“What size bra do you wear?”
It’s not a question we typically hear during most interviews, but it’s one Ade Hassan is getting more comfortable with asking as the founder of Nubian Skin, a new line of undergarments and hosiery for women of color. Prior to its October launch, Nubian Skin was already being shared and Amen-ed by everyone you knew for its groundbreaking premise—offering undergarments to women whose skin tones didn’t match the pinky-beige “nude” typically sold in stores.
“Nubian Skin was essentially born out of frustration,” Hassan, 30, explains. “I wanted a product that I couldn’t find in shops, so I decided to create it. I knew I couldn’t be the only one who felt the same way.”
Though Hassan didn’t start out with the bona fides of a lingerie designer—she’s a Duke University graduate who majored in english and economics and worked in finance—Nubian Skin’s success is making the industry sit up and pay attention. Hassan talks to mater mea about how she answered a question we’ve all had: “Why aren’t there nude underwear for us?”
You’ve had a pretty non-fashion background. What drew you to undergarments?
I always knew that I wanted to go into fashion eventually. I knew it wouldn’t be clothes because it was an incredibly saturated market, [and] for the longest time I thought maybe it would be in accessories. The concept popped in to my head, and I couldn’t shake it. I would be waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning and writing ideas down because the idea took over my brain.
What kind of comments did you hear from friends and family when you told them about your idea?
The first two people I told were my mum and my sister. And my mum was like, “Oh my gosh, yes! This is brilliant, do it, do it, do it!” I think it’s a problem a lot of women of color can relate to, and they’ve always known that I’ve wanted to be an entrepreneur: my parents are entrepreneurs. In Nigerian culture, most people have their job and then they have their side hustles so it’s not actually that unusual. They were incredibly supportive.
It was a steep learning curve because the lingerie industry is very niche, and it’s very closed. They were sort of with me for the journey. Overall people were just supportive. But I didn’t tell that many people, so there weren’t a huge amount of naysayers because they weren’t invited to the party. (Laughs)
How long did it take you from having the idea to executing the first prototype?
I came up with the idea early spring 2011, but I didn’t get a manufacturer until late spring last year. The biggest hurdle to overcome at the start was finding a good-quality manufacturer. As a new and small business, a lot of manufacturers simply didn’t respond to queries, and others were looking for incredibly high volumes, so it was tricky. For me a big thing was the colors—the colors took almost a year to get right. I didn’t get samples that I was 100% happy with until early summer this year, so it was about a year.
What were the issues you faced trying to find the right nude colors?
If you think about it, it’s not like you can walk into a shop and say, “Show me the nudes you’ve got.” It’s really starting from scratch. So for me, it was first of all thinking “How do I find this?” That process took me to makeup counters to figure out what shades were [the] most common and then looking at four or five shades that would represent a good enough spectrum of women of color, whether that be somebody who’s maybe Latina or Asian, to somebody who’s a beautiful, dark ebony color. That process took awhile. Then when you get the color, it’s matching it to a skin-tone Pantone and matching that Pantone to a fabric Pantone.
The first ones that came back were just wrong. So it was like, “Great, back to the drawing board!” [I was] going back and forth with the factory and saying, “Ok, actually, it needs more red, it needs more yellow, it needs to be [browner].”
Were there any other unique considerations you had to keep in mind because you were dealing with women of color that a mainstream lingerie store wouldn’t have to consider?
We always knew that we probably needed a broader spectrum of sizes, but just as far as starting off the business we were already taking a massive risk. We were introducing four new colors, which didn’t exist. So it’s dramatically more expensive because they have to custom dye all the fabric. It’s well over four times an average brand, which is a unique challenge, but I think it’s worth it because I do think women of color deserve to be catered to. We should all have access to something that’s so basic as a nude bra or nude tights.
What are your plans for the company?
A lot of people want to try it on. I understand the importance of wanting to touch something and feel it and see how it looks, so that’s definitely something we want to do—find some good partner shops in England and in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. That’s our goal. It’s a difficult goal, but we definitely hope to get there. My dream is that Nubian Skin becomes a household name. I can’t wait for the day any woman of color walks into a department store and can pick up a pair of Nubian Skin tights or bra.
Nubian Skin is available for purchase online and ships worldwide.