When teaser images of the new lingerie and hosiery company for women of color Nubian Skin hit the web recently, they had me at ‘Hello.’ I beamed as I read their mission statement, “It’s time to rethink the definition of nude.” IT’S WELL PAST TIME! I screamed to no one in particular, and I hit their website/blog for any information I could gather.
I sent an email asking for more info, because I was greedy in my excitement, and after a few email volleys I got a phone call from the founder of the London-based company herself, Ade Hassan. I overshared and professed my eternal love and we gabbed like good girlfriends for way longer than I’d expected, because she rocks.
Ade first thanked me for reaching out, saying she’s “been so overwhelmed by all the support and interest in Nubian Skin.” Right then I declared my love, and she laughed and cheered and no doubt felt safe being a continent away from my overenthusiastic voice.
Ade had not previously worked in the lingerie industry at all, but she says that this endeavor is “incredibly personal because I got incredibly frustrated not having nude lingerie. You know, sometimes it’s shoes as well. The whole nude style is obviously massive and it’s very classic and so for me with shoes it’d be like ‘Oooh I want some nude ballet flats or nude pumps,’ and you can sort of find a tan color that could work -- you can sort of make do. But with lingerie and with hosiery that was impossible, and that was incredibly frustrating to me. I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur and I thought about a few different things, and when this idea came to me it was like ‘This is it because I want it and I think it’s so necessary.’ And that was that, really.”
I asked about Ade’s own ethnic heritage, and she described herself as “black,” born to Nigerian parents in the northern part of Britain. She spent time in the US as an adolescent, having gone to high school in St. Louis and university in North Carolina, and she gets to the US several times a year -- it's where Ade thinks the largest demand for her bras will be. As America remains behind on this, I know many of us are prepared to fork over extra coins for those international shipping fees from Jupiter if we have to; London will do fine.
Ade told me, “I just have to take it in and just be so grateful because of the community of black people, people of color, Latina people, people of Indian background; the support, coming especially from the US has just been phenomenal.”
I told Ade that as someone who speaks out against colorism I appreciate every reminder that we are all over the spectrum. Most lingerie companies have a darker color option, but that’s it -- ONE darker color. Ade added, “all hues, all different backgrounds…it’s all beautiful to me and I definitely wanted all of that to be represented.”
I love that Ade made a point of mentioning other ethnicities, because though the company is called Nubian Skin, the reality is that so many of us are underserved by market options that are called “nude.” Latinas, Afrolatinas, women of South Asian, Middle Eastern and Indian heritage, women who are biracial -- so many of us span such a wide spectrum of hues, a company called “Nubian Skin” may end up being most inclusive of all.
When I told a white friend how excited I was for this company, her first response was “That doesn’t exist yet?!” It amazes me too, that so much progress has been made in certain areas and yet this has remained an industry that caters to an impossibly sparse handful of skin tones. But then I thought about the part I played in that. Between my dance and theater experiences and my personal fatigue at searching and not finding anything, I had just given up.
Of course the world of dance and stage is not the same as everyday lingerie shopping, but my performance background makes this very personal for me. When I was in dance class as a child I was told by a teacher that I would just never find tights to match my skin. Period. Some dance schools on the competition circuit require (to this day) that all dancers wear the same color tights regardless of skin tone, with no concept of how demeaning this can feel to children of color. They aren’t trying to be Supremacist Oppressors about it, they just want uniformity on stage.
It’s certainly not the same as having a fire hose turned on you or seeing a “Whites Only” sign, but this kind of racial insensitivity affected me early. Routinely donning items called “nude” in someone else’s skin tone begs the question, What’s wrong with mine?
I remember buying three boxes of the short-lived darker colored Band-Aid style bandages. Niche offerings from mainstream companies like “Brown Sugar” hosiery from the ’80s were coveted when I was a little girl at the Harlem School of the Arts, and still pop up at a discount store from time to time. When I was in high school, a line of dance tights for people of color surfaced but didn’t last either; we had been so used to making do, and some mavericks were changing the art itself in part due to necessity. Just look at the stunning dancers of the Ailey Company dancing barelegged and it seems silly that doing so was ever frowned upon.
