Building a Fashion Business Shaped by Faith and Community

Haute Hijab Co-founder Melanie Elturk has built a thriving headscarf business by using her personal style and religious convictions to engage an online community of fashionable Muslim-American women.

Lauren Shelburne By Lauren Shelburne

Melanie Elturk of Haute Hijab. (Credit: Haute Hijab)

Melanie Elturk of Haute Hijab, wearing one of her company’s creations. (Credit: Haute Hijab)

Rifling through boxes stacked in the basement of her mother’s Detroit home, Haute Hijab co-founder and CEO Melanie Elturk found the journal she used to jot down her initial vision and goals for her company. Written across the top? “To become the leading global hijab brand.”

Ten years later, Haute Hijab has taken the United States market by storm and is now beginning to expand internationally. “We’re not there yet, but we are well on our way,” Elturk says.

Haute Hijab is an online marketplace, launched in 2010 in Chicago but now headquartered in New York City, that sells headscarves in an array of styles and colors. While it always stocks basic solid one-color scarves, the company also sells a rotating line of colorful, varying prints and designs, with new options released every week. Since 2010, it has sold over 250,000 hijabs and last year reached $1 million in sales.

Elturk credits her personal, customer-focused approach for the success of her company. She views her clients as friends with whom she regularly communicates through customer service channels and a large, active social media presence that includes 172,000 followers on Instagram.

Her personal touch with her business has proved effective. About 67 percent of her customers are repeat clients, she says, and that loyalty speaks to Haute Hijab’s appeal as both a product and a brand.

In the Beginning

Growing up in Detroit, family molded Elturk’s entrepreneurial spirit. Her father, an independent engineering consultant, encouraged her to be an entrepreneur from a young age. When she was just 12 years old, he urged her to capitalize on her beaded jewelry crafting hobby by selling her creations to peers. That entrepreneurial bug grew in high school as she started to sell matching sets of bracelets and necklaces through online marketplace eBay just as the site began to gain traction.

Elturk was born and raised in a Muslim family and community, knowing she would don the hijab once she entered high school. When she was younger, she didn’t give the act much thought. As she got older, however, she began to grasp its meaning, and it became an important part of her personal identity by the time she finished college. While the reason behind why each woman chooses to don the hijab may vary, the main purpose is modesty and to show devotion to God. With head coverings and modest clothing in public, Elturk and many other women also aim to focus the outside world on their minds, rather than their physical features.

Her first hijabs were two poor-quality scarves — one black, one ivory — which she used for 3 years. As her already strong interest in fashion grew, she began to visit nearby Salvation Army locations and other thrift stores to find vintage scarves she could wear instead. She also went hunting at major retailers, but struggled to find the quality and variety she wanted to project her personal style. “I knew there had to be a solution out there, and I was just like, ‘I’ll solve it myself,’” she says.

Elturk and her husband, whom she met in 2008, both wanted to start a business. Her frustrations with finding fashion-forward hijabs, combined with her passion for fashion — cultivated at an early age when her grandmother taught her to sew — would lead the couple to start Haute Hijab. Her husband’s marketing and business background helped them get the venture off the ground, and her informed voice resonated with a sizeable, ready audience seeking a niche product.

Though Elturk wasn’t alone in seeing the lack of hijab options for young Muslim women, she says her competitors were not as resourceful and didn’t take the time to create the array of scarves she did. “I provided them with a product that was easy for them. I knew they’d eat it up — and that’s exactly what happened,” she says.

Profiting From a $44 Billion Market

Elturk says her personal struggles have been a boon for business because they guided her in creating the products her customers want most. She thinks the lack of hijabs in stores is not an intentional slight on the part of retailers, but a lack of awareness of an entire market.

Her demographic is overlooked, she adds, because many people don’t see women in headscarves on a daily basis — depending on where you live, of course. In fact, there is a “widespread absence of knowledge” about the modest customer and her needs, she says, and the  failure to recognize that is to other retailers’ detriment. After all, the global market for modest fashion for Muslim women pulled in $44 billion in 2014 alone.

Even though they had a money-making idea, Elturk and her husband have navigated their share of roadblocks. They identified a willing audience, but “there were so many things we needed to learn, so it was kind of like a crash course in business, in fashion, in website development, in merchandising, in sales, for both of us,” Elturk says.

But growth — like her initial inspiration — would come from the very women she aimed to serve.

Melanie Elturk of Haute Hijab. (Credit: Haute Hijab)

Melanie Elturk of Haute Hijab in another one of her company’s hijabs. (Credit: Haute Hijab)

Finding a Community Online

One of the keys to Haute Hijab’s success lies in its social media presence, which began to grow in earnest in 2013. Initially, Elturk did not intend to show her face on social media at all. However, once the company became active on the photo sharing app Instagram with Elturk modeling it’s products, “engagement skyrocketed.” In the first three years on the platform, it gained 70,000 followers, a number that has since risen to 170,000.

After the introduction of Instagram and Elturk’s embrace of her role as the face of the brand, Haute Hijab’s social media presence as a whole flourished, with its Facebook following growing from 70,000 to over 200,000 over the next two years. And its YouTube subscribers rising to 16,000. It marked the evolution of Haute Hijab from an e-commerce site to a brand — and a community.

A spirit of sisterhood is the main reason for the company’s success, Elturk says. The Muslim community in the U.S. is very tight-knit and supportive of one another, she explains, and social media allows their circle to expand further than ever before. Elturk says her connection with her followers extends into the realm of friendship.

Indeed, digital communities make it easier for women to practice their faith and wear their headscarves, she says — and to love doing so. “We’re all rallying around something much deeper than all of us, which is our faith,” Elturk says. “To connect on that deep of a level, I think, is a bond that’s pretty deep.”

Her public posts also give Elturk a way of expressing her style, while still adhering to her beliefs, allowing her to become a role model to hundreds of thousands of Muslim women. Whether young or old, they need role models to look to. There is no one in the mainstream media whom her customers can look to and identify with, she says.

Haute Hijab is taking advantage of an opportunity to change that, along with other hijab fashion mavens who are on the rise on social media. Elturk hopes to ride this wave to further business growth.

Going International

Elturk plans to continue focusing on Haute Hijab’s growth in the U.S. market, to more firmly establish itself as an American brand before going global. She plans to begin an international expansion within the next 12 to 24 months, beginning with Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe. Down the road, she hopes to enter Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

On the heels of Haute Hijab’s recent appearance in an ad campaign for clothing retailer Gap earlier this year, Elturk says she’s open to other strategic partnerships. For now, she looks forward to the December launch of her company’s new collection. While Haute Hijab will continue to offer staples, this outing is more design-heavy than any other project it has undertaken, marking a new direction for the company, she says.

Elturk is proud of her creations and the community she has cultivated around a brand, one that has her at the forefront, working to lift up and encourage other women. As the business continues to grow, she’s hopeful the Haute Hijab community will follow, allowing both fashion and faith to prosper.

Posted: November 14, 2017

Lauren ShelburneBuilding a Fashion Business Shaped by Faith and Community