Established brands ‘are starting to recognize that consumers come in all shades, not just pale pink’
The email sounded too good to be true: an unsolicited offer to help dress Beyoncé and her dancers for the megastar’s Formation World Tour. But after checking it out with friends in show business, Londoner Ade Hassan confirmed the solicitation was legitimate. Soon the details came.
“Brilliant. Here are [Beyonce’s] sizes and her colors,” the emailer wrote. Hassan set to work filling a high-prestige order for her small business. Nubian Skin provided T-shirt bras, thongs and briefs for the concert tour, which became one of the biggest grossing tours of 2016.
“We were a little bit gobsmacked,” Hassan said of the order.
Launched in October 2014, Nubian Skin sells what’s been generally difficult to find in the main-line marketplace: hosiery and lingerie matching darker skin tones.
Along with Beyoncé’s tour, Nubian Skin garments have been seen in the Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures,” the story of three black women who worked as mathematicians at NASA, and on the Fox TV show “Empire.” They can be found at Main Street retailers and online. Colors called cafe au lait, caramel, cinnamon and berry speak to the range of skin tones among the women to whom Hassan caters.
“One of my recurring frustrations had been never being able to find tights that were the right color or just having a nude bra that I could wear under a white blouse — any blouse, really,” Hassan said during an interview from her office in the British capital.
Nubian Skin is among a select number of companies that have entered the intimate-apparel landscape over the past five years, said Sarah Clarke, editor of Lingerie Insight, a British magazine and website that focuses on industry news and trends.
“Their aim is to change the meaning of the word ‘nude,’ which used to be synonymous with lighter skin shades,” said Clarke in emailed comments. “I believe the trend has been driven by the world’s population becoming more diverse, which has triggered a strong consumer demand for fashion and beauty products for darker skin tones.”
Selling what used to be referred to as “unmentionables” is big business. In the U.S., lingerie stores pulled in $7.5 billion in revenue over the five years leading up to 2016, according to research firm IBISWorld. Sales increased at an annualized rate of 1.9% over that period, in part as a rise in disposable income created a market for higher-end, higher-priced lingerie.
The industry’s growth has also been driven by an increase in product offerings to appeal to broader and underserved markets, including women 45 and older and plus-size women, IBISWorld said in a research published in October.
“The rise of social media has given consumers a voice, allowing them to express what’s missing in their lingerie wardrobes, and brands have responded to this audience,” Clarke said. Established brands “are starting to recognize that consumers come in all shades, not just pale pink,” she said.
The company Björn Borg, which bears the name of the Swedish tennis legend, last year launched its Skin Collection, with underwear in six skin tones. An 84% majority of the world’s population has a skin tone other than the heretofore standard “nude” color, it said in a statement. Luxury shoe brand Christian Louboutin in 2013 introduced its Nudes Collection of beige to dark-brown shoes.
“The shoes disappear like magic and become a fluid extension of the woman’s legs, as in a sketch, elongating the silhouette,” Louboutin said at the time.
This year, Hassan followed in those Louboutin footsteps. She’s put a Nubian Skin line of brown-hued pumps and flats online.
In 2011, Hassan was working as a consultant and not enjoying it, so she decided to start her own business. “The idea popped into my head, and I remember sending a text to my friend saying, ‘I figured out what I want to do when I grow up.’ ”
Just six years after the genesis of the idea, Nubian Skin is stocked by upscale department-store chain Nordstrom Inc. JWN, +1.60% , online fashion vendor Asos ASC, +0.60% and legednary British department store House of Fraser. “A lot of times, if you haven’t been around for three [fashion] seasons, people won’t even look at you,” Hassan, 32, said. “I think it’s a testament to the fact that we were doing something so innovative and that many women have been waiting for.”
She said some retail-industry buyers are a bit conservative, while for others Nubian Skin immediately clicked. “Yes, our customers need that,” members of the latter group might say. “That makes complete sense.”
While Hassan had a clear idea of what she wanted to sell, she had hurdles to overcome.
“[I had] a huge task of figuring out the colors because they didn’t exist in the market,” she said, adding that she frequented makeup counters in search of the right tones to offer.
Hassan started working actively on building Nubian Skin in late spring of 2013, returning to the finance industry to save up enough money to launch the business.
She was confident in her idea, but she still had to convince others. “I was reaching out to manufacturers, and nobody came back to me,” she said. “I realized pretty quickly that, not having any inroads with that industry, I needed expert advice.”
One of her most important moves in building the business was finding a consultant who had worked in the industry for decades. After an online search, she signed a nondisclosure agreement with a consultant and outlined her pitch.
“I hear a lot of ideas. This one has legs,” Hassan recalled being told by the consultant, who in turn directed Hassan to trade shows where she could meet manufacturers.
She and her eventual manufacturer went back and forth numerous times — tweaking the samples, adding red or blue here, going more yellow there — to create the colors separately for the lingerie and the tights. “That literally ended up with me dying tights in pots of tea to say, ‘This is the exact color I want.’ ”
She eventually reached a point where she could hire a photographer and models and shoot a campaign. She uploaded it to Instagram, where buzz about her line began to build.
In the roughly 18 months after her huddle with the consultant, said Hassan, she made multiple trips to China to visit the manufacturer and ultimately got the line launched. Production has since expanded, with her Moroccan Nights collection being made in that North African country and hosiery being manufactured in Italy and Portugal.
Hassan is also planning this year to launch bras with larger cup sizes, up to a U.K. Size G. That’s in step with what’s been happening in the U.K., with the average British bra size increasing to a 36DD cup from a 34B cup over the last 60 years, according to a report from lingerie company Bluebella.
Among the lessons learned in shepherding Nubian Skin to this stage of its development, Hassan said she’d made an early misstep in hiring other people to do some of the work she should have done.
“Watching money is incredibly important. We were managing all these orders, and we thought, ‘We’ll outsource that.’ And it cost us an absolute fortune,” she said. “We’d negotiated based on a certain assumption, and we were smashing those assumptions.” Now, she said, “we ship U.S. orders based out of a warehouse in the U.S., and for everywhere else we pack ourselves,” which saves thousands of dollars.
“A lot of times, you can underestimate what you can do, and in the long run you can save a lot of money … if you try and do it [yourselves] first and try not to throw money at the problem.”
Seeing Beyoncé sport the Nubian Skin line in front of millions of adoring fans was a major thrill for Hassan. Now, she’s aiming for another star turn: a huge display at a retail store.
She wants women of color to be able to walk into a department store and see Nubian Skin products and realize that finding their own personal “nude” has become a nonissue. “I would love for it to be a household name. That’s when I would say, ‘Wow, we’ve made it.’ ”