Haute Hijab was co-founded by a husband and wife team on a journey to disrupt the fashion industry by including an underrepresented group of women who aren’t acknowledged in the mainstream. The New York-based company is a global community that celebrates and empowers the hijab-wearing woman by designing innovative products fueled by an obsession with superior service and craftsmanship. The Haute Hijab team, a diverse group from various faiths and backgrounds, is extremely passionate about creating a world where every woman feels comfortable and confident.
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Mehnaz Ladha: Kicking it off with your hometown area of Detroit, Michigan, what really stands out and makes it special to you? Where would you send a first-time visitor?
Melanie Elturk: I love this question! What makes Detroit so special to me is that it’s the city of hustlers. We’re underdogs and we’re humble people, but we got big ambition. We’re the quintessential Midwestern city with generosity and politeness. I live in New York City now, but I feel like Detroit is a little microcosm of New York in that people are just hustling all day every day in Detroit.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that we haven’t had the best kind of socio-economic status in the past 10 to 15 years due to the collapse of the Big Three and the motor industry. That was what our economy was based on for so long and people have had to figure out another way. I definitely have that hustle and drive in me, and I define my identity as a Detroiter even more than I even define myself as Arab or Filipino. I’m a Detroiter through and through.
© Mike Boening
For a first-time visitor, I would tell you to go downtown to explore the neighborhoods of Corktown and Midtown. Get onto the water near the Ambassador Bridge and you’ll discover incredible little alleys with shops, artisans, cool graffiti, and BBQ joints. There’s just so much culture in Detroit!
There’s also so much pride in Detroit. So, I would also say maybe catch a show at the Fox Theatre or a sporting event at one of the arenas. There’s so much happening in the city and in the heart of Detroit right now. It’s going through this really interesting renaissance. It’ll be cool to see for people that have never been there to see it booming today. Then 10 years from now, they can see how far the city has come.
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ML: Yeah, that’s really exciting! Let me ask you, you’ve lived in Detroit, Chicago, Dubai, and now you’re in New York City. What made each place feel like home?
ME: Well, they’re all major cities and Detroit is probably the smallest of the four in terms of population size rather than land mass. I naturally gravitate towards the city. I was actually just in Japan where we spent like the first five days in Tokyo and then the next few days in Kyoto. Kyoto is the countryside and I was just like, “Snore, snoozefest. Let’s go back to Tokyo.”
So, I think that’s something that makes it feel like home because I’m inspired by that fast-paced, fast-moving spirit and energy. That’s what made me feel so grounded in Chicago, Dubai, and now more so than ever in New York City.
ML: Did moving abroad require any kind of adjustment?
ME: Definitely! The biggest adjustment was living overseas. Moving abroad is an adjustment for anybody and it depends on where you’re going. Being able to speak the language and understand the culture in Dubai made it an easier adjustment for me than for someone who’s not Muslim or not of this culture.
As an American though, it definitely was still quite an adjustment. Learning the way that the government functions and how the city runs, including the infrastructure, is an adjustment. Something as small as getting your driver’s license, which we often take for granted, can be quite a difficult, painstaking, and long laborious process.
On the other hand, you also soak in all the great aspects of being in a different country with that culture and the ability to travel so centrally in the world. We’re so isolated in the US. It’s so hard to travel abroad in the US, whereas, in Dubai, the Maldives is just a four-hour plane ride away.
We got to see so much of the world, which was one of our main reasons and biggest motivations for moving there. It was an adjustment, but leaning into that discomfort is healthy.
© David Rodrigo
ML: At the age of 23, you fulfilled your dream of becoming a lawyer and concentrated on civil rights and social justice issues. So, what inspired you to switch career paths and launch Haute Hijab?
ME: I moved to Chicago after I got married and I left my job in Detroit. I was in-between jobs and was trying to find my way because I hadn’t taken the Bar Exam in Illinois in order to practice. I was doing these odd jobs here and there, but I had a lot of free time on my hands.
