Melanie Elturk is the owner of Haute Hijab, an online hijab boutique that offers “modern hijabs and high-quality hijab-friendly designer clothing while nurturing a vibrant and inclusive community.” This objective is what makes Haute Hijab so unique. Its not just about the clothing but also about the community she has built through social media-including her Hijabi “It Girls”, a wonderful blog which highlight “Hijabis of the month”, a hijab support hotline, and more recently, and online interactive halaqa. In addition to running this amazing business, Melanie is also a lawyer, balancing running a business with her law career.
| 1. Tell us about your law career.
I went to law school because I really did want to try and make a difference in any way that I could. I am very passionate about race. I am half Lebanese and half Filipino, and my mom is not Muslim. My parents divorced when I was very young and growing up in the community I experienced what you would expect from a tight knit Arab Muslim community; I don’t want to call it discrimination, but it was just something unspoken. So, for whatever reason, Allah put this passion for race in my heart, particularly equality. From then, I set out to become a civil rights attorney. At the time, I was really passionate about working with the African American community while I was living in Detroit. I wanted to try and help with race relations. I worked with the NAACP, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, and for a private civil rights litigation firm. After graduation, I started working with CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) and shifted my focus to the Muslim community. The switch was natural for me because there were not a ton of attorneys in our community and of those, not many were passionate to work in the Muslim community because you don’t get paid well, you don’t get recognized and it’s not a glamorous job. I worked for CAIR and I really loved it. That was a really exciting time. Then I got married and moved to Chicago where, since I had not taken the Illinois Bar, I couldn’t really practice. My husband and I later moved to Dubai where jobs in civil rights don’t really exist, unfortunately. I currently work as a Law Clerk for three judges at the Dubai International Financial Center Courts.
| 2. What advice do you have for other young Muslim girls thinking of going into law?
I always encourage anyone interested in law to go to law school, particularly Muslim women. At the end of the day, it’s a very prestigious degree that you get in three years, and even if you don’t do anything with it, you will have gained so much intellectually as an individual. It changes the way you think and the way you see things. It’s so paramount that we educate ourselves, and if you are interested in law, then that’s amazing and you should pursue it. With women it’s a little bit difficult because there are always the different factors that girls bear in mind; like what they’re going to do when they get married and have kids. Not everyone wants to work an 80-hour-per-week job the way typical attorneys do. That is perfectly ok! A legal degree is so amazing because it’s flexible. Some people go to law school then go on to become a journalist or professor. A law degree gives you credibility, if nothing else. So I really encourage anyone interested to go to law school and more than that, to find their own niche. Everyone is going to have different strengths, weaknesses, and interests. So find your niche within the law–It’s so broad! Then do what you love.
| 3. How did you start Haute Hijab?
When I got married and moved to Chicago, I was just sitting at home and didn’t really know how to do that. I was always in school or working before. I finished college in three years, graduated law school at 23 and was always taking summer classes and working. So after our move, I was trying to think of different things to do and my husband is actually the one who came up with the idea. I had zero interest to go into fashion. I was always into fashion, but as a career I had no interest in it. It was something I did for fun on the side (I used to sew clothes for my friends and for myself). When my husband first brought up the idea there was no such thing as a hijabi blogger and the term hijab fashion didn’t really exist. So, when somebody said hijab fashion to me it almost sounded like an oxymoron. I used to think, what do you mean? Hijab is not fashion, it’s an Islamic tenant and it’s not something that you mess around with. However, when we talked about it more I realized that truly there was a need, particularly for Muslim women in the West, to find clothing that was appropriate.
I have always been very active with the Muslim community, particularly with the youth, and I started to realize that hijab was a real issue for them. In my generation we all wore hijab—if you didn’t wear it you were the odd one out, whereas with the youth today, sometimes the hijabi is the anomaly. That was something that I found really disheartening. Just like that passion that I have for race, I also have this immense passion for hijab. I don’t know why, but God put that in my heart. I love it and I love wearing it and I’ve always felt very confident and proud in it. My love for hijab was what really helped with the decision to form the company. Knowing I could help the youth and help girls build confidence in wearing hijab and help those that were struggling to keep it on. And then, of course, there’s the fashion aspect, which was fun and exciting.
