Recently we took a trip to the HQ of lingerie band Nubian Skin and caught up with Ade Hassan the founder of the business. She spoke about starting the business, finding the right skin tones, making underwear for Beyonce’s Formation Tour and more.
How did you get started in fashion?
So, my background isn’t actually in fashion. I was working in finance which had been my career and when I had taken a break from finance I did consulting for a year. However, while I was consulting in 2011 I had the idea for Nubian Skin and that was the first spark. I didn’t actively start working on the company until May 2013. When I came up with the idea I knew I needed to change jobs and save money so I went back into finance and it was in the midst of this that I actively registered the company and really started on getting it from an idea to an actual business.
What sparked your fashion interest in lingerie?
I’d always been interested in fashion and I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I knew I wasn’t going to be the next Alexander McQueen, but I was really interested in accessories. Then a reoccurring frustration that occurred as a woman in business was that I could never find tights that were my skin colour, and it really frustrated me that I could never find a nude bra when a lot of corporate shirts and blouses tend to be sheer. It all made sense because I knew I wasn’t the only person that had this problem and that lots of women have faced this so I decided to go into this specific area.
Where did the name come from?
I wanted something that spoke to dark skin and I liked the idea of Nubian which is a word that it used a lot. It also has historical context and has those roots to Africa and dark skin and so to me it made sense. Initially, I was going to call it Nubian Nude, but then I realised that as the business was going to be mainly online, having nude in the name would’ve been problematic. So, I thought about the brand and what it is about and it’s about skin and about being comfortable in your skin and being proud of your skin, so it made sense for it be called Nubian Skin.
What did you find was the hardest part in the beginning stages of the business?
The hardest thing at the very beginning was finding a manufacturer. I was passionate about doing this and was very excited and I wrote to factories and nobody came back to me, so that was a very disheartening thing. I realized very quickly that I didn’t know enough about the lingerie industry to be dealing with it on my own so I found a consultant who had worked in the industry for over 30 years and told her what I was trying to do and the challenges I was facing with finding manufacturers and a factory and she pointed me in the right direction.
How many products did you start with in the initial collection and how has that grown now?
The Initial collection was 3 silhouettes of bras. We had a T-Shirt bra, a strapless pushup bra and a lace pushup bra. Then we had 4 types of pants thongs, briefs, shorts and lace shorts. We also had hold ups and tights in a matte 10 denier. So that was the whole collection and that was in the four colours.
Now we have the lingerie and we expanded our sizes in the bras. We also produced a collection which wasn’t nude it was blues and black and that was called the Moroccan Nights Collection which was inspired by made in Morocco. We have also done a Curve collection for our hosiery as well as gloss collection. Later on, we launched a fun limited edition of shoes where we did simple heels and some ballet flats and we added an additional colour to that collection. And now we are in the midst of launching our new collection which is TBC.
When you started and had the initial collection, how did you decide which tones and shades to include when creating the garments?
It took me a year to get the colours right because there were no other existing products that I could refer to when thinking about the shades. So, the first step for me was going to different makeup counters that had products for women of colour. So, Fashion Fair, Black Up, MAC and I spoke to the women at those counters about what their most popular colours were, the most popular colours for different types of skin. I also had a Pantone book of Pantone colours and I went with the book to the counters and tried to match them to the foundations of shades I wanted. Then I sent it to the factory with the colours I wanted and they did not necessarily come out in the specific colours I wanted so it was a process of then refining it. Then with the lingerie, I sent that to the hosiery factory with my colours and that also came back not as I expected and so it ended up with me in my kitchen with different Teas and coffee dying different things, trying them on and getting my friends to try them until I was happy with the colours and then sent those back to the hosiery factory. So, it was just a whole year of trial and error.
What is the most challenging thing about making lingerie?
One of the trickiest things is fit. It is something that we are constantly working on and we are still modifying. Especially because we know that a lot of our customers want a fuller bust and that is technically more difficult. So that is something we have been working on for a while and we are nearly there, but not quite, so in terms of making that available we haven’t been able to launch as quickly as we would’ve liked because we want the fit to be perfect. It’s incredibly important to get the fit right because every woman is different and you want to be able to cater to as many women as possible.
What inspires your ideas for collections?
With design, it can be anything. Sometimes it’s somebody that you see and you think they are interesting and that sparks something. Other times it is being somewhere, more often than not it is what I want and what I desire. If I think about something that I would love and it doesn’t exist then that inspires me to make it. So with the shoes it was thinking about classic shapes that work in terms what sort of shoe people would wear just going to and from places whatever lifestyle, and that inspired the silhouettes of the shoes and with the new collection it’s along the lines of what do I want to be able to do to create the perfect outfit or what do I need to make me feel that much more confident.
How do you work with your design team and/or manufactures in executing your ideas?
Generally, it’s a mix of doing sketches and going to my manufactures to meet them and talk through things and then having samples sent back and forth so we can refine everything until it is perfect.
Where do the concepts come from each time you create a new collection?
Usually, it’s about the garment. I think about the usefulness of the garment and then I weave a story around it for the campaign because for us visuals are really important, especially as an online business. But also because I want to speak to my customer and I want them to @ it feel like that’s a great representation of black women. So, usually after the design process is done I think about how I want to present it to the world and so that’s something I get inspiration and think about how I want to portray the models and the collection.
So far what has been your favourite collection?