My husband is actually the one who came up with the idea and when he suggested it initially, I was resistant. The reason behind that was because 10 years ago to say “Muslim fashion” was almost an oxymoron. This was pre-Instagram, pre-Hijabi bloggers. This stuff didn’t exist. So, it was almost a taboo thing to even get into it.
I don’t like to dictate my life based on what people say. So, I thought about it practically and Muslim women wear hijab just like they wear other pieces of clothing. It’s like socks. It’s so integral to our lifestyle, as well as our wardrobe. Why shouldn’t we have beautiful, high-quality options? It’s very basic, but yet nobody was doing it. Nobody was approaching it in the way I wanted to see a brand represent us.
So, I thought, “Let’s do this.” We went from there, taking it one day at a time until we grew and grew to the point where I eventually quit my job as an attorney.
© Sawyer Bengtson
ML: It’s inspiring to see Muslim fashion become a part of the mainstream culture now and this exposure is so important in terms of educating people about what hijab really means.
ME: Totally! Part of the work that I do is about helping our community of Muslim women to feel comfortable and confident in their hijab, as well as help them with the process of finding the best material and colors for that.
The other part of my work is normalizing the hijab within the mainstream. So, there’s the work within the community, but then also the work outside the community. By doing exactly what you said, it’s a win-win for us all because then others see it in a way that is positive rather than the images that they’re so used to seeing, which are always tied to some sort of negativity. Through that, we can live more comfortably because others will be used to seeing images and women like us everywhere.
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ML: That’s amazing! As your own brand ambassador, you often travel to conferences, panels, and events to promote your hijabs. What’s the most impactful and meaningful part you cherish about it?
ME: It’s definitely hearing from people how we’ve helped their lives. It can be something so simple such as, “Wow! I never knew that this style from 10 years ago didn’t actually look good on me. Thank you for showing me this new fabric that allows me to wear it so differently and now I feel better about myself.”
It can be something so simple as that to something as drastic like, “Wow! My family never supported my decision to wear hijab, but since I discovered your brand, I was able to pay more attention to my style and I feel beautiful in it. Now, my family understands my decision.” Hearing these stories from our customers keeps me motivated and inspired me to keep going every day.
ML: How does traveling help you come up with new, innovative ideas and designs?
ME: The beauty of our worldwide global community is that there’s no one way to wear hijab and that’s okay. We are all interpreting the hijab within the guidelines of Islam to our culture depending on where we live and what time and space we live in. So, traveling to different continents, countries, and completely new regions has allowed me to see the way in which Muslim women wear the hijab and the connection they have to it.
It’s very different from country to country. Seeing and aspiring to be a global brand, it’s incredibly important to keep my ear to the ground to know how women are interacting with the garment, how they’re wearing it, how they’re styling it, what are the fabrics that they’re wearing, and what works for them.
It’s incredibly insightful. It’s something that I want not just for myself, but for other team members as well, especially those who are on the frontlines talking to customers or designing the hijab. It’s so important to keep an open mind and not operate within a bubble.
© Mike Boening
ML: Of course. One of our core objectives at SCP is to bring people together while traveling, not only to influence people to see and appreciate our beautiful world, but to also minimize cross-cultural divides. What effect does travel have on humans in this regard? How has it broadened your perspective of the world?
ME: I heard a statistic recently that around half of Americans don’t own a passport. That really troubled me when I heard that, but it was also very informative because it helped explain where we are and why we are where we are. When you don’t go outside of your own bubble and whatever community that you may live in in the US to understand how others live, breathe and eat, your understanding of others is small.
It’s important to get out of your comfort zone to see the way in which others in the world just like you have the same aspiration. They want to be successful, happy, and find joy in this world.
