When Melanie Elturk, a civil rights attorney in Chicago, launched Haute Hijab out of her apartment in 2010 as a small side hustle, she had no plans of becoming the CEO of a successful fashion startup.
Selling modest ready-to-wear clothing and repurposing vintage scarves as hijabs, Elturk’s mission was to build a modest fashion brand that made Muslim-American women feel seen. Initially, the hijabs were an “afterthought” of her business—an easy, sustainable product she could include as an offering alongside her collection of fashion-forward options for hijab-wearing women. But when she and her husband took a closer look at the sales metrics five years later, they realized Haute Hijab wasn’t a clothing brand at all; it was America’s leading hijab brand.
It took six years of working full-time as an attorney and running Haute Hijab on the side before Elturk felt ready to take a leap of faith and pursue her business full-time. In 2016, both she and her husband quit their jobs and moved to New York, using their first venture capital investment of $500,000 to fund their move and lay down the pillars of their new hijab-only brand. Since then, Haute Hijab has raised an additional $2.3 million in funding, built a team of 26 employees, and created a growing social media community for Muslim women. Like all small business owners, Elturk faced a new wave of challenges once COVID-19 hit. Haute Hijab’s New York team was forced to lay off 10 employees (though they’ve since been able to rehire two), and plans to launch in the UK were derailed. Here, we spoke with Elturk about overcoming imposter syndrome, the importance of a digital community, ties between her faith and sustainability, and her plans to take the business global in 2021.
First thing’s first, how did you go from being an attorney to the founder of your own modest fashion business?
The reason our growth was so slow in the beginning (we’ve been around for 11 years now but really went full throttle in 2016) was because the law was my first passion and something I was very dedicated to. I had a really hard time letting it go until finally, the business was at a point where I had to make a decision, I could no longer do both to the best of my ability because my legal career was very demanding and this business was growing. So I chose the business and quit my job. My husband and I both quit our jobs at the same time and moved to New York to focus on the business full-time.
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It’s a leap of faith to leave your secure, full-time job to pursue your own business. What benchmarks did you set for yourself to feel confident about the decision to make the jump?
As an attorney, I’m very risk-averse. My husband is more of the dreamer; he’ll leap off the mountain—I don’t do that at all! It really came down to finances; I wanted to make sure that we had a steady revenue stream every month that would allow us to cover our finances so we could live off the business alone. Some months would be high, some months would be low, so we needed to get to a point where we were steady and stable, making $30,000 a month for at least six months so we could be like, okay, we are growing and we can pay ourselves enough to survive. It came down to financials because any other factor I didn’t have any doubts about. The brand building, the product itself, the audience…I didn’t have any doubts about any of those things, but could we survive in New York City with the cost of living? Once I felt comfortable with that, I was like, okay, let’s do it!
What are the dynamics of running a business with your husband, how do you manage to keep your home life separate from your work life?
It’s a work in progress every day. It’s just like any relationship, you have to figure things out from moment to moment and just roll with it. At the end of the day, if your heart’s in the right place and his is in the right place, and your intentions are to do good both in your relationship and your working relationship, then everything will be fine. It’s hard and not for the faint of heart. You have to really believe in the work you’re doing, and you have to have complementary strengths because if you’re both good at the same thing, you’ll butt heads too much. He stays out of my way, I stay out of his way. We both have complete trust in the other to just do what we do, and that’s why it works.
Haute Hijab started as a ready-to-wear brand before you decided to focus on solely producing hijabs. What was your starting goal, and how has that evolved in the last decade?
The starting goal was always to elevate the Muslim community. It was always to provide this customer with the products she needed to enrich her life as a hijab-wearing woman. I put the word ‘hijab’ in the brand name very intentionally because I wanted our consumers to know this is for you. This is a brand that speaks directly to you. Not all Muslim women wear hijab, but Muslim women who do wear hijabs have a lack of support in the mainstream. If you don’t wear hijab, it’s easy for you to find what you need in the mainstream. I wanted to make sure that I was elevating and addressing her needs, whether through clothing or hijabs alone. We’ve evolved based on what we know to be true about her and her needs. With clothing, we were dedicated to being a modest fashion clothing brand, but when we had investor interest come in around 2015, it was the first we ever got into data—you know, this was a side hustle for me! I would just put up the product; we didn’t really focus on metrics.
I put the word 'hijab' in the brand name very intentionally because I wanted our consumers to know 'this is for you'.
