In our new series MC Muse, savvy women from around the world share their style, their ambitions, and the most coveted pieces to shop right now.
As a Muslim-American teen, the daughter of Lebanese and Filipino immigrants, Melanie Elturk found the hunt for stylish, high-quality hijabs in her hometown of Detroit to be unnecessarily difficult—especially ones that fit her classic-with-a-twist aesthetic. Her options were limited: either stock up on hijabs while traveling overseas or begrudgingly purchase bulky neck scarves at local department stores.
Elturk was not alone in her frustrations. An active participant in Detroit’s Muslim community when she was in law school, she began noticing Muslim high-schoolers abandoning hijabs altogether, a result of limited options and a lack of attention to young consumers. “Girls didn’t really have role models that they could look up to and say, ‘Wow, look at that woman out there in the world wearing a hijab, kicking butt.’ She’s successful because she wears a hijab and not despite it,” explains Elturk. (Elturk name-checked Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American Muslim Congresswoman, in a blog post, as someone she hopes young Muslim women are inspired by today.)
In 2010, Elturk was a part-time civil-rights attorney, but as a longtime fashion enthusiast, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She began sourcing and selling vintage scarves that could be worn around the head, as she had been doing for many years. Six years later, she and her husband embarked on the launch of their e-commerce site, Haute Hijab, as their full-time jobs. The website offers Muslim women an array of hijabs for every occasion—including sports—without skimping on quality, comfort, or modest principles.
Creating a well-crafted hijab and a successful shopping platform were important parts of the couple’s business plan, but Elturk wasn’t laser focused on the product alone. She added a blog in order to tackle topics Muslim women care about but that mainstream media spends little time covering—from child-rearing tips to politics to spirituality. “I really wanted to work on the substantive issues of why we wear [the hijab], the importance of it, and show examples of incredible, successful women who wear it,” she says.
This year, Elturk plans to take her company global. She’ll begin with an expansion in the United Kingdom in Q2, with hopes to get into the Middle East by the end of 2021. The international expansion brings the brand one step closer to Elturk’s overall goal: for Haute Hijab to reign as the world’s premier hijab brand.
We spoke with the busy CEO about her role in the Muslim community, her new-found obsession with streetwear, and her penchant for imparting wisdom over Instagram.
Marie Claire: First, walk me through your career trajectory.
Melanie Elturk: I moved to Chicago in 2009, when I got married, and my husband and I started the beginning of the company together while I was still pursuing my legal career. The website was kind of this passion project that I had on the side. A couple of years later, our jobs moved us to Dubai. I was clerking for three judges, which was an interesting job because the country [the United Arab Emirates) is still in its infancy, so I was basically creating the law. Fast-forward to 2014 and we started getting interests from investors in New York City. My husband and I wanted to move back home anyway, so in 2016 we both quit our jobs, and pursued the business full-time. In the last four or five years, we’ve raised a few rounds of funding, built a team, and established our office in downtown Manhattan.
MC: Has your own style changed over the years, moving from Detroit to Dubai to New York?
ME: I’d been wearing heels since I was in seventh grade; [in] New York, my choice of footwear has definitely changed. It’s like, are you serious? I wear much more comfortable shoes now. In the last year, I’ve also really stepped into streetwear. It’s brought me back to my roots in Detroit. I feel like I’ve come full circle, wearing the baggy Ralph Lauren windbreakers, Tommy Hilfiger polos, and rugby shirts from my high school days.
I get dressed based on the energy I feel that morning. If I’m feeling really happy and excited about the day, I might wear a bright color. If I’m kind of sleepy and sluggish, I’ll wear an oversize sweater. If I know I have an investor meeting, I’ll put on a collared shirt and maybe a blazer. I love to get dressed. I love clothing. It’s so fun for me. There’s this woman named Sheikha Mozah [the wife of the former emir and mother of the current emir who works against domestic violence and advocating for access to education] in Qatar. She is like my muse. I’m obsessed with her. Her style is out of this world.
MC: Tell us about the blog.
ME: [At first], I was the sole contributor. It was mainly fashion pieces, because that’s what I’m interested in: a lot of styling tips, fashion hacks, stuff like that. Eventually, we hired a blog editor who uses a team of freelancer writers. We asked ourselves how we could enrich our consumers’ lives, because there aren’t enough outlets speaking to this woman. Unfortunately, even within our community, I think sometimes the conversations aren’t as helpful or honest as they could be. She needs real topics to be addressed, whether it’s faith, children, going to school, nailing an interview, wearing hijab style tips, or raising kids.
MC: How has social media changed the way you do business?
ME: The Muslim community is so diverse, and it’s fragmented throughout the world. The only real way you can reach the consumer is online. We have a whole host of Instagram ambassadors that we work with who align with our brand values—cool girls of all ages, backgrounds, and demographics. I control our Instagram by myself, and it’s an excellent conduit for me to really engage with our customers and our community. They know it’s me and it’s a direct line of communication, which I think is also a huge advantage to our brand. They’ve coined the term “Aunty Mel” because I’ll go live on Instagram and just shoot the shit with [my followers]. It’s really fun, frank, raw conversation. They ask questions, and I’ll impart what little knowledge I have. I think that sense of connection and community has been really pivotal in our success.
A version of this story appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Marie Claire.