Pioneering Color-Inclusive Fashion: A Conversation with Ade Hassan, MBE, Founder of Nubian Skin

When Ade Hassan launched her lingerie company Nubian Skin in 2014, there was no such thing as nude-colored undergarments for people of color. Instead, we were faced with blush-colored garments meant for white skin, or, if we were lucky, a dull brown number that more closely matched a Hershey’s wrapper than a person’s skin tone.

Personally, I had long resigned myself to wearing these “nude” bras and underwear; I knew full well they were nowhere close to matching the richness of my skin – but I also knew my choices were limited.

That is, until Ade, an entrepreneur and a friend from college, founded Nubian Skin, a company that sells undergarments in nude hues that match Black and brown skin. Until then, I had taken for granted what it meant to be truly seen by the fashion industry – to be able to purchase a product that was made with my melanin in mind.

I wasn’t the only one. After launching Nubian Skin, Ade garnered a flurry of media buzz and excited reactions from celebrities like Kerry Washington – and Beyonce herself wore Nubian Skin undergarments during the Formation tour.

Four Black women sit on a couch laughing as they wear Nubian Skin products.
“I always say, if anyone ever feels issues around colorism or issues around body confidence, I wish you could come to a Nubian Skin shoot. The celebration of body and color and tone – that’s what drives me now.”
Ade Hassan, MBE, Founder of Nubian Skin; Photo provided courtesy of Nubian Skin

As a pioneer in fashion, Ade has been instrumental in redefining nude hues in an industry historically designed to cater to white people. Plenty have taken note, including Queen Elizabeth II, who awarded Ade a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) award in 2017 for services to fashion.

Ade graciously allowed me to interview her about the challenges of introducing a color-inclusive product to the market, the ways Nubian Skin has impacted the fashion industry, why she thought it was important for Nubian Skin to contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement during last summer’s protests, and what she does to stay sane during the pandemic.

Irie: Before you started Nubian Skin, how difficult was it to find hosiery or lingerie that matched your skin tone? What was the landscape back then?

Ade: Lingerie was just nonexistent. Hosiery, maybe once every few years, I’d stumble across a color. Basically, throughout my time working in the corporate field, 2006 onward, I never found something that actually matched my skin tone in the U.K. [Editor’s note: Ade worked in in finance before starting Nubian Skin]. It wasn’t available in the shops.

I: Once you started, what was that process like of actually getting color-inclusive product into the market where it didn’t exist? I’m thinking of things like production or swatches – what was that process like?

A: That process took over a year and it’s still one of our biggest cash sinks. For most people, if you start a brand doing anything, you’re like, I’ll just go visit factories and see what colors they have and I’ll do a blue this season or I’ll do black or I’ll do “nude”, and they have it.

They don’t have shades of brown nude and so I knew that I was going to have to create those colors, which meant a year of research and visiting makeup counters. I remember visiting a bunch of makeup counters in the U.K. Interestingly, there were a few brands that had a good offering for multiple darker skin tones. Most didn’t have darker skin tones, or they had like one color, so that wasn’t really helpful. I also visited makeup counters [in the U.S.] because the U.S. actually had more of a selection, which was really helpful.

“I know that eventually when I look back at my life –  even now, I’m able to say something that I created made a huge impact. That’s part of legacy, and I think that’s an amazing thing.”
Photo by Cass Michael

I was trying to match those foundation colors to skin tone Pantones and so I ordered a booklet of Pantone SkinTone. I thought I kind of had it right [and] sent it off to the factory. The Pantones came back on the fabric and they were just not good colors for skin tones – they just didn’t match. Then, it was literally saying: Let’s add more red and see where we end up, let’s add more brown. Let’s make it deeper, let’s make it richer, make it more yellow. It was just that process of refining and refining until I had a color where I was like, Ooh, this actually looks like skin.

Finally, when I had those and I had my fabric, I could then use that as a reference point. That’s still what we do now:  We just have everything custom dyed.

I: That just makes me think of how hard it is to pioneer something. Did you know it was going to be that difficult when you started?

A: No [laughs]. And I’m really glad I was ignorant. I was ignorant as to the industry. I was ignorant as to how hard it is to be an entrepreneur. I’m really happy that I was ignorant because I think if I had known everything, I would have been like, “That’s not worth it.”

I: What are some of the more unexpected things that you encountered or had to overcome?

A: Having to develop your raw materials. If you think about a bra, you’ve got the strap, you’ve got the fabric that covers the underwire, you’ve got the main fabric, you’ve got the bra cups, you’ve got the trims, you’ve got the hook and eyes – and every single one of those needs to be dyed specifically. The factories that make them will say, “We’re not going to send you 100; you need to order 2,000.” And so that commitment to being like, I’m going to put all of this into four colors – I’d love to do more – and just have that to sustain production runs. That’s something that I never anticipated would be that involved.

I: Was it really hard to get the product to the level of quality that you really wanted? Everything washes really well [and] it wears really well. Was it hard to get to that point?

A: Yes. The very first run we did, we made them in China. It was a brilliant factory and I think their quality was good. Because it was so far away and I wasn’t in control of the supply chain and everything that went into it – I could just approve the colors – it meant that the first collection was brilliant, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted.

And now that I produce everything closer to home and I have relationships with each component’s supplier, it means that we’re working with a factory that’s a small, family-owned business. The quality is just a different level. That’s something that I’m really proud of, but it took time to get there. And it’s only going to get better. Now I have a product developer on the team – I was doing that myself.

We’re working with some amazing artisans who are going to be doing stuff that’s coming out next year. I’m very, very excited for where I get to take the business.

I: I want to talk a little bit about being a Black woman and a woman in the fashion industry – and a business owner. What has that been like for you? What’s been challenging, what’s been helpful, what’s been inspiring?

