Hilal Ibrahim (right), the CEO and founder of Henna & Hijabs, partnered with Nordstrom to create the retailer's first luxury hijab collection. Credit: Ashley Camper

Hilal Ibrahim says this is really just the beginning for the company she launched several years ago. If so, it’s quite a start. 

When Sahan Journal first spoke with Hilal, 26, in late 2019, she had just created a collection of hijabs for patients and staff at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park—the nation’s first hospital to carry hijabs in its gift shop.

A few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the nation, and demand for Hilal’s hospital-grade hijabs exploded. She donated 700 hijabs to hospitals across the state, including the Mayo Clinic.

Hilal created these hijabs when she noticed patients using hospital blankets to cover their heads since hijabs weren’t available in the hospital. Hilal herself was in need of a sanitary hijab to wear while working in the medical field.

Whether she’s designing hijabs for frontline workers and patients or for everyday wear, Hilal’s goal is consistent—to create accessibility through her hijabs while being intentional with materials, colors, and her designs.

So when the opportunity came to partner with a mainstream retailer like Nordstrom, she knew it would open doors. 

“I really just said, bismillah,” Hilal said, explaining she took a leap of faith in the name of God. “Nordstrom has a really serious mission to not only the community, but also partnering with Black women-owned businesses and Muslim-owned too—I sit at the intersection of all those identities.”

Hilal has just released her latest Henna & Hijabs collection of sustainably-made luxury hijabs in collaboration with Nordstrom. The collection has been available on Nordstrom’s website since June 28. And on Monday, the collection hit 16 stores in the United States and Canada. Hilal’s collection is available at two Nordstrom locations in Minnesota: Mall of America and Ridgedale Center.

The collection includes five hijabs in different materials—jersey, linen, cotton, silk, and chiffon—and an underscarf in four colors. Prices range from $30-$90. 

“I wanted to celebrate all the identities that Muslim women are,” Hilal said. “Down to the material, we were very intentional with everything we did.”

Despite a pandemic-related drop in spending on modest fashion in the Muslim community worldwide, Henna & Hijabs gained new exposure with its medical-grade hijab line. A partnership with a major department store suggests Hilal’s business is continuing to grow.

Nordstrom aims to evolve its assortment of hijabs by listening to employees, customers, and brand partners, according to a statement from Jen Jackson Brown, a Nordstrom executive. 

“We are honored and excited to be partnering with Henna & Hijabs to create a thoughtfully designed collection of hijabs for our customers,” Jackson Brown said. “We hope this collection provides a sense of pride, excitement and confidence for an otherwise underrepresented community of women.”

Henna & Hijabs continues to grow during the COVID-19 pandemic

Salaam Gateway, a global research agency, releases a report on the state of the global Islamic economy annually. Part of this study looks at Muslim consumer habits and the modest fashion industry worldwide.

According to Salaam Gateway’s latest report, researchers saw a 2.9 percent drop in spending on clothing due to COVID-19. Modest fashion companies also took a hit. In years prior, Salaam Gateway projected a growth in spending on clothing to $311 billion by 2024.

Researchers suggest that collaborations between mainstream retailers and modest fashion designers are one way for modest fashion companies to recover after the pandemic. They predict that modest fashion brands will experience significant growth by working with mainstream brands in the next 10 years.

For Hilal, Henna & Hijabs had actually gained more exposure during the pandemic.

Hilal first created Henna & Hijabs in 2017 when she started making her own hijabs with materials from a local fabric store.

“I’m really grateful to say that my story really started from home, it started locally,” Hilal said. “I was working with a local partner, creating things in-house. We wanted to make something high quality, to be conscious of how the pieces were made.”

Hilal said she cannot disclose the financial details of Henna & Hijabs, but the medical-grade hijab line created traction that has brought her business to the next level.

With 11 years of experience volunteering at hospitals and working as a phlebotomist, Hilal recognized a need for hijabs that were safe and easy for hospital workers to wear in a healthcare setting. The hijabs are also meant to be comfortable for patients.

She created the line just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic.

On top of donating hundreds of hijabs across the state, Hilal said she’s been communicating with healthcare providers across the country who have recognized a broader need for her products.

“There was not only a national demand but an international demand for the product I created,” Hilal said. “I actually didn’t know the impact it was going to have, but it has grown significantly, and we continue to grow.”

According to Hilal, entering a popular retail space that’s never carried hijabs before seemed like the next logical step.

In the same way Hilal created accessibility for women who wear hijab in the healthcare industry, she now aims to make Muslim women more visible at Nordstrom.

“My goal was representation,” Hilal said. “I wanted to make something that really resonates with people when they purchase it.”

Henna & Hijabs collection for Nordstrom includes hijabs in a variety of colors and materials. The collection is available online and in 16 store locations. Credit: Nordstrom

Hilal noted that Nordstrom and other stores in the United States carry scarves that became a popular option for women shopping for hijabs. But her products are marketed first and foremost as hijabs. On Nordstrom’s online store, shoppers can find the Henna & Hijab collection under “Hijabs and Headscarves,” a subsect of the women’s accessories section.

“My hope is to continue this work, create that accessibility, continue to uplift others, and showcase what it’s like being a Black Muslim woman,” Hilal said.

Being involved in the process—as a consumer and leader

Even though she was working with a retailer unfamiliar with the experiences of Muslim women, Hilal said she never felt that Nordstrom treated her hijabs as a token product. In fact, she said she was granted full agency over the collection.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Hilal said. “I was the expert in creating this for Nordstrom—from design to production.”

Hilal also got to select the models representing the brand. She hired the same group of women who modeled for Henna & Hijabs at its start.

Taherah Shamsulbahri-Cobb, a 28-year-old school psychologist in Cottage Grove has been with Henna & Hijabs since the beginning. In 2017, her best friend—who is also Hilal’s cousin—connected Shamsulbahri-Cobb to Hilal to model for her new company.

Shamsulbahri-Cobb was also one of the first people to find out about Henna & Hijabs partnership with Nordstrom. Four years after her first modeling gig for Henna & Hijabs, Hilal asked Shamsulbahri-Cobb if she would model for the Nordstrom collection.

“This partnership meant bringing people in who have been with the company for a really long time. That just speaks to the type of person that she is,” Shamsulbahri-Cobb said of Hilal. “She is very much community-oriented—bringing others up who had helped her in the beginning.”

Shamsulbahri-Cobb, whose father is Malaysian and mother is American, also appreciated Hilal’s commitment to showcasing the diversity of Muslim women.

Representing them in the collection for Nordstrom was important for Hilal, but she also emphasized making sure that her collection suited a variety of skin tones.

“Muslim women are not just Desi or Arab. They’re not just Somali,” Hilal said. “I wanted to celebrate all the identities that we are.”

Along with making sure the color palette of her collection was accessible, Hilal also looks to trends. She described it as “a really intense design process,” and paid particular attention to what materials they used, how it’s made, and under what conditions. Some of the scarves are made with organic cotton, and Hilal said the entire collection is meant to be a sustainable option for hijabs since they last long.

Despite thinking critically about colors and materials, the best way for Hilal to settle on a design—is to just wear it herself, she said. She was her company’s first customer, after all.

“A lot of times people see our identity, or at least mine, as a weakness, but it’s not. It’s something to be celebrated, and I’m very grateful for who I am,” Hilal said. “As a company, this is just the beginning.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.