So for the first time we had to do due diligence and what we realized was that 80 percent of our revenue was coming from the hijabs! And the hijabs were a total afterthought, it was just something I did on the side because they’re easy. When we saw that metric, we were like, “Oh! We’re a hijab company! Not a clothing company.” When there’s that dissonance, the consumer feels it too, because you’re purporting to be a clothing company yet you’re not known for your clothes, you’re known for the hijabs. Once we realized that, we phased out all our clothing and focused solely on hijabs and were able to provide more than just a couple of fabrics and have the collection that we have today, which we’re still building up. The journey has changed in terms of the products we’ve released, but the goal from day one has always been the same.
When you first launched, how were you producing the collection?
It was all done by tailors in Chicago. There’s still a very tiny fragment of a garment district left in Chicago from the heyday, so I was able to tap into the few remaining players in the space, like jobbers who had deadstock fabric from big-name designers, and you could still find trims and notions. These small-time tailors would do really tiny production individually by hand, so it was an interesting, very hands-on, and great learning experience for me because I didn’t go to fashion school—this was my fashion school. I really learned how to produce a fashion line there.
I was designing the pieces with an assistant designer I hired, who was this incredible and talented pattern maker from Romania. She learned the old French way of pattern making, they don’t teach it in schools anymore, and so her craft was so in line with what I wanted to do, which was really high quality, almost like couture. I had the vision, the two of us would sketch it out, she’d make the pattern, and we’d mock it up with muslin and iterate again.
I took all that information when we moved from Chicago to Dubai (in 2012) and I could move operations there with all that foundation under my belt. It was really great for the business because we were able to shift operations and manufacturing from the States to Dubai. We still work with the same manufacturer, they do about 80 percent of our production. It’s a big team, and they’re dedicated solely to us.
There’s been a recent influx of luxury fashion brands targeting the modest fashion market. What are these brands are getting right—or wrong? And has that affected your business?
It’s incredible that brands are recognizing and acknowledging us as a consumer base. It’s very capitalistic—they know it’s a lucrative market and that’s fine, that’s capitalism for you, that’s business! No harm, no foul. The only time I take issue is when the messaging, the imagery, the product itself is not in alignment with our values. Because that means it’s inauthentic, you haven’t done the proper amount of research or due diligence it takes to understand this consumer. That’s when it feels like, okay, we knew it was a money grab, but at least put some effort into it. If you’re going to do this because you know it’s a good business decision then do it right. Otherwise, I think it’s fantastic and it helps me and my purpose, which is to normalize hijab in the mainstream. That’s all I’m trying to do, whether it comes from me, a competitor, or the mainstream, that’s great and I hope it continues to elevate this entire community.
How did you build sustainability into the business? Was that a priority for you?
It was something that was important from day one. When we started the company, it launched with vintage scarves that I repurposed into hijabs. This act of repurposing what’s already out there rather than creating a new virgin product out of polyester has been core to our mission. This in line with our values as Muslims. We’re custodians of this Earth, we believe we’re going to be asked about everything we did on this Earth, including how we treated the environment and how kind we were to the Earth. So our clothing was made from fabric scraps leftover from big designers either because they ordered too much or it was the wrong color. It was always a core value for us, we just didn’t tout it. We didn’t want to hype up this sustainable buzzword because number one, that’s a lot to live up to and you will be scrutinized for it and number two, it’s just core to who we were and it came naturally.
Now that we are bigger and have the opportunity to create products from scratch, we’re like wait, why would we do that? If we have to use polyester, which we’ve always gotten from deadstock so it already existed, but now that our volumes are so large that we’d potentially have to create virgin polyester, forget that, let’s find somebody who can create the volumes we need out of recycled polyester. At every turn, we’re trying to figure out how we can make our products more environmentally-friendly. We switched from woven rayon to bamboo, which is a better alternative due to the deforestation that rayon causes. We’re trying to figure out how we can provide the best quality product at the best price while still doing good to the environment and that’s the constant balance we’re trying to walk. We’re not touting ourselves as fully sustainable from start to finish because we’re not, but we’re doing our best and our part, and I think that’s what matters.
How important was building a large, engaged online community to growing the business?
It was everything! We wouldn’t be here today without it. I got on Instagram and Facebook very early, right when Facebook Business Pages launched in 2010. We were always first movers on these pivotal platforms. When you get in early, you’re able to build a following much easier than when it gets saturated and there’s too much noise. Being able to solidify our brand, our voice and me as the face of the brand helped tremendously before others got in and it became too difficult to do that. I see other brands trying to come into this space now and they have more of an uphill battle, it’s not to say they won’t succeed, but we were lucky to get in when we did.
You have built such a strong digital community, it’s so much more than just a brand, and you can really feel that through your social media channels.