So we ventured out into this very new space and, just like that, all these new companies started popping up and it was a very exciting time. We needed funds and we didn’t want to take a loan, obviously, so we launched with a line of vintage scarves that I would hand pick from all over the country and I would sell those each week. I used to put up 30 vintage scarves every Tuesday and all 30 of them would sell out in the same day-usually within hours. It was phenomenal! It was crazy because we did no marketing and relied on word of mouth. There was no Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat at the time. We only had a Facebook page. We sold the vintage scarves for a year and a half, and they funded the fashion line that we launched in 2010, which included not only scarves but skirts, dresses, and tops.
| 4. You recently started to sell housewares. How do you decide what to sell next?
You know, it’s not like I am out there looking for what to sell next. It’s just anything that catches my eye that I know would work well with our customers, because I know our customers very well. I am our customer. For example, we sell those shaper collar tops that I found on Shark Tank. This woman who designs them went on Shark Tank trying to find an investor. I felt like those were the best tops for hijabis, so I called her and told her I really want to source her tops. When I see something that I know would work well with our customer base I just go with it. It’s not very intentional, it’s more organic.
| 5. How are you able to grow the business? I think this is what a lot of girl entrepreneurs would want to know.
You know ALHAMDULLAH I have to give all credit to Allah who gave us His blessings and baraka. I really think when you have pure intentions and you are doing things right and striving for perfection, Allah will give and give and give, and the second that intention changes—when it becomes solely about money, or fame, competition—that’s when you see the baraka start to fade. So we don’t cut corners. We are very true to our vision, which is helping Muslim women find appropriate clothing with which they can feel confident in their hijab. We haven’t tried to cater to the non-Muslim women market. We are really specific in our intention.
On more of a practical level, my husband and I are a phenomenal team. His background is technology and marketing, so we grow by marketing even though most of it was organic in the beginning. I think people recognized that what we do is sincere and they just wanted to support us. I’m also been very vocal with my customer base and very connected to them. I am there for them. I read every email they send to me personally and I try to get back to every comment they leave on any of our social media. I make myself very available for them. Although there are tons of hijab and modest clothing companies, I feel like people are more connected to what we are doing because it’s more than just Hijab. It’s really that aspiration to do well as a community, for all of us to lift each other up, to support one another and to encourage each other. I hope that’s coming across because that’s what I am trying to do. I just got a Snapchat from the sweetest girl who told me, “I love your snaps, I love following you, and I love your hijabs and not only because of the clothing but because I really stand by what you are doing and the impact you are making.” That just made my day because that’s exactly what I set up to do. So I think people have to be really clear in their intention about what they are doing because people can smell whether you are genuine or not really quick. People are very smart and if you do something for the wrong reasons people will know it. I think that’s the best advice I can give. People ask me that all the time and I can tell you all the technical stuff–Facebook marketing is important, Google ads, pump money into high quality products, customer service is important—but at the end of the day if you really want baraka what’s going to make you succeed is your intention.
| 6. So how are balancing between running your business successfully and working as an attorney?
Well, thankfully I work part time as an attorney so it’s a little bit easier on the hours. I think for me it’s having a strict schedule and sticking to it that helps me manage. I wake up early and I get things done. I feel that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala really puts baraka in my time because, again, when you are doing things with the right intention and the right reasons you will find the time. Also, having daily habits of ibadah like reading Quran and dhikr—things outside your daily prayers—helps. That also gives you time. So that’s how I get it done: depending on Allah (tawakol) and taking it one day at a time.
| 7. Let’s talk about stock and products: How do you manage that?
By trial and error. Really, that’s the only way. You are not going to know your market size until you test it out. Start out with a small amount, test the waters and see if things sell because you don’t want to be sitting on inventory that’s not selling. So start with a small number and keep increasing that number until you find your sweet spot and that’s the point when you need to start real marketing. That’s how we’ve done it. It was very organic. We tested everything out when we started with a very small number in the beginning. I remember after we did the vintage scarves people were used to there being only one of every scarf so when I started stocking the actual prints that I made I think I only had 3 or 4 of each one. It’s crazy to think about that compared to how much we have in inventory now.
|8. Do you use a drop shipper or do you personally ship everything on your own?
