A candid conversation with FSAD alum Gizelle Begler ’08 about establishing her namesake couture label, destigmatizing the hijab, and utilizing fashion as a vehicle for social change.
Editor’s Note: Gizelle graduated from the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design in 2008, where she explored her passion for her Egyption-American culture through design, interned with Tommy Hilfiger and Giorgio Armani and was the first Cornell student to win the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund award. Upon graduating, she was immediately recruited to lead the design team at formalwear boutique Sugar Plum NY, subsequently moving to Kuwait and designing couture for the Kuwaiti Royal family. One year later, she moved to Egypt and founded her fledgling company Gizelle Couture, an evening wear label dedicated to offering Middle Eastern women the gown of their dreams. As Gizelle Couture became a premier name in evening and bridal wear across the globe, she made splashing headlines in such publications as Enigma and Marry Me, Egypt’s #1 fashion magazine and wedding guide respectively.
How did your time in Kuwait and Egypt influence your vision as an artist and entrepreneur and spark an idea for your own business?
Before I went to Egypt, I was in the city working as a little girl’s dress designer, and my race and religion never had much to do with my work. I was so obsessed with avant garde and couture, and it wasn’t until I went to the Middle East that I realized I still needed to consider the needs of the community. They love fashion and dress but living in Muslim countries, there is no store or global business that creates really nice things for the modern woman. This was a shocking and disappointing eye opener when I first went to Egypt: that the country is Muslim but there is no Muslim store or fashion industry for the women there.
How did the idea and mission behind Gizelle Couture come to fruition?
When I started growing up emotionally and thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, I realized I wanted my craft to have an impact on the world. Purpose is also really important to me, and it’s hard to really impact the world with sparkly gowns. What really helped me was understanding my brides; half of [them] were modest, and that’s where it all began. The brides needing more modest gowns needed hijabs to go with them, so I found creative solutions, like adding a turban or a piece of silk for a headdress. I wanted to help make them feel like princesses — I wanted them to feel beautiful and special in their gowns and make their dreams come true. Some of my brides still write to me to this day!
You were a young woman fresh out of college at the time. How did you develop this idea all by yourself and build it into a nationally-renowned business?
I was twenty-three when I went to Egypt. I was very young, but I felt very invincible at the time. Cornell really built me up emotionally so I left feeling like a superstar. That definitely helped me go for things without maybe thinking of the consequences.
So in Egypt, it took a year to set things up. There was a lot of corruption at the time … lawyers would make no more than the US equivalent of $400.00 a month. But I did notice fashion was really taking off. I don’t mean businesses, but girls who wanted to have their own lines and went to tailors with a design. There was such a high demand that I saw an opportunity.
The first few years, I was paying out of pocket and losing money. Each gown was different and custom — I would estimate that it would cost $4,000, not $6,000, but I couldn’t change the price because I had already given the client the quote. So I’d pay the difference out of pocket. I wasn’t making money, but then I learned that if you fish for small fish, you only get small fish, and that it’s worth the wait for a bigger fish because then you only get bigger fish from that point on. And it spread by word of mouth.
You touched upon how your education at Cornell benefited you early on in your career. Could you share a bit more about how it created a foundation for your business?
A lot of designers don’t appreciate the construction side of design because they say they’re not in school to be a seamstress… but it’s actually really important because even though I didn’t end up sewing myself, I was able to teach an entire team how to sew. All of that came in handy and made me appreciate my Cornell education.
Could you share some other challenges you experienced in building your own couture label? What did you do to overcome them?
The hardest thing was trying to manage the sewers. I’m the kind, gentle type and being a boss lady isn’t my nature. To have a little girl trying to set rules and have people stick to them was really challenging. I had to be both the good cop and the bad cop, being well liked by my staff and also being the stern boss, which I hated. Managing is still one of the aspects I hate the most about business because I love connecting with people, and I hate reprimanding them.
What was the greatest moment in Gizelle Couture?
At the beginning, I was excited when I got a customer at all— it was all by word of mouth and nobody trusted a designer nobody had ever heard of, especially if they looked like they were 15. I showed my Cornell fashion show gowns and garments I made for clients in Kuwait to show them I knew what I was doing.
So, the greatest moments were when I jumped from one tier to another — because it was about the trust. That’s how I ended up dressing celebrities and socialites and had my dresses on the covers of magazines. People who travel the world and knew what well made garments looked like trusted me. It was quite an honor.
Why did you leave Egypt at the peak of Gizelle Couture’s success? How did you transition from entrepreneur and founder of your own company to Creative Director of Haute Hijab in the states?
When my mom was diagnosed with ALS, there was no chance of survival, and I didn’t even care about the business. My mom was my everything — she raised me. When I left, I knew I was going to be gone for a long time, so I sold everything. I needed three years to slowly process what was happening. There was no way to live in denial of it.