We get used to not having options, and being told we’ll never have options, and then the market can’t support the efforts that have been made, because we’re busy “making do” and settling or, as in the best-case-scenario of Ailey, changing the game when we can.
Today, the dance world has Shades of Dance, and a few expanded options from mainstream companies, but there’s no one truly giving the lingerie companies a run for their money, which is why I’m so excited about Nubian Skin that I squealed like a child while on the phone with its creator.
Telling me more about the development of the color palette, Ade said,
It literally took me about a year to come up with these. First of all, I had to figure out where to start because there wasn’t a product where I could be like ‘Brilliant, I’m just going to take that and copy it.’ So beginning was lots of research on foundation colors and going to makeup counters and speaking with makeup artists and trying to find, within certain hues, the most popular colors. Pantone (the authority on color across multiple industries) has skin tones, so we tried to match things up with that because when you’re producing things with fabric you have to work with Pantone colors. Sephora has an amazing thing called Pantone IQ, so we tried to match foundations to that, but then skin tone Pantone and fabric Pantone are very different.
So, trying to match those up; it was probably about six months before we got to that point and still the colors, the first submissions, just weren’t right. So it was a lot of back and forth, asking everybody I know, ‘Please go test this out.’ I mean, my poor friends were sick of the amount of tights I had them try on or if I just said ‘Show me your boob against this color.’ It is a complicated process, but I’m incredibly happy with the results.
As am I! I told Ade more about my performing background and lack of options there. It’s common for stage costumes to use “nude” elastic straps or “illusion” fabric, intended to be invisible from the audience, to keep things in place. In my first Broadway show, my “nude” elastic straps had to be covered with makeup, which is messy and time-consuming for eight shows a week. It felt like a tacky fix and I often recalled that dance teacher dismissively saying nothing would ever match me.
Then there’s the opposite of dismissiveness; when I was in a show at Lincoln Center, I had the head of their incomparable wardrobe department personally tending to me and telling me she’d match my skin no matter what. They used the age-old method of hand-dyeing my hose with tea bags. They were fantastic, but it still didn’t feel great that so much had to be done on my behalf.
Sometimes the rights that we fight for are simple little things, like being able to buy something appropriate that works for us. The luxury to be ordinary, not a problem.
Another Broadway show I did ordered very expensive pantyhose for me from overseas that were too dark, but close. I layered them with another pair to lighten their appearance. By the way, I hope it doesn’t seem like Humblebrag Overload that I’m mentioning these theater credits. On the contrary, I’m being specific about where they were to point out that at the highest level of theater in our country, there’s still not a dependable solution for matching lingerie and hosiery to dark skin. Still.
Ade told me that two of her models are dancers and that one of them told her she had used the tea bag trick as well, which Ade found shocking. Speaking more about hosiery, she told me, “For me, if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll go into a shop and they’ll have a random pair of tights that just happen to match your skin color, but I really wanted to make something where as a default you can go ‘Oh yeah, I’m sure they’ll have my shade.’ Or at least something incredibly close.”
To me, that word “default” is key. There are the tricks of the performance trade, getting things custom made, and good ol’ Rit dye in Brown, but when Ade used the word default it really resonated. It’s not about rolling the dice or searching for the Brown Girl Bra Holy Grail, but having a go-to brand.
No discussion of lingerie equality can ignore sizing. Ade and her team are launching the line with sizes S-XL and bra sizes 30B – 36DD/E and she’s keenly aware of the demand for additional sizes. She’s already looking to expand sizing once the site is open for business, with her eye always on inclusiveness.
When I told Ade that I had given up on ever having an actual nude bra, she shrieked that she felt the same way and added, “Oh my gosh, you’re gonna make me cry!”
It really is that major for so many of us. Nubian Skin launches on October 1st, bringing options to all of us who had given up.
All Nubian Skin photographs by Julia Underwood, ©Nubian Skin