Thank you, we work really hard at that. It’s the reason we’re here. It does come naturally, but it takes work. I have someone on my team who is our blog editor and when you talk to investors they’re like, “well, what’s her ROI?” The brand! No, she’s not pushing product, but she’s writing about all things Muslim women lifestyle, which again doesn’t push product 90 percent of the time, but it’s so important and core to building our brand. Sometimes people won’t get that because everybody on your team should be working towards revenue generation, but I don’t believe in that. Revenue is important for sure, but what we’re building is much, much bigger than that.
Let’s talk about your experience fundraising. At what point in your business did you start to take on funding, and what was that process like?
We had inbound interest around 2015, which was so novel to us. I had never even considered raising money at that point. The investors gave us a term sheet but it was trash—they knew that we were green and didn’t know what we were doing, and they took full advantage of that. The investment was hardly even a financial investment, they were giving us office space and access to manufacturing facilities, it was barely even monetary, and on top of that they wanted to take a huge chunk of my business. Get out of here. We were like, “yeah, bye!” The lesson is know your worth, know what you have, and if somebody wants a big chunk of it for next to nothing, know that you’ve got something great. Don’t be allured and hypnotized by the illusion of investors, it’s such an illusion. You know your business better than anybody, no investor can tell you what or how to do it. If you choose to go that route, know that they are just giving you money, that’s all this is about.
Revenue is important for sure, but what we're building is much, much bigger than that.
But investment dollars got us here and that was what we needed, so we got serious with our first raise. It was kind of like a friends and family round, even though there were no friends and family, it was a couple VC’s and all angels. It was small, we raised just half a million. That was in 2016 right when we moved to New York. We started networking, but we didn’t close that half a million until the end of 2017. It took forever, our first yes was Arlan [Hamilton] from Backstage, and we couldn’t believe it.
Why do you think it took so long to fundraise that first round?
So many reasons. Number one: we were very green. We didn’t know what we were doing and people could sense the lack of experience. It speaks volumes when you’re not an experienced fundraiser, even in our business, it was just me and my husband at that point so we didn’t have a good grasp on our metrics or the way forward in terms of what our product lineup should look like and investors could feel that. It was like, “okay these two don’t know what they’re doing yet.” Then on the other hand, people don’t understand this space. They don’t understand the opportunity of a brand like ours. For investors, it’s pattern matching. When you have founders whose background you don’t understand, you’re dealing with a market that you don’t understand, you don’t get their values, you don’t know their belief system… there’s too many things that you don’t understand. It would be a real leap of faith and most investors don’t do that, they’re pretty prudent. It was the people whose thesis it was to invest in the underdog or the minority, the one that nobody invests in, where we found our first yes. It took eight months to get one yes and then from there, that’s when the momentum built and we were really smart about getting the rest. We cut it into $25,000 units and said, “we have X amount of units available.” The next round, the seed round where The Helm came in, happened much quicker, a few months.
Were you more prepared the second time around? Or were investors more interested because you had already raised an initial round?
It’s a combination of all of that, plus direct-to-consumer was hot at the time. You had Glossier, Everlane, so many DTC darlings and people wanted to get into the space. Our vertical was hot and we were more experienced. People saw that we could raise a round, they saw what we did with the money, we were very smart with it. We doubled the business, we were so lean. Once one person is in, they’re all just chasing each other.
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What advice would you give to female founders who are new to fundraising and not sure how to pitch themselves to investors?
It’s so subjective, if I was to sit down with a founder and hear her business I could give her tailored advice, but just general blanket advice as a woman founder? Don’t focus on the fact that you’re a woman. It’s a distraction that will ultimately cause insecurity. Don’t even focus on it, just have confidence in what you’re building and in yourself. You’re a woman? That’s great—use it to your advantage. There’s so much strength in that. Don’t use it as a crutch or feel like it’s a disadvantage because that’s such a terrible and unhealthy mindset. If you believe in your brand and what you’re building, people will see that no matter what you look like. Woman or not, whatever race or gender, at the end of the day it’s about what you’re selling to them. Men have those traits naturally because the whole world leans towards them. It’s not like “oh be a man,” but use those same traits that men inherently have because this world is catered to them.
What are some things you wish you’d known before starting your company?
I would’ve told myself to lean into my role as CEO sooner. That was my own hang-up because I was an attorney and in my community, value comes from what you do, unfortunately. And what you do has to fit in this box of convention: you’re a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a pharmacist, dentist, that’s basically it. If you’re not any of those things, then what are you doing in life? I went to law school not because of that, but because it really was something I wanted to do and I even miss it now. But I knew and understood how revered it was to have that under my belt and so as the result, venturing into the startup space in fashion, something I knew nothing about and had no degree in, and trying to peddle this little dinky company online and on Facebook in the early days, I didn’t fully step into it.