Well, what we did in the early days was that I personally packaged everything myself. It was very manageable at that time. At first I used to do everything on my own-I even used to wash these silk scarfs. It was hell but it was worth it. We did everything ourselves. My husband built the website and it was crazy the amount of work that we did because we wanted to cut costs as much as we could.
When I moved to Dubai, I hired somebody who then took all the inventory to her home and was doing it herself. Then it got to a point where we were growing so fast that it was not manageable anymore. That’s when I started looking for warehouses. We had the worst experience with a logistics company that does shipping. After that, we took all our inventory out and found a really awesome Muslim owned warehouse.
| 9. If you could give one piece of advice to the younger you that’s starting out now what would you tell her?
Keep your eyes on the prize. This is what I have to remind myself of everyday—the prize being the purpose of why you are doing what you’re doing. It’s so easy to get lost in other things that come with this territory. Thankfully, we’ve been invited to some really cool places and I get invited to speak at some really cool venues and all the social media has been amazing, but it can really get to your head if you are not careful. You can easily lose sight of what you are doing and the work and what’s important. I would tell myself then as I tell myself now to keep your head straight, to renew your intentions daily, to stay humble, and to remember that you are serving a community. You are a servant. I am serving these girls and I am serving my costumers, I am at their service and nothing else.
| 10. How is it that you are able to hold on to your religion and wear hijab when your mum is not a Muslim?
It’s been a long journey. When I first put on hijab she went crazy. The first three years of high school I would take off my hijab when I went to her house on the weekends because she wouldn’t be seen with me in public. I later learned that it was more about me separating myself from her because we already look different, and some people don’t believe we are mother and daughter. Then I start wearing this thing on my head that’s going to tell the world I am Muslim and she’s not. It built a barrier between us. After three years I had enough of this double identity. For the first three years I didn’t mind, because, what do you know at that age anyway? You don’t truly understand the wisdom behind it. So it wasn’t until I was a senior in high school that I was like, it doesn’t feel right taking it off. This was part of my identity as a Muslim and part of my obligation and I can’t do it anymore. It was really difficult because there was a year of real tension where we weren’t really talking to each other. Honestly, it was difficult for me to deal with but I knew I was doing the right thing. We learn the only time you are allowed to disobey your parents is when they tell you to do something that’s haram. Although I knew I was doing the right thing, it still hurt but it was also difficult on her so I had to understand that as well. When she finally saw that I would no longer take it off and that I wasn’t doing it for my dad or for my community, that I was really doing it for myself, she finally started to come around. She didn’t like it or accept it but she tolerated it. So we had a better relationship. Now my mom is my number one supporter. She’s come a long way and I think that’s through all these stories we share and all the posts on our Facebook page and the blog with all these girls talking about hijab and how it’s a blessing and how much they love it and why they wear it. When she heard it from a third person and not me, it helped change her view on hijab. Now she understands more and I always pray for her guidance and I’m confident Allah will answer my duaa. However, at the same time, having a non-Muslim parent, relative, or family member is one of the biggest tests of your tawakol (faith in God). It’s extremely difficult. It’s been a trying test, but at the same time you get closer to Allah because you have to have that true tawakol which makes you stronger as a Muslim. For those of you reading this, if you could say a quick dua for my mom, I would be so grateful.
Through Haute Hijab, Melanie provides an amazing service for any girls struggling with hijab. If you are one of those girls, reach out to her at email@example.com. She will put you in touch with a community leader who will take the time to answer any questions or address any issues you might have. You can find out more information at this link: http://www.hautehijab.com/blogs/hijab-fashion/2968872-struggling-with-hijab
Check out Haute Hijab’s Website and follow Melanie on Instagram and twitter @hautehijab and on Facbook: facebook.com/hautehijab