In the latest installment of Style Vanity’s interview series highlighting the personal, creative and even professional journeys of fashion’s most dynamic people, I spoke (via long email chain) with Melanie Elturk, CEO and Chief Designer of Haute Hijab, a premier high-end fashion brand for Muslim women all around the world.
According to Quran and the Sunnah, teaching and practices by the Prophet Muhammad, Muslim women are told to cover their bodies, and may show only their hands, feet and face. But some younger women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, have declared that modesty doesn’t require them to be unfashionable and so, they are making their own mark on hijab culture.
One of them is 29-year-old Melanie Elturk, born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, USA to a Lebanese father and Filipino mother. She is a working attorney specialized in Civil Rights law and currently works as a law clerk for three judges at the Dubai International Financial Centre Courts in Dubai, UAE. In 2010, she and her husband founded Haute Hijab while they were living in Chicago, two years later they moved to Dubai and continued operations.
I reached out to Melanie Elturk to talk about Muslim fashion, her journey from founding Haute Hijab “out of necessity” and her advice to young creatives who are thinking of starting a business.
STYLE VANITY: Describe your personal style and its influences or inspirations.
MELANIE ELTURK: I would describe my personal style as classic with a twist. Most of my wardrobe consists of timeless, classic investment pieces that I’ve had (and intend to keep) forever along with other pieces that give an edge or twist to my everyday items. I love incorporating huge statement necklaces and neck-pieces and luxe fabrics like brocade, velvet and lace into everyday items. At the moment I’m going through a style transformation that happens to me every 3-5 years as fashion itself evolves. Outfits that used to be my go-to suddenly feel stale so I’m sticking to classic, no-fail outfits like boyfriend jeans with white blouses and long skirts with tucked in tops.
Is there a fashion rule you always or never break?
As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized there are no rules in fashion. That doesn’t mean you can wear anything, but I’ve yet to see a “fashion rule” withstand the test of time. I used to hate when people wore black with brown and now I totally embrace it! I think there are unspoken rules with proportions that I adhere to, particularly with my body type. For example, I’m 5’2″ (thanks to my Filipino roots!) so I can’t wear really long tops unless I’m wearing heels or it’ll swallow me right up.
Melanie Elturk’s Style
I’m just curious, is there ups and downs on wearing a hijab? And what are those?
Certainly! There are days when my vanity gets the better of me or when an otherwise *perfect* outfit is ruined because I can’t find a hijab that works. Overall though, for me, hijab has many more ups than downs. It’s a daily reminder of what is most important in life – my relationship with God. It demands respect, particularly from the opposite gender. It reminds others of God, which is a beautiful thing. Additionally, hijab allows me to control the way I’m perceived. The absence of overt sexuality allows my voice to be heard over my looks and I love that. Hijab is much more than just a piece of cloth – it’s the way you present yourself, it’s a state of mind.
“Hijab is much more than just a piece of cloth – it’s the way you present yourself, it’s a state of mind.”
What are your passions? And how did you first became interested in fashion and starting a fashion company?
My passions are many! I’ve been interested in clothes and dressing for as long as I can remember – both my mother and father were huge influences on me growing up. They were very conscious of what they wore and both had immaculate style. I’m also very passionate about civil and human rights – particularly when it pertains to issues of race – which is what drove me to pursue a law degree and focus on civil rights law. I have a huge sensitivity in my heart for anyone regardless of religion or race that is being oppressed – nothing makes me angrier.
Despite always being interested in fashion, I never thought I could succeed in fashion on a professional level. So many strive to make it in the fashion industry and I also had passions elsewhere that I wanted to pursue. When the notion was brought to my attention that I could actually do something with fashion while making a difference in my community by designing and providing clothing and hijab options for hijab-wearing Muslim women, everything changed. I actually saw a niche that I believed I could excel and make a difference in.
Describe Haute Hijab in five words. And what is the inspiration for founding it?
Classy, cutting-edge, fun and inspirational. The inspiration came from working with the Muslim youth in my hometown Detroit. I noticed that hijab was an issue for young girls, not only for the girls who already wore it and struggled to keep it on, but for girls who didn’t wear it and had no desire to put it on. At that time, there were no real hijabi fashion influences one could look up to for inspiration. Haute Hijab was born out of a necessity that I saw in my Muslim community to not only design stylish hijab-friendly clothing, but to be a source of support and inspiration for hijab-wearing women everywhere. The social component of our company is just as, if not more important than the fashion aspect. We provide support services for women struggling, we have a Hijabi of the Month campaign where we feature amazing women contributing to their community in positive ways in addition to inspirational posts on hijab and Islam itself. The main goal of HH is really to instill confidence in hijab-wearing women all around the globe.
“Haute Hijab was born out of a necessity that I saw in my Muslim community to not only design stylish hijab-friendly clothing, but to be a source of support and inspiration for hijab-wearing women everywhere.”
Can you tell me what the most popular pieces are in your clothing line and bestselling scarves and wrap designs on Haute Hijab?
The most popular pieces are our skirts and layering tops – mostly because those are the items that are unique to Haute Hijab and difficult to find in the mainstream fashion world – which is definitely intentional. I always wanted to focus on designing clothing that was not ordinarily found at popular stores or shops that most people frequent.
