Meet the Ex-Lawyer Making Hijabs High Fashion
It's only been a year since Melanie Elturk quit her job as a judicial clerk to focus full-time on her true passion: designing premium scarves and wraps for women who want to look and feel stylish while dressing modestly or covering their hair under the label Haute Hijab, gaining a massive following on social media in the process.
Elturk was inspired to start the company when she has issues finding fashionable, hijab-friendly clothing at major retail stores. Haute Hijab's slogan, "Be you. Be Beautiful," promotes women's empowerment and a modest outlook on fashion for Muslim women in particular. Now New York-based Elturk is heading to the University of Houston on Thursday to present "How to be a Successful Muslim Entrepreneur" at 5:30 p.m., hosted by the UH Muslim Student Association.
Houstonia reached Elturk via email to talk about how she's taking hijabs to the next level, how she became a designer without going to fashion school, and the one fashion rule she'll never break.
Is Houston a big market for your brand?
Yeah! We have a ton of customers in Houston and in Texas in general. Our fulfillment warehouse is in Texas, just outside Dallas in Richardson. There's a big customer base down there, so while I'm down there I really make it a point to have another smaller, private gathering with just our customers.
What would you say really helped your brand grow throughout the years?
My husband is from Chicago so we stayed there for a few years and moved to Dubai. There were a lot of fabrics that I couldn't get in Chicago. In terms of access, it was awesome moving to Dubai. I was really able to find fabric perfect for hijabs; not too thick and not too thin. When we started in Chicago we had kind of a cult following from this group of girls who would wake up Tuesday mornings and everything would sell out. We had really small quantities and we were also doing like a vintage thing, so they were one-of-a-kind. When we branched out into Dubai, we discovered the fabrics for hijab and that's when the company really grew.
What topics do you plan to touch on at the MSA event?
It's actually going to be a departure from the regular college tour talk that I give, which I'm very happy to do. I'm going to talk about my journey and lessons learned along the way. I'll probably answer a ton of questions. The topic really flourishes in the Q&A. My talks are geared towards Muslim students, so we go to cities where there is a big Muslim population, like Houston.
Considering that Western fashion trends aren’t always modest, how do you incorporate the latest trends into your clothing line while keeping them both modest and elegant?
I've never been about incorporating trends. It's just not my aesthetic. I'm into really classic pieces that are going to stay in your closet for years and years. Trends come and go and we're not a fast fashion company either, so we don't feel the pressure to put out what's trending that season.
What is your background in fashion?
I took a sewing class in the 7th grade. That was my introduction into sewing. But I did put in my 10,000 hours practicing beadwork and embroidery. I taught myself a lot as a teenager. In high school, I was selling clothing to my friends because at that time it was hard to find, for example, skirts with no slits. I taught myself how to make a pattern, what the best fabrics are, and how to insert zippers. I would make jewelry and sell them to my friends and that was the entrepreneurial side of me as well.
So I put in my time in that respect although I never want to fashion school. I didn't know the business of manufacturing a clothing line. I didn't know how to do it properly or where to find the materials, so I had to ask. But once I figured it out, creating the design and samples was very easy. I had my design assistant with me so we worked side-by-side on making these come to life. You don't need a degree in fashion, but if that's what you're set on doing, then it definitely helps. You should learn things the proper way, but that just wasn't my journey.
Who are your fashion inspirations?
As far as celebrities go, I'd say my two top are Victoria Beckham and Olivia Palermo. I like their style a lot. In terms of bloggers, my number one go-to is Blair Eadie of The Atlantic-Pacific.
What fashion rules do you always or never break?
I remember when I was in high school, the one fashion rule I had was you can never wear black with brown. Today I wear like a brown coat with a brown purse and black shoes. I learned that fashion rules are kind of meant to be broken. There's not necessarily rules that I follow, like 'you can't wear white after Labor Day.' What I do follow are the rules of dressing for my body type. Don't try and fit something on that's just not going to look good on you, and the same goes for hijab styles. But the fashion rule that I can confidently say I will never break, is never wearing leggings as pants. The answer is no to that. Always and forever.
Can you share a sneak peek of the next designs you plan to add to the Haute Hijab collection?
Sure! One thing that we're really excited about because we didn't have the access to these fabrics from Dubai, is a mid-tier line with a really beautiful embellished hijab. So we are incorporating lace, pearls, Swarovski crystals and tulle. When you think of Swarovski crystals on a hijab, you think of elegant, sophisticated and classy. This is going to be something I've never been seen before on hijabs, so we can't wait to put it out there this spring and elevate the hijab game.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.