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You can find a way to relate and empathize with other people, including those who may have vastly different beliefs and practices than you do, because we’re all human. When you can finally get past your own assumptions of the world and see how others live with no judgment, it makes such a difference in the way you see and treat people, as well as the assumptions you make of others. You’re more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt or make excuses for them by understanding where they’re coming from when they have certain stances on different views.
So, travel is a luxury of course. I’m not blind to the fact that not everyone in this country can travel. I’m sure a lot of the reasons why many Americans don’t have a passport is due to financial restraints. I get that, but even if you saved up for years just to take one trip to somewhere you’ve never been and to see people you’ve never seen before, that’s worthwhile. If you have the access, the blessing, and the luxury to be able to travel, you definitely should.
© Su San Lee
ML: It’s so important to remind yourself that traveling is a luxury and even if you can’t travel abroad, exploring your unfamiliar territory around you can be enriching in itself. You’ve been fortunate to travel around the world. Are there any destinations that you haven’t been to yet but need to see?
ME: I’m so thankful that I’ve been able to travel to every place on my bucket list so far. At this point, every place I go to is a bonus. Japan was a huge one though. That was one that I was like, “I must see this before I die.”
Although I’ve been to the Philippines before, there is an island called Palawan that I’ve never visited and it’s absolutely breathtaking. It’s hard to get there because it’s not filled with resorts and tourists just yet. It’s still a little authentic, which I love.
I’d love to go to Phuket, Thailand or visit Santorini, Greece. At a certain point though, those types of destinations all become the same. The only thing that changes is the scenery. It’s the same type of resort, the same type of food, and the same type of beach. I hate to sound so spoiled, but after a while, it all feels the same.
So, to be able to visit an island that’s still kind of uninhabited is special. I’m trying to get there hopefully next year. My goal is to take my husband to the Philippines so he can see where I’m from and also visit Palawan because I’ve never been there.
© Eibner Saliba
ML: I think experiencing the culture of a destination that’s untainted by commercialism is hard to come by these days, but definitely worth every penny. So, whether you’re traveling for business or for leisure, what are you most excited about when visiting a new destination?
ME: Discovering that culture! I love new things and hate monotony. I get bored with things that I know and I’ve seen. So, I’m constantly looking for something new and different. That’s why Japan was so exciting for us because it’s such a new culture, a new tradition, and a new way of living. Experiencing the language and cuisine firsthand was such a treat.
The other thing that makes me feel excited is to immerse myself in the way in which the locals live. For example, we did an Airbnb in Kyoto and it would have been such a different experience if we had stayed in a hotel instead. Anywhere we go, we try to live the life that a local would and do what they do to really soak in the culture rather than do the touristy stuff that feels so recycled that when you talk to locals in that country, they’re like, “What? I never go there.”
It’s kind of like us in New York. Nobody ever goes to Times Square because it’s so annoying. I try and avoid that stuff because once you’ve seen it in a photo, you’ve seen it. There are a few things that I’ve seen with my own eyes that I’ve been really taken aback by.
© GRID Ardenal
ML: When searching for a personal getaway, are you looking for a serene beach or after a more active, adventurous getaway? Why?
ME: I hate to be that person, but it must be both. If I have to choose, it would be an active getaway. My most ideal getaway is kind of like our trip to Zanzibar. We spent two days in Stone Town and then a few days at a resort off the coast. That was the most perfect vacation because I get bored at the resort on the beach. After about two days, I’m kind of over it because there’s nothing else to do, but it also allows me to unwind. I’m also a thrill seeker and I buzz off of others’ energy. So, exploring a new city or town is so exciting to me.
ML: Lastly, what do the next couple of months have in store for you and Haute Hijab?
ME: In the next couple of months, there’s a lot happening! We are moving into our new office space in Manhattan. Currently, we’re working out of a co-working space right, but we’ll be moving just a little bit south to our own space.
Then, we’ll be coming out with new products. We have a big launch happening right after the month of Ramadhan in June. Our team is also growing. We’ll hopefully be adding some more team members in the next few months.
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