A: My biggest inspiration are my parents. They’re both entrepreneurs themselves, so I’ve grown up seeing that. It’s taken me years actually to really mine the wealth that that is. I’ve always seen them as my inspiration, but I never really said, “Ok, teach me.” More recently, I’ve been benefitting from their wisdom. My inspiration, I’d say [is] definitely my parents, my mom in particular. I grew up watching her be this amazing businesswoman, so that instilled in me that I always wanted to do that.

Obviously, Nubian Skin was born out of what I needed. But it was also: I want the women in my life who look like me to also feel reflected in this product. A lot of times, Black culture is either misappropriated within fashion or you have images of women, especially when it comes to lingerie, that are hypersexualized. And I wanted people to look at this and say, “I can see myself. I can see my cousin, I can see my aunt, I can see my mom.” That feeds into all of our imagery and all of our campaigns. [It] is incredibly important to me that I create a product and the product reflects Blackness as I see it and that it’s diverse – and it’s beautiful and there’s no “one size fits all.”

“[It] is incredibly important to me that I create a product and the product reflects Blackness as I see it and that it’s diverse –and it’s beautiful and there’s no ‘one size fits all.'”
Photo by Cass Michael

Within the industry, I’m coming in as an outsider, generally, and I was doing a product which is for people of color. A lot of people don’t look at that demographic and go, “That’s exactly who I want to target” when it comes to fashion –  you just have to open up a magazine to see that. I think the reason Nubian Skin has any success and the reason that the initial campaign went viral was because women, especially Black women, saw that product and thought, Oh my goodness, this isn’t hypersexualized. Oh my goodness, these people look like me. And they talked about it and tweeted. So, then it went into the mainstream media and people were like “This is cool, this is cool.”

Reception-wise, we did get a lot of people being like, “This is so important, this is amazing.” And you had some shops who [said], “Okay, we want to stock you.” But most people were like, “That’s very niche.” They were like, “Oh, yeah, it’s great what you’re doing”, but they’re not willing to really back it. Or even, I remember sometimes, we would get people and they would buy the product, but then they would photograph it on a white model.

I’ve been fortunate in that there’s been amazing support in the fashion press. There’s been some amazing support from some retailers. But there’s also been a lot of having to educate people about why this is important. And there’s still a lot of places who just still consider things niche. When it comes to products that cater to people of color, there’s a lot of reticence.

When it comes to the fashion press, we’ve had amazing support. A lot of that support has been because there were other women of color, especially Black women, who are in positions of power and used their positions there to talk about a brand which spoke to them.

The product that I do, it’s very high quality. It isn’t cheap. But people don’t necessarily equate that with people of color. And so that’s been a very interesting thing to navigate.

I: When you say “people”, do you mean department stores or editors?

A: Department stores. I think when it comes to the fashion press, we’ve had amazing support. A lot of that support has been because there were other women of color, especially Black women, who are in positions of power and used their positions there to talk about a brand which spoke to them.

I: I went to Banana Republic the other day and I saw all of these tank tops or bodysuits in all of these brown tones, and I was like, “That’s because of Ade!” How have you seen this industry change even in the few years that you’ve been a part of it, and what do you think is starting to move the needle?

A: Well, I think when anything gets a lot of attention, people then go, “Oh.” They see dollar signs. We’ve had – you name it, any major brand from Spanx, Marks & Spencer, literally any major lingerie brand that you can think of – has ordered our product. Some of them will kind of hide it and we’ll be like, “This is a weird order”, and [when] we look [it] up, you figure out where it’s going.

Any major brand who has any remotely decent-looking bra coloring has probably ordered our stuff…As a small brand who basically had to create that and put a lot of capital and work into creating that – to have that taken without any sort of acknowledgment or compensation, it’s incredibly frustrating.

It’s interesting you say that about Banana Republic because we got an order from a Gap-owned company and I called them out on it. They were like, “Oh no, we’re just doing a market study.” So that’s interesting that you say you saw something.

But any major brand who has any remotely decent-looking bra coloring has probably ordered our stuff. On the one hand, it’s amazing for the customer because it means that they are finally getting something which is great and made for them. As a small brand who basically had to create that and put a lot of capital and work into creating that – to have that taken without any sort of acknowledgment or compensation, it’s incredibly frustrating.

It’s a double-edged sword: it’s brilliant that the market has moved. We’re still a tiny company, but we’ve made a huge impact on the industry. That’s brilliant for the customer because ultimately people of color should have the opportunity to walk into a department store and find their nude and things that suit their skin tone in the same way white people do. So, I’m incredibly proud that Nubian Skin has been able to open the flood gates on that.

I: That’s so interesting that you can see this process of people ordering it and then the product appearing. That would be super frustrating to me.

A: It is super frustrating. I’ve had to have therapy sessions about it [laughs]. Ultimately, that’s always going to happen. It’s frustrating, but it’s always going to happen. But I know that eventually when I look back at my life –  even now, I’m able to say something that I created made a huge impact. That’s part of legacy, and I think that’s an amazing thing.

Photo of Ade Hassan, MBE, holding her Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire award in 2017.
In 2017, Ade received a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) award for services to fashion.
Photo provided courtesy of Nubian Skin.
I: Did you see any difference in the way people engaged with your brand after the Black Lives Matter protests last year? Did you see people showing more interest or speaking about it more?

A: Yes, absolutely. We’re a brand which people know is Black-owned. Our main demographic is Black people and so seeing everything that happened last year, it hits you. Nubian Skin as a company decided that we were going to donate a large portion of our sales to the movement because we really believed in that. People had been posting black squares and doing whatever and we were like, We actually want to put our money where our mouth is, because I’m Black, my business is built on Black people, [and] this is affecting Black people.

This is a way to