When I got the sample for the first collection I cried because I couldn’t believe I had done it and it was there in the flesh so that always has a special place in my heart. When it comes to creating a campaign the Moroccan Nights collection was by far my favourite campaign. Simply because it was so creative the model we worked with was the perfect embodiment of everything we were going for.
As you been around for 3 years, what has been your strategy for growing your business over the years?
In general, my rule is slow and steady wins the race. We have our products and we have our customer we know who our customer is and a lot of it is actually looking at that customer and thinking what does she want? How can we give it to her? As well as how can we get it right. We are constantly learning and it’s important for us that when we are doing something we get it right. Sometimes we are a bit slower coming out with things because we are just working on making sure it is correct.
You started as an online retailer and are currently stocked in the UK as well as internationally in Europe, the USA and Africa. Are there are any plans to open stand alone stores?
If we had all the money in the world we would have a shop on every corner. We would love that but as I mentioned it’s about being slow and steady. We want to make sure that we have the fundamentals right first. We are looking at doing more and more pop ups so that people can actually touch, see and feel the products especially as we come up with the new collection.
Your business ethos is empowering women of colour and embracing our skin. How do you think Nubian achieves this effectively?
When we launched the campaign went viral and so many women were just saying ‘Thank you’ for recognising us and acknowledging us and it’s interesting because now 3 years later there is a much more prevalent discussion about what nude is. And so even though we were tiny we had a larger impact on the fashion industry than you assume given our size. Personally, that has been the biggest thing is seeing the number of brands who want to redefine nude and see nude isn’t just one colour and whilst that is happening in lingerie and hosiery now it’s also moving over to things like lipsticks and cosmetics and other types of products. So, for me, that is a legacy that I am really proud of because it really has a made an impact on the fashion industry.
What kind of women do you think represent your brand?
It is basically any woman of colour who is proud of who she is. Who wants to express herself and really is proud of her colour and the skin that she in. For some women, they love lingerie and want to show it and embrace it and for others, it is more private and it is more about how it makes them feel. For us, our customer is any woman who wants to embrace that who feels happy with themselves.
What is one thing to want your customers to feel by wearing your products?
I want them to feel that they do matter and also that they deserve it and are worth it. Because for so long people didn’t seem to think that and women of colour are worth it and should have things that are catered to them.
In terms of Social Media. Your brand has a very strong visual presence. Was there a strategy behind this and how have you continued to use Social Media?
When we first started, we had no clue. We had 50 followers on Instagram and in 4 weeks it was 20 000 because our campaign went viral. We were completely new and we were so blessed in terms of the reaction. So, when people wrote to us we wrote back because we wanted to know what they wanted, and we still do this in terms of engaging with people and getting feedback what they want on social media to find out and on email and replying to them. Then when it comes to what we show in our social Media it’s about celebrating women of colour, it’s not about being hypersexual it’s just about being able to see those types of images and feel like they can relate.
You have recently collaborated with American company Colored Girl on their Full Bloom Campaign, how did this come about?
That was such a beautiful campaign and they did such an amazing job. We spend a lot of time in New York at tradeshows and I think they really appreciated our ethos and we appreciated their ethos. So, they approached us and it was a combination of them wanting to do the project and wanting to reach to us as a brand that had very much the same ethos as them. The photographer had the same ethos and created something that was incredible it was a beautiful campaign.
You were recently named on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List to revive an MBE. What has that experience been like for you since you heard the news?
It still feels slightly unreal. It was incredibly unexpected, I have no idea how that happened. But I am so grateful for it and I still am processing it.
What has been the highlight of your Nubian Skin journey so far?
When we first started. We didn’t have a marketing plan so that first year 2014 it was a shock because we had gone viral and every possible magazine and news outlet was reaching out to us and we just couldn’t believe it. So that was the first highlight and then the next year we went live on ASOS and Nordstrom in America and then at the end of that year I won the Great British Entrepreneur award. Then the next year in 2016 that was when Beyoncé’s stylist called and asked us to do the underwear for the Formation Tour and we were just in awe and it seemed like every year topped each other and obviously, this year it was the Queens Honour’s List and I honestly feel very bless and fortunate and also grateful because a lot of that is due to people appreciating and understand what we stand for and what we were trying to do with women of colour.
You talked about how you had a consultant that was able to offer you advice when you started. What is one key piece of advice that has stuck with you since you started?
With the consultant, it was very practical advice. For me personally I think sometimes people look at being an entrepreneur and it looks like it’s very glamorous and it is not. I would say it’s 99% grit, pain and tears and 1% glamour. I can remember once I was speaking to my mum and I was tired, exhausted and was questioning how I do this she asked me what I wanted to do. Without necessarily telling me what do to she sort of gave me this knowledge that was basically the fact that your dreams and hopes lie with you and the only person who can drive them forward or end them is you. So that is something that has always stuck with me whenever I am frustrated or feeling down for whatever I always remember that.
Who have been some of your biggest female inspirations? Who would you love to see in your products?
Without knowing who can top Beyoncé. I would love to see Michelle Obama in a pair of our tights. As well as well Rihanna she would be great. And for me personally anybody on the street. Whenever I meet somebody who tells me that they are wearing one our products and they show me the tag I get so excited and it makes me really happy.
What can we expect next from Nubian Skin?
Coming up next for us is our new Naked Collection which is launching very soon. We are launching a pop up in New York City this weekend September 9th and 10th and we are very excited about it!
To discover more about Nubian Skin check out their website https://www.nubianskin.com/
Also, keep up with Ade and Nubian Skin on Social Media