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Heritage Collection Changemaker Spotlight - Saudah Saleem

Posted on Jul 12, 2019
Haute Hijab Staff


Editor’s Note: As part of our coverage of our Heritage Collection and Haute Hijab’s 10th anniversary, which includes our conversation with Melanie about HH’s origin story and an exclusive behind the scenes look at the design process for the new silks collection, we are featuring interviews with five extraordinary Muslim women making waves in their communities. Each woman chose one of our five hijabs from the collection, and this series of interviews discusses their hijab journey, their work and why one’s heritage is so important.

Saudah Saleem
IG: @saudahsaleeminteriors
Her Fave: The Pastel

Saudah Saleem was drawn to the details of design and fashion since she was a young girl trying to dress modestly in a time when modest fashion was barely available. Drawing from the examples put forth by her mother and other women in her community, Saudah learned early on that how she looked spoke a lot for who she was. She took this to heart as she grew and started her own interior design company.

Saudah is an award-winning, nationally published interior designer (find her on Instagram @saudahsaleeminteriors). With exquisite design taste and an eye for fashion and styling, she creates beautifully curated, vibrant spaces tailored to exceed her clients’ expectations while fulfilling their unique lifestyle needs. The native New Yorker’s interior design work combines the excitement, energy and diversity of the city with the practicality of everyday life.  Saudah’s work is greatly influenced by her love of fashion, culture, art and history. She loves using pattern, texture, vivid color and a mix of elegant and eclectic design elements to create an aesthetic that is both sophisticated yet approachable.

We spoke with Saudah, who chose The Pastel, about how her heritage as the daughter of proud African-American Muslim women who were the backbone of modest fashion influences her work today and about how she continues to celebrate her legacy by stylizing and creating trademark looks that are both modest and fashionable. 

1. Tell us a little bit about your profession and how you developed your interest in modest fashion.

I’m the founder and principal designer of Saudah Saleem Interiors, an award-winning full-service U.S.-based interior design firm. I love using pattern, texture, vivid color and a mix of elegant and eclectic design elements to create beautifully curated spaces that are stylish yet approachable. My goal as a designer is to help clients refresh, renew, re-imagine and fall in love with their living spaces. 

My interest in modest fashion can be traced back to my roots. The need to create my own modest looks was born out of sheer necessity. As the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Before modest fashion was the huge movement within the [fashion] industry that we see today, there were virtually no ready to wear options on the market for Muslim women. Garments were either too short or too tight. 

I’d always been drawn to the details of art and fashion and wouldn’t allow the lack of options on the market to be a barrier to being stylish. When I was younger, because there were few alternatives, many women in my Muslim community  were tailors and made their own clothes as well as clothing for the community. They’d often have small rooms in their basements or in an out-of-reach area of the house where they’d whip up everything from Eid outfits to school uniforms.

I remember my mom taking me to various sisters to have garments made. We’d also spend hours in the mall searching for long, loose fitting tops, pants to wear under dresses that were too short or long sleeve shirts to wear under sleeveless dresses. It may sound tedious, but I actually enjoyed it. There is something so liberating and inspiring about recognizing unseen potential in a space and creating an authentic masterpiece. The same can be said about my early experience with modest fashion. I fully embraced the challenge of coming up with modest looks that weren’t lackluster. 

2. Talk to us about your hijab journey and how you developed your own style and look. 
I began wearing hijab when I was around eight years old, so it feels like wearing hijab has always been part of who I am. My parents converted to Islam in the 1970s. Publically identifying with and maintaining both our cultural and Muslim identities was something they reinforced among myself and my siblings. As as a young African American Muslim growing up in New York City, I learned that how I looked spoke volumes without me ever having to say a word. I became aware at an early age that my choice in dress was not only a representation of my faith and convictions, but that it also garnered respect and distinction. I understood that my hijab and modest dress made a statement. 

Because I wore hijab daily, versatility in pattern, color and even texture was important to me. My hijab always had to compliment my outfit. Like many hijabis, my hijab style has evolved over the years. I’d often experiment with different styles, from wearing carefully wrapped turbans during my in high school years to wearing styles that draped across my shoulders and more closely framed my face. After many years of wearing hijab, I’d like to think I’ve mastered the art of pulling together “faith meets fashion” looks. 

