Posted on Dec 26, 2019
Unless you’re an ardent Haute Hijab fan, you may not realize that the origin story of this groundbreaking Muslim fashion company starts not only with CEO Melanie Elturk, but also her husband, Ahmed Zedan, who one day came home from work, walked down the long hallway of their Chicago apartment and told Melanie, “I have the BEST idea!”
From that first conversation to a multi-million dollar company serving Muslim women in America and around the world with an office in New York and a factory in Dubai – the growth of Haute Hijab has been fueled by visionary ideas, endless grit and hustle, innovative and big-picture thinking and a lot of prayer. As 2019 comes to a close, I sat down with Melanie to reflect on the past ten years of the company, its major turning points and what’s on the horizon in the next ten years!
Melanie and Ahmed a few years ago in Central Park, New York.
2009 - The idea for Haute Hijab emerges.
Melanie: We were married in November of 2009 and were living in Chicago. Very early on, we had been discussing entrepreneurial endeavors and ideas specifically for me, because I was a lawyer but wasn’t licensed to practice law in the state of Illinois. I had time on my hands. So we were thinking - what should I do with my time? Ahmed came home one day from work, and he brought the idea to me: “We should start a Muslim fashion brand!” This was before hijabi bloggers, Instagram, before all of that became mainstream.
Dilshad: Definitely! Hijab as a story and the focus on visibly Muslim women was just starting to emerge.
Melanie: Right! So things are just starting out, and I am nervous about getting into that kind of business – Muslim fashion. That, coupled with the apprehension with saying anything about Muslims or Islam + fashion, weighs heavily on my mind. That night, because he is a dreamer, Ahmed lays out his vision for this being a billion dollar company, and I laugh! But then we talk about what this company can be and lay out this vision for Muslim women who need clothing and hijabs that meet our guidelines as Muslims as well as catering to an American asthetic.
I thought, Yeah! Why shouldn’t we have the products we need?
This was the first homepage image used when Haute Hijab launched vintage scarves in December of 2010!
2010 – Haute Hijab creates a Facebook page and starts to build a following.
Melanie: 2010 actually was a pretty big year for the company with several things happening. We put up a website saying that Haute Hijab was coming soon. We ambitiously promise a clothing line by the fall of 2010, but that didn’t happen. So, we pivot and launch vintage hijabs in December of 2010.
Melanie: For sure it is, but I can’t forget one of the biggest relationships I develop in 2010! We hire Florina Boldi, our assistant designer who is a very talented pattern maker, in the fall of that year. This is instrumental in how our company gets started because even though we are a hijab brand now, we considered ourselves a clothing brand back then. Florina was based in Chicago, Romanian by background, which is relevant because she studied the old way of pattern making – the Parisian way. I tell her what I want, and she sketches. Then she builds out the pattern and finalizes the design with mock-ups in muslin on dress forms. After that we go look for fabrics. Of course we need a manufacturer to make our clothing line, and we find one – which was a small operation inside a dry cleaners!
2011 – Haute Hijab launches its first clothing line.
Melanie: September of 2011 is when we launch our first clothing line. It is skirts, tops and a dress – really beautiful formal and professional wear. We have eight total pieces that we launch online. And, we have vintage hijab collections going up every Tuesday – the origin of the Tuesday drop! At this point, Ahmed and I both have day jobs. I am finally doing legal work and Ahmed is doing digital marketing, so there is a LOT of extra hustle happening.
Sketch to reality! A polished peplum skirt from one of HH's early clothing lines.
2012 – Melanie and Ahmed move to Dubai and contemplate selling the brand!
Melanie: Ahmed gets a job offer, so we move to Dubai. We contemplate selling the brand and talk to some people about it.
Dilshad: Why? It seems like you were really picking up steam at this point.
Melanie: Well, vintage [sourcing of hijabs] was tapering out. I couldn’t sustain it anymore, because they’re one of a kind and they’re hard to find on a regular basis. So, we need to figure out what we were going to do. We decide not to sell the brand and see what we could do with it in Dubai. Before we move, we hired two girls. One is doing order fulfillment and the other is procuring prints for us at a fabric store in Chicago called Vogue that we can turn into hijabs. So, the idea is in place to produce our own hijabs.