You're a woman? Use it to your advantage. There's so much strength in that.
When I talked to people in my community, I’d play it down like, “it’s just a little hobby” or I’d talk about my law career instead. I succumbed to those conventional ideas from day one instead of stepping out of the box. Maybe that was smart because I had to ease people into it, but it did get to a point where it was like, “Mel, stop! You’ve got something on your hands here and you need to just step into it now, it’s time.” Ultimately, it took a friend of mine who literally took me by the shoulders and shook me and said, “do you understand what you have here?” I saw things so differently after that.
I think that’s a valid feeling that many women entrepreneurs deal with, it’s like Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome absolutely, that’s it in a nutshell! I wish that I had been done with the Imposter Syndrome earlier.
As a founder, what have been the greatest challenges you’ve faced in the last year with COVID-19?
How much time do you have? [Laughs] Everything from us paying rent on an office that’s empty every single month to losing team members (it still hurts me to this day that we had to let go of them). Or supply chain disruptions or delays because of COVID. Just the delays in big projects overall, we were supposed to launch in the UK last spring and we’re finally going to do it this spring. There was so much that had to shift and it was such a tumultuous time, but there were so many silver linings. Just my team alone, when I think about how much they worked it brings me to tears because wow, the dedication and commitment. Everyone took salary cuts and they’re working harder than they ever did before and they’re still as committed as they have ever been because they believe in the brand. It’s the greatest feeling to know you had a vision for the world, a mission which comes naturally to me because I’m Muslim I wear hijab, but most of my team doesn’t, and the fact that they are willing to devote their time and energy that they could be doing anything else with, to support me—my vision! And some of y’all aren’t even Muslim! It’s so humbling.
Your team is still remote. How do you think you’re going to handle office life when things become a little more “normal”?
We will continue leaving discretion to work from home or the office to our employees because they have proven that they can work remotely with the same output. If you want to work in the office, you want to work remotely, you want to do part-time or both…everybody is different. Some people are dying to get back to the office and some people are fine to stay home, so whatever makes you happy, do that! That’s what’s going to make people work more efficiently and give them more satisfaction in their job anyway, so whatever they want is fine.
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What would your advice be for women trying to keep their business afloat right now?
Be very, very, very frugal and super lean. Our burn was over $200,000 and there was no need for it. Be very disciplined financially.
What were you spending money on that you regret, and how did you decide what expenses to cut?
You have to learn the lessons, I don’t regret any of it, but I would say our office space was a big one. It’s tough because, on the one hand, we could have probably held off, but commercial leases in New York are a minimum of five years, so we knew we were going to get bigger and grow into it and we went for something bigger than we should have. But who knows, maybe that was the right decision, no one could have predicted COVID. Now, in today’s world with flexible working from home, maybe you don’t need an office, maybe you only need a small satellite office. Do what’s right for your business.
The other thing was we grew too quickly. If you looked at our financials, it was really our office space and payroll. We had a lot of extraneous costs like tech things we were enrolled in that we didn’t need and got rid of, but those were minor. It was payroll growing too quickly and having too many people on staff that we really didn’t need. It came down to that; it was over-hiring and being in a space that we really couldn’t afford at the time.
What were you able to get your burn down to?
At one point, we broke even. It fluctuated anywhere between breakeven to $16,000, $30,000 and $60,000; it depended on the month. We’re a seasonal business, so in the months where we would flush out on revenue, it was easy; our burn was much better. But when the season is low, our burn is a little bit higher, so it fluctuates.
Your next big move is taking Haute Hijab global. What are your plans to enter international markets for the first time?
We’re starting in the UK with third-party logistics, so it’s much more substantial in terms of international expansion. We’re hoping that will be the starting point to [expanding] into Europe in general. That will open in the next month or so; all of our inventory is there. We’re just waiting on our ERP [enterprise resource planning] system to be fully integrated, and then we can start shipping from there. Then, for the Middle East, we’re starting with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). We just signed a deal with one of the biggest retailers in the region to carry our products, it’s a pretty big move and play for us. We’re hoping that will be the foot in the door to get into that region in order to sustain ourselves independently like we’re doing in the UK. That region is so vastly different from the West that the right way forward is going through a trusted retailer first to build up brand recognition and then branch out on our own once we get big enough. We were supposed to launch in the UK exactly a year ago, in April 2020, and then COVID hit, but everything happens in due time. We’re here now!