The bestselling scarves and wraps are definitely bright floral at the moment. It differs with the trends and season – and a hijab is an awesome way to incorporate a new trend or pattern into your wardrobe with low-commitment so I always try to carry a wide array of patterns, colors and fabrics.
Do you remember the time when you first started Haute Hijab? Can you tell me something about it?
I remember we were flying by the seat of our pants! My husband and I came up with the idea, name, brand aesthetic and vision literally overnight! We created some graphics and threw up a Facebook page, and the feedback was overwhelming! We knew we were on to something big. This was back in 2010 when there were virtually no hijab companies other than a few that catered to very traditional Arab-focused styles so I wasn’t surprised that the reaction was so overwhelmingly positive. You could really feel American born Muslim girls yearned for a brand that catered to them and their American experience.
You mentioned that “Haute Hijab was born out of a necessity” that you saw in your Muslim community, in your own opinion, what characteristics do you think are essential for turning an idea into a sustainable reality?
First off, I think you have to have a great idea. As I said, I didn’t necessarily think I could be successful trying to make it in the mainstream fashion world because of the insane competition, but when I focused on a niche (Muslim American fashion) I knew I was on to something. So you have to start with a great, sustainable idea. Secondly, you need to be ready to put the work in. You may be an insanely creative individual with an awesome idea or concept, but if you lack exceptional work ethic, it’ll be hard to execute. Thirdly, I would suggest building partnerships and consulting experts in the field. You can’t do it all by yourself! I built partnerships and talked to so many people in the industry who all gave me invaluable insight and advice that I still heed to this day.
What is the hardest lesson you learned in running a fashion business?
Definitely the amount of work that’s involved, in all aspects. I wasn’t formally trained in fashion so I didn’t realize how much went in to manufacturing your own line. I was good at design, I knew how to sew and create a basic pattern but there’s so much more to it than that. And then there was the business side – the marketing, photography, graphics, brand development, creating a website, etc. There’s so much work that goes in to creating and executing your own brand. My husband and I endured sleepless nights turning our living room into a photography studio to take photos for each week’s collection of vintage hijabs – it was exhausting! To top it all off, I’m a perfectionist to a fault and will spend hours perfecting a blog post or photo so you can imagine how much work goes in to every aspect of the brand.
What advice would you give to young creatives who want to set about turning their own ideas into a product/business?
Know what you’re good at, what you want do to and work towards executing that vision. Carefully craft that vision and try not to sway from it too much. People pick up on dis-ingenuousness right away so stay true to who you are and what your philosophy is. Accept that you may need help, and seek that help from others who are exceptional at what they do. Leave your ego at the door.
“Leave your ego at the door.”
What message would you give to students who are just starting university and have a few years to develop their skills before graduating?
That would depend on what they’re focusing on in their careers, but in general I would say concentrate on developing an excellent work ethic. Put the long hours in, take pride in your work and give your 100% in everything you do. Fine-tuning these habits and discipline early on will inevitably carry-on to your life post-graduation and not only make you a more marketable individual, but it will give you a sense of pride in all that you do.
The New York Times recently featured you and a slew of Instagram-famous Muslim women who’ve taken to the social media platform to showcase how they style their hijabs. So what’s next for Melanie Elturk and Haute Hijab? Any future plans you want to share?
We’re going to continue to push forward, continue providing superior services and push our designs to the limit. We’re also looking to collaborate with other designers both mainstream and in the Muslim fashion world to bring a wider variety of products to our customers. One thing we’ve been working toward is a collaboration that would provide sportswear/work-out clothing that is in high demand for Muslim women who want to work out or play sports without sacrificing modesty.
What would you say to someone seeking a general fashion advice? And what would you also say to a Muslim woman seeking a fashion advice?
I have the same advice for any woman, Muslim or not, when seeking fashion advice, which is, first, know your body type (Check out my guide to dressing for your body type). The key to dressing well is choosing options that work for you and your body type – meaning shape and height. There may be a style or outfit I love on someone else that may not work for me because we’re built differently. Once you understand what looks good on you – then you can start to wisely select pieces that will look great. Second, stay away from trends. A few trendy pieces here and there work, but invest in quality, classic pieces that will last a lifetime (or at least until the seams fall apart!) and you’ll have an excellent wardrobe foundation (Check out my list of 10 Wardrobe Essentials for every hijabi) to build upon that you can incorporate trendier pieces into without looking like a fashion faux pas.
Lastly, I read you launched a modesty campaign too, can you tell me what is it and how women could participate in it?
It’s basically a campaign that glorifies modesty – a trait that is diminishing more and more in our societies, particularly in the U.S., whether it’s a lack of modesty in dress or in actions. More and more people don’t try to hide their sins or transgressions anymore – and not only is immodesty rampant, it’s glorified. There’s a famous Prophetic Tradition of our revered Prophet Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him) that says, “If you feel no shame (modesty), then do as you wish.” Meaning, when modesty is lost, then so too is decency and dignity. Anyone can participate regardless of religion by sharing their story of modesty and how they try to protect this innate characteristic by sending it to email@example.com and we’ll publish it on our blog!
-For more information about Haute Hijab and their Modest Campaign visit their website www.hautehijab.com
This interview has been edited and condensed.