Now I tend to gravitate toward an updated traditional look when it comes to my hijab.  I like to think of my hijab style as classic. It’s polished, stylish yet modern and practical. It not only blends with but also compliments any outfit I put together. Working in the interior design industry where there are few visible Muslims, my hijab has become sort of my calling card.

3. What made you choose this specific printed silk hijab? What about it appealed to you? 

The relationship between runway designs and what’s trending in home design is undeniable. As an interior designer and fashion enthusiast, I keep abreast of both trends in interiors and well as trends in fashion. Pastels have taken over the runway and our homes recently. These colors are soft and subtle but make a powerful statement when paired with bold pattern or fresh pops of bright white. I chose The Pastel because it has a traditional/familiar yet modern feel. The reinvigorated shades of mint, blush and rose gold in the scarf are the perfect balance of femme and fierce. 

4. We developed our exclusive Heritage Collection to showcase the story and history of Haute Hijab. Our own personal heritage is so important - how do you celebrate your own heritage?

Global culture, and more specifically, African American culture, has been a source of inspiration for designers for decades.  As child of African American converts who were raised in a time when African Americans were fighting injustice and struggling to obtain civil rights, conversations around the dinner table were often about the need to be fearless and comfortable (and proud) in your own skin.  

Many Americans’ first encounter with Islam in the U.S was through African American Muslims. It can be said that African American Muslim women were innovators of Muslim style in the U.S. After converting to Islam, with limited options on the market, many created their own stylized version of Muslim dress (dating back as far as the early 20th century). These women maintained their African American heritage while embracing hijab. For them, hijab was not seen as a symbol of oppression or as this foreign figure reduced to a black cloth, but as symbol of empowerment, choice, honor and distinction.

My mother wore hijab and dressed modestly, and like most little girls, I aspired to emulate her and the older women I saw in our African American Muslim community. To these women, modesty was not about being a wallflower. Modesty did not equal being invisible. The women who raised me took great pride in dressing modestly and expressed themselves through their use of color and style. They instilled that covering can actually be a joyous, creative journey and insisted that being modest was no excuse for looking frumpy. 

So, today I celebrate this amazing legacy and heritage by continuing to stylize Muslim dress and creating trademark looks for myself that are distinct and fashionable.  I am continuing their legacy in hopes of leaving the same, if not a better legacy, for my own daughters. I teach my daughters that being stylish and maintaining one’s Muslim identity are not mutually exclusive.

5. Who are your style icons?

I don’t think there is one particular person I’d identify with as a style icon. However, I’ve always kind of loved the timelessness of Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ style. And, I love the way Kerry Washington and Olivia Palermo have put a fresh modern spin on classic feminine looks as well. 

6. What does the hijab mean to you? 

Hijab represents empowerment, identity, confidence, beauty, conviction and courage.

7. We love seeing powerful Muslim women in our community doing big things, which is why we chose you as one of five honorees for this campaign. Is there a message you’d like to convey to inspire women to live a big life?

I’m honored to have been selected! I think my background and experience allow me to provide a perspective on life and design that many may find unique and inspiring.  

There is no flying under the radar for me. I am visibly Muslim, visibly female and visibly Black.  The fact that what I am doing is changing the way people see African Americans, Muslims and women is huge. The fact that society is learning about my faith, about Black women, about motherhood and about entrepreneurship through my presence and actions is humbling. However, breaking stereotypes and reshaping perceptions of Muslim women is something we all have the power to do. In that way, I am not unique. 

My message to women is to embrace the fact that you are different and are meant to stand out, not blend in. Recognize the gift that you - your ideas and your talent are to this world. There is so much power in just being true to who you are. The belief that wearing hijab equates to being meek or timid is not one I subscribe to. Get comfortable in your skin, shine your light and live big!

Check back on the blog for more interviews from the other wonderful women we interviewed as part of the debut of Haute Hijab’s Heritage Collection!