Meet the inclusive underwear brand disrupting the fashion industry
Nubian Skin’s founder Ade Hassan broke through in an industry that often overlooks people of colour. Here, she offers advice for other disruptive business leaders
This article is part of our Going Against the Grain series, which tells the stories of companies bold enough to break business norms and try out new ideas. To explore the rest of the series, head here.
Nubian Skin was born out of founder Ade Hassan’s struggles to find lingerie that matched her skin tone. Whenever she asked in-store for a nude bra, she would inevitably be handed something beige. Then, in 2011, she had what she describes as her “lightbulb moment”.
“I was annoyed I couldn’t ever find skin-tone intimates and I knew lots of other people were finding the same thing,” she recalls. “I didn’t understand why they didn’t exist, so I set up my own business to meet the needs of people of colour.”
Hassan freely admits the decision to set up her own lingerie company “was naïve”. She had no background in fashion and no experience in manufacturing or retail. But she recognised that there was a huge underserved market and she understood the needs of these customers.
Hassan recalls how, during the first photo shoot for Nubian Skin, she overheard the four Black models talking excitedly about her products. They were sharing stories of how they previously had to dye their underwear using tea or coffee to try to make it match their skin tone.
“That was my first indication that this was something which really resonated with people,” she says. “I put an image of these four women wearing our bras on social media and it went viral.”
Nubian Skin now has 162,000 followers on Instagram, is stocked in Asos, Nordstrom, Browns and Net-A-Porter and Beyoncé has worn it on her world tour. But taking on the incumbents and building a successful business has not been easy. “It’s been a journey of ups and downs, which sums up entrepreneurship in general,” Hassan says.
The challenges of being a disruptive brand
It took Hassan three years from the idea of the company to launching it. This involved developing her proprietary colours, visiting factories, speaking to manufacturers, registering the business and filing for trademarks.
“It was quite frustrating at first because I didn’t have any connections in the industry, so I had to do a lot of my own research,” Hassan says. “It was a baptism of fire because I had no clue how to even make a bra when I started.
“It’s important to protect your intellectual property, especially if you’re a first mover,” she says. “Sort out trademarks, register the company properly and make sure your legals are tight because it’s vital to always protect your brand.” Taking time to ensure all these elements are in place is important and Hassan advises other entrepreneurs to do the same.
Hassan became acutely aware of the importance of this after brands started ordering Nubian Skin’s products, only to attempt to copy the designs. “Some people weren’t willing to support the business but were more than happy to rip it off. But that’s business and that’s fashion,” she says. “Those were the people who weren’t willing to acknowledge the contribution we’d made but wanted to jump on the bandwagon because we were getting a lot of buzz.”
Improving inclusion in the lingerie business
Many of the biggest lingerie brands are run by people who are either white, male or quite often both. Hassan says that this can skew their perspective and influence their decisions. “Clearly, white men will never look in the mirror and say, ‘That doesn’t match my skin’,” she says.
“Unless you have people who have that experience in the room where the decisions are made, it’s a foregone conclusion,” she adds. “Once you’re around for a while, people begin recognising that your brand has something going for it.”
Disrupting an industry is often expensive. For Nubian Skin, all its products are custom-dyed because the fabric suppliers don’t have the colours it needs.
On top of the expense of researching and creating her own colours, suppliers required a minimum spend to make it worthwhile to produce custom fabrics. A fabric in a traditional colour can be ordered per 50 metres, while Nubian Skin had to order 1,000 metres of each of its colours.
Hassan says: “That’s not much of an investment for a large company but for a small business those costs start to add up. It’s an expensive exercise once you account for the development of the product and the manufacturing of it, which is why it hurts when other brands rip off our colours.”
Despite the many challenges, Hassan says that founding her own business has been a rewarding experience. “It was incredible when we did launch and people could buy the product. We had some really amazing messages from people, saying things like, ‘I’ve waited 40 years for this’ and ‘thank you for helping me feel seen’.”
Her advice to anyone else who has a similarly disruptive business idea would be simply to “go for it”. “If you’re disrupting an industry, it will be harder than you think. There will be reasons no one has done it before, so be prepared for a lot of barriers,” she says.
Although this can be quite demoralising, for Hassan there’s nothing worse than regret. “Even though it has been challenging, I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
Despite being a relatively small brand, Nubian Skin has helped to change conversations about representation and inclusivity in the fashion industry and encouraged larger brands to develop ranges of nude underwear for people of colour.
“My goal has always been for women of colour to have the same access to skin-tone intimates as any other woman. I’ve seen a positive change in the industry over the past eight years,” Hassan says. “It’s something I’m really proud of playing a small part in.”