When I came back, my career was the last thing on my mind, but I had to pay the bill somehow. It didn’t even matter what it was — I interviewed at Champion as a Design Operations Manager and took the job. I didn’t even tell my friends I was back in the US — I just wanted to be with my mom. But I saw a Muslim entrepreneurial networking event online, and it was so specific that I went to it. Ahmed and Melanie, the first people I met at the event, were the founders of Haute Hijab. They were American Muslims who had gone back to Dubai and had quality product and incredible work ethic. It was small but we decided to take the plunge and go full time on the hijab business together.
They were searching for a creative director but there was no such thing as a large scale Muslim modest fashion company, so no seasoned modest dress designers existed. What are the chances we came back from Dubai and Egypt and found each other? It was literally destiny. It was fate.
What was your primary mission as the Creative Director of Haute Hijab, a fledgling brand at the time?
Our goal is to normalize the hijab in the West. The mission of Haute Hijab is to make every woman feel comfortable and confident in her hijab, from the style to the fabric. Part of the beauty and freedom of being in America is that you should be able to wear or not wear a hijab freely and comfortably, and if you do, you should still be able to feel beautiful and modest. There is power in showing how much of your body you wish to be seen.
How did Haute Hijab differ from other hijab brands on the market?
At the time there were a lot of smaller e-commerce hijab businesses, but when I looked at their websites and ordered their products, I saw Haute Hijab was operating at a whole different level. The quality was like night and day compared to its competitors, and I believed in the company, its product, its mission, its purpose. My #1 goal as the creative director was to look at the business and see how I could visually differentiate it.
How did the press react to your initial collection?
What we are trying to do with hijabs is to create a category that exists in department stores, just like socks. We gaves the pieces names that stuck—competitors and customers adopted our names “scarves” and “wraps,” which we use to describe our two styles of hijabs. he Classic” is a timeless, silk hijab from Haute Hijab’s Heritage Collection. The screen-printed twill fabric is inspired by ceilings in Istanbul.
How does your hijab differ from others from a functional perspective?
As the leading hijab company in the country, we are making history, and we listen to our customers to know what we should design next. I noticed from as far back as when I was in Egypt that a lot of hijab-wearing women were losing hair. I started to study why: because there’s a combination of a lack of oxygen— hijabs are tied so tightly that there’s no oxygen getting to their hair — and low quality fabric (polyester, basically plastic). Women are tying up their hair with it all day, which causes hair loss. This is a product that should be treated as a category in the garment world and get as much attention when being designed as pants or a jacket. So we wanted to create an undercap that’s breathable. I went to Cornell and spoke with Professors Frey and Netravali and had a two-hour brainstorm. Another wonderful thing about Cornell is that your professors are always there for you — they’re always so excited to help you in your career after you go off into the world!
I went back and designed three different undercaps, trying to appeal to as many women as possible. One undercap was not enough, just like one shirt doesn’t appeal to everyone. We created three versions: the criss cross, the classic, and the barely there (which is made of mesh fabric and is meant to not be seen at all). That way, women could find at least one that worked.
Please tell us about the impact your brand has had on the hijabi community in America.
We are more than a clothing company; Haute Hijab is a community we built. We listen to what our customers want next. Our customer experience department is something we take pride in. We have women sharing their experiences — they reach out about marital issues and even what shampoos to use.
How has the non-hijab-wearing community reacted to your work?
Some people who are unfamiliar with the faith have fought back. Once, I was walking in a really hip part of Brooklyn with a bag that said Haute Hijab on it and a woman pounced on me and started screaming at me about how as a nation of people we have fought so hard, and now I am promoting wrapping women up and moving backwards. It came from a place of ignorance, but it showed me so many people don’t even understand why a hijab exists.
The first reason for wearing a hijab is to be identified as Muslim. The second reason is for modest purposes. Some women are discouraged from wearing it but want this outward expression of their faith and identity, so saying you can’t wear one is as bad as an oppressive leader who says women must wear hijabs.
How do the non-Muslim members of your community feel about wearing a Hijab to work?
When it was an open door, those who were non-Muslim at work wanted to experience the product they were making — they didn’t want to before because they didn’t want to come off as disrespectful or appropriative. But they wanted to experience what it’s like to be a hijabi out in the world— to put it on in the morning, construct an outfit around it, and commute to work on it. You can see if people are treating you differently or overcompensating.
Have you faced issues with cultural appropriation?
I can’t speak for everyone, but from the Muslim perspective, they are actually really touched when people want to try a hijab or ask questions about it. They feel like people want to learn about them.
The only time when it gets offensive is when people disrespect it, like artists or designers who have women wearing hijabs and then put them in a thong. And Muslims realize that it’s not for us, and companies are still bringing it back to them.
What can non-hijabi women do to help normalize the hijab?
If you see a hijabi on the street, go up to them and compliment them. Bring up a commonality instead of making them feel like they are an outsider just because they wear a piece of fabric on their hair. Show them the opposite and that they’ll only get positive attention, because America is about different cultures coming together and celebrating different forms of expression.
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