commodity. It's not something culturally that's been like, "Let me build my outfit around my hijab," it's more: "Let me sloppily grab something on my way out after I've dressed."

I think also there was this legitimate fear of combining capitalism with a religious garment and what it meant to say that hijab can be fashionable or profitable. Because at the end of the day, we wear it out of devotion to God.

How have you approached funding and investment?

We started with a $5,000 loan from Ahmed's parents. Because my husband and I had our own respective careers, we didn't go the traditional VC funding route immediately. It wasn't until we moved to New York City in 2016 and decided to commit to this full time that we started seeking outside funding.

We raised a small friends and family $500K round and actually did have two VCs in that round. Our very first yes was Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital, who invests solely in minority founders. And then a year later we started our seed round, which we just closed in December, led by Cue Ball.

Have there been any particular challenges to being a woman, minority or hijab-wearer while fundraising?

It's actually been helpful that I'm so visibly Muslim and that we're a hijab company — we attract the people that believe in our mission. That to me is a great filter to make sure that we're only talking to people who aren't going to waste our time.

I mean, yeah, some of the tropes about white male VCs are true. You have to know that if you're a woman and you have a "woman product" — they don't know shit [about it]. But that's just the nature of raising money.

That being said, the VCs we did bring on are incredibly diverse. We're very selective about who we want on our cap table.

Some brand founders choose to be more behind the scenes, but you're very much the face of the brand. What about that approach works so well for you?

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When we first started, there was no Instagram. You would have never known who I was. Then when Instagram came up, I posted a photo of myself in one of our hijabs and the engagement flew through the roof. I realized that not only do people want to see the hijab, but they also want to see how I styled it with my outfit. 

It also aligned with my own passion of having a platform where I can talk not only about how fun hijab can be, but about how important it is in our religion and how important your relationship with God is. I think it works because people understand why I'm running this business. They know my heart is to instill confidence in girls wearing hijab. And so they connect with me on a level deeper than just fashion.

Haute Hijab has a really dedicated and connected community who buy your products repeatedly and show up at events. How did you build that?

I cultivate community by making myself available. I answer every DM. I try and respond to every comment. I do in-person events. I spend time in one-on-ones with people. I make myself very available via email. I go on Instagram Live. I try to make them feel like they know me — and it's authentic because I'm a connector and I'm a social person. We know from customer surveys that it's the product that makes people stay, but it's all the other stuff we do that gets them interested to begin with.

Social's clearly been an important part of your business. How did you go about deciding on your social strategy?

[The Muslim] community is so fragmented in the U.S. that you have to exist online. Without social we'd be be nothing. In the beginning it was very ad hoc, based on trial and error. Then last year we brought on a social media specialist.

We know that posts about women empowerment do incredible. Posts with me and Ahmed do really well. The other thing [people] love is travel stuff. Now we've got it down to a science, but there's always going to be elements of spontaneity with Lives or Stories.

It sucks because I'm not scalable and I need to run the business, but I also have to keep up [social] because it's so crucial for us. It's how we get so much of our traffic and new customers. Instagram is our main platform by far. 

How do you balance all those outward-facing things with the non-Instagrammable elements of running a business?

I want to create these other superstars in our company that people identify with and want to keep up with and know. We embarked on this thing called The Changemakers Tour where we go into somebody's home — it's usually a super fan. They open their home to other fans and customers or their friends. And lately people are like, "Hey, where's Salwa?" who is our graphic designer, or "where's Gizelle?" who is our creative director, which has been so cool. 

When you started out you were selling vintage scarves, and then you started working with deadstock fabric. How has your sourcing changed as you've grown?

Our weekly Tuesday collections are still sourced from deadstock, which is actually beautiful because you want there to be this excitement and scarcity, which we're not faking because it's deadstock — you either get it or you don't and it will never come back. That's how we keep the energy and momentum. 

Our evergreen products are sourced and supplied from fabrics that we make — that stuff is pretty straightforward rayons and silks and chiffons. Our more elaborate or complicated designs are all handcrafted in New York and we source all the textiles here. 

But one thing that we're all incredibly invested in, and we have been since day one, is sustainability — making sure that we're not part of the problem. We are looking into a recycling program where people can send their hijabs back to us and then we can take that material and recycle it so that it can get turned into another hijab.

We actually just set up this whole sustainability committee. One of our designers was a consultant at Eileen Fisher who helped with the Green Eileen initiative; she's an incredible innovator in the space.

How do you apply sustainability thinking to fabrics like rayon or viscose, which have tricky supply chains from an environmental standpoint?

That's when you have to think about minimizing how much of the fabric you create. And you have to think of the lifecycle of the product — once the customer is done with it, what happens? How can we extend that life cycle even further? And how can we move away from these fabrics? 

That's a big part of what we're testing right now. We're testing fabrics that feel like rayon but are made out of orange peels or mushrooms or rose petals. We've got tons of those fabrics in the office right now.

As Muslims, we believe we're custodians to this Earth, and we're going to have to answer for everything we did. So it's something I don't take lightly. 

What about the human rights side of ethical production? Where are you making things and how are you ensuring that your workers are paid fairly and treated well?

There's a saying in our tradition that you should pay your worker before he wipes the sweat off his brow. That's how I work and I want to make sure everybody around me works that way too. [Our production manager] shares those beliefs and has been an extension of our values; the team in Dubai is held to these same standards. 

In Dubai, to have 100% company ownership, it has to be in what's called a "free zone." In the particular free zone where there are a lot of facilities like ours that manufacture products, our workers are actually the highest paid, which I'm very proud of. They also get the most time off and they get paid double on over time, which is not the standard at all. 

This Dubai manufacturing facility does about 80 percent of our production. We don't own them outright just yet, but that will happen soon. It's awesome because then you get to dictate everything. 

Where do you hope to see the business in five to 10 years?

By that time we'll have moved past hijabs and provide other great products for this community. We'll know how to address each international market in a way that makes sense to them. Like women empowerment for example, and identity politics in America, they don't translate in the Middle East. We have to know and understand within each market how to talk, what products make sense. We want to be the leading global Muslim brand.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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