How This Founder Is Making Room for Modest Fashion: 'You Don't Need to Change Who You Are to Fit In'
Henna & Hijabs' mission is to provide options that did not exist in the fashion space before. Here are three lessons Hilal Ibrahim offers to founders starting businesses that are disrupting the status quo.
As I walked through Target on a recent shopping trip, I headed towards the women’s clothing section — and what I saw stopped me in my tracks. In a display photo showing off the latest knitwear line, there was a woman wearing a hijab. I was surprised and delighted to see the diversity of representation and the focus on including Muslim women. Unfortunately, Muslim women are not represented in the places where we shop, books and magazines we read and films we watch enough.
“I am on a mission to increase representation of Muslim women in all spaces,” says Hilal Ibrahim, founder and CEO of Henna & Hijabs. “I want Muslim girls to know they can be American and Muslim, and they can be or do anything they want.”
Muslims are the fastest-growing religious group in the world. According to the Pew Research Center, there are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, which is approximately 24% of the world’s population. In the U.S., Muslims will make up 2.1% of the population by 2050, expected to surpass those who practice Judaism as the second-largest faith group in the county. And yet many brands fail to include and represent the Muslim consumer, particularly when it comes to the world of fashion and the modest fashion economy.
“Over the past couple of years brands have started to see this as a new consumer,” says Reina Lewis, professor of cultural studies at London College of Fashion: UAL and author of the book Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures. “Muslims were constructed as a consumer segment, first in relation to finance, then in relation to food and now its fashion.”
Ibrahim started Henna & Hijabs with a strong belief in ethical fashion. She wanted to design hijabs while being ethically responsible to both the people who made them and the environment. Henna & Hijabs’ mission is to provide options that did not exist in the fashion space before. Here are three lessons Ibrahim offers to founders starting businesses that are disrupting the status quo:
Be the change you want to see
Growing up in Minnesota, Ibrahim was a curious child, always trying to solve problems. Her parents supported and nurtured this curiosity. At the age of 14, Ibrahim started a nonprofit organization to provide education and support for those in Ethiopia's Ogaden Region whose human rights were being violated. “With my family having immigrated from Ethiopia, I had to be the voice and educate the greater community I was part of on the atrocities occurring,” Ibrahim says. She went on to continue the work with the nonprofit, starting a chapter at the University of Minnesota when she started college.
When it came to the lack of access to hijabs in the U.S. market, Ibrahim knew she had to solve this problem not only for herself, but also for many of the Muslim women she knew. She wouldn’t wait for someone else to act. Ibrahim says that much of her drive and inspiration is derived from her Islamic values: “We’re taught to be humble and be kind, but also to be beautiful inside and out. Sometimes society tells us that we can’t be beautiful in a hijab. I want to say to women, ‘You are beautiful because you are wearing a hijab, not despite it.’”
Do your homework
Ibrahim's quest to find high-quality hijabs led her to start her own company. She wanted hijabs in a variety of colors, made of a soft, breathable fabric, and the right length and size. Despite having 11 years of experience working in the healthcare industry, Ibrahim knew little about starting her own company.
“Medicine taught me to be disciplined, which has really helped me thrive as an entrepreneur,” Ibrahim says. “But when it came to finance, supply chain and design, I was starting at the very beginning. I had to study and do my homework.”
From searches on Google to visits to Barnes & Noble, Ibrahim dove right into understanding every aspect she could of building a business. She loved scouring the business section, learning about how to streamline processes, how to build company infrastructure, and how to scale her team. She also wasn’t afraid to ask for help and lean on those who had more expertise than her.
“I also love studying case studies of companies that made it and understanding their struggles and lessons learned,” says Ibrahim. “One of my favorite entrepreneurs is Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx. She received so many nos, and she didn’t let that stop her from realizing her mission.”
Make the bold ask
On social media, #modestfashion is gaining huge traction with images of women wearing jumpsuits, maxi-dresses and hijabs. There is a surge in demand for fashionable modest clothing, driven mainly by Muslim consumers who are reclaiming what fashion means to them.
“For this group, faith is core to their identity, and they want to feel brands are engaging with them to understand who they are and why their faith is important to them,” says Shelina Janmohamed, vice president of Islam-focused marketing agency Ogilvy Noor. “For young Muslim women in particular, wearing modest clothing is their way of expressing their faith. But they want to be fashionable, like all their peers around them.”
As a young girl, Ibrahim loved shopping at Nordstrom. “I love their values and the quality of products they sell,” Ibrahim says. “And I noticed a big gap in retail when it came to meeting the needs of Muslim women and including modest fashion.”
Ibrahim's dream was to see Henna & Hijabs at Nordstrom. So she made the bold ask: She sent the retailer an email introducing herself and her company. After a number of emails and meetings, Nordstrom partnered with Ibrahim to make her dream a reality. Fast-forward to June 2021, and Henna & Hijabs launched at Nordstrom to serve a customer base that had previously been ignored. Henna & Hijabs will be launching a fall/winter collection at Nordstrom as well.
As a Muslim-American, Ibrahim is proud of where she comes from and is inspired to make a positive shift in fashion. “You don't need to change who you are to fit in.” She says. “I am here to make room for modest fashion at the table.”
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