2012 – Melanie discovers the fabric market in Dubai and meets a pivotal person.
Melanie: In February of 2012, I find a fabric market in Dubai, and my mind is blown! Now we can source prints in larger quantities on a regular basis. The fabric from Vogue in Chicago was a bit too thick for hijabs and these were the perfect weight; the perfect fabric.
Dilshad: Well, now you have the fabric market. Who is this pivotal person you meet?
Melanie: There are two important things that happen: I find manufacturers for Haute Hijab, and the most important thing - I meet Naseeb [Mohammed]. Before I met Naseeb, I was cutting fabric on my bed in my hotel (we didn’t even have an apartment at that point), I meet him on May 15, 2012 – I still remember the date!. We meet at a coffee shop in Marina Mall. I had done a ton of research to find out who does manufacturing in Dubai, and I find this guy, Muzamil, who is a manufacturer, and he brings Naseeb with him.
Dilshad: What was it about Naseeb that seals the deal for you?
Melanie: I have this conversation with Naseeb telling him that I need to know about their operations - how they treat their workers, and what the conditions are like. I tell him that I operate in a fair and direct way; in line with our values as Muslims. So, he takes me very seriously from the get-go. Once we have a relationship, we start to figure out how he can produce hijab prints for me from the fabric I find in the Dubai markets. We start producing and shipping our print hijabs from Dubai to the United States for sale. And, Erin [Smith] joined the team back in Chicago as our new order fulfillment specialist.
Now, keep in mind that we’re still a clothing company. Clothing is our first focus.
Sketches from early HH clothing lines.
2013-2016 – Haute Hijab launches more clothing lines and print hijabs.
Melanie: In August of 2013, we launch our second clothing line – six pieces, our spring/summer collection. I remember lace was having a really big moment back then, and this clothing line was more reactionary to what I could find in the fabric market rather than advancing trends. I happened to find a polka dot and striped fabric and incorporate that into some beautiful skirts. I remember a lace fabric with a blush color underneath, and we make a beautiful skirt with black and gold baroque lace. We continue to launch clothing lines and weekly print hijab drops in 2014, 2015 and 2016, focusing more on long gowns in different silhouettes.
2016 – Melanie and Ahmed move back to the United States and figure out next moves.
Dilshad: So I can see that while in Dubai, Haute Hijab is still mainly a clothing company while also producing and selling hijabs. When did HH become a full-fledged hijab company?
Melanie: A few things happen before we make that transition. We move back to the U.S. in 2016 and live with my mom for about two to three months to figure out our next steps. We have investor interest from New York in Haute Hijab as a brand, so Ahmed and I have to think – what do we want? Either we sell the business, or we go all in.
Dilshad: You mean at this point, you both are still working your day jobs?
Melanie: Yes! I was working as a lawyer in Dubai the whole time. And, I knew I couldn’t do both my jobs - be a lawyer and take Haute Hijab to the next level. So, with investor interest in our company and after a lot of thought, consultation and sincere du’a, we make the decision to focus on the brand full time. This is a BIG moment for us. But now the question is, where do we go? Do we go back to Chicago and pick it up there? Do we move to New York? Do we go to Los Angeles? New York makes most sense to me as the fashion capital of the U.S. So, we move to New York in April of 2016.
We also embark on a two semester college tour, visiting 30 colleges and universities to speak with Muslim students. I really need to understand what our youth were dealing with, what their struggles are.
At the same time, the prospective investors are telling us that we have a niche product, and our ability to market to this consumer is crucial. One thing we realize during the due diligence process is that 70 percent of our revenue came from hijabs, which were always an afterthought to us after clothing.
Dilshad: Light bulb moment, huh?
Melanie: Yes! We already know that Muslim women own way more hijabs than one category of clothing, but the surprising thing was how much of our revenue came from our hijabs versus our clothing line. Producing clothing is so much work; the margins are low, the work is hard. Developing hijabs is so much easier. So we decide to put out one more clothing line, because we were already working on it. And that is the last one.
Gizelle and Melanie collaborating on designs for the Heritage Silks Collection.
2016 – Haute Hijab decides to focus on just hijabs, and Creative Director Gizelle joins the team!
Melanie: Now we’ve decided to focus on just hijabs, and one of the keys to this was Gizelle [Begler], who joined us in the fall of 2016. She worked for us unofficially at first, because she was still the design operations manager at Champion. Soon after she became our first full-time employee at Haute Hijab. We also hire Noor [Suleiman] as our first blog editor after Ahmed put out a job description on Muppies, and Noor’s husband saw it and passed it onto her!
2017 – Haute Hijab is selected to join an incubator and raises its first round of investment.
Dilshad: This seems like the first year of some big growth for the company. Does it feel like a real thing at this point?
Melanie: It was always very much real to us, but this year was especially significant for three reasons: joining an incubator, raising our first round of investment and moving the business out of our apartment! We are selected as part of an incubator, Monarq, which starts in June of 2017. During that time we are fundraising as well.
We raise our first round, a pre-seed investment of $600K, which is very significant. AND, we begin working outside of our apartment in the Alley, a co-working space that is a perk of joining Monarq. This makes everything feel official. In December of that year, we close that first round and start planning our next hijab collections.
Melanie at work in the old Alley co-working space.
2018 – Two HUGE collections drop that put Haute Hijab on the map.
Melanie: This was the year I felt compelled to do something big, something huge and different that will cement us in the industry. I consult with Gizelle, and we decide to put out our Luxury Collection. This is massive for us because it gives us credibility in the mainstream with lots of great press. The collection is born out of a real desire to get our brand to becoming THE leading U.S. hijab brand – and then onto becoming a global brand.
I knew I needed a big splash to make it happen, and the Luxury Collection does that for us. We live in a halo effect of that collection in the months after it drops. Ultimately, it does what it is intended to do – it puts us on the map.
Dilshad: So, 2018 is the year of the Luxury Collection! I remember seeing coverage of it in all sorts of mainstream publications!
Melanie: The Luxury Collection was huge, but we also can’t forget the Ultimate Underscarves, which drops in August of the same year. This particular collection is the first time you see innovation in the realm of underscarves, including textile innovation. We work with fabric scientists to create a fabric with sun protection, antibacterial properties, breathability and a cooling effect that you can feel. This is a game changer as well in the hijab market.
And, by end end of 2018, after a ton of hard work, we close our second round of funding, at $2.3 million. Once that is done, we continue our plans for growth and put out more hijab collections.
Melanie in HH's New York office!
2019 – The year of growth and hiring!
Dilshad: I feel like this year, which is my first full year with Haute Hijab, is the year we saw the company double in size by way of employees, among other things.
Melanie: This was certainly a year of growth and hiring. In April, we move out of our co-working space into our very own office. That means so much to me and Ahmed. We are now, finally, working out of our own space, with our own design room, a YouTube room to film videos, a designated prayer space, a mother’s room and so much more! Alhamdulillah! We also hire so many people as we continue our growth, and are now at 23 team members! This is also the year we launch our Heritage Collection and everyone’s current favorite accessory – our Shaping Scrunchies!
And finally, our Changemakers tour kicks off in April of 2019, as we tour six cities and hold seven events across the United States, meeting with about 350 Muslim women.
Dilshad: Masha’Allah and Alhamdullilah for the past ten years! I have to ask – what’s in store for the next ten?
Melanie: Sometimes I can’t believe it’s been ten years! We have so many team members now, an office in New York and ongoing plans to do more and more for Muslim women. We have always been about bringing high-quality, beautiful hijabs to Muslim women to help them feel confident, strong, comfortable and beautiful as they are; and we will continue to do that with some exciting new product launches coming your way!
But more than that, helping to support and elevate our communities is HH’s first brand pillar and something we will continue to work on in a variety of ways. We have big plans for 2020 and beyond! Get ready for a year of surprises and fun as we celebrate our tenth anniversary! Hamdullilah for all of it! I can’t wait for us to take Haute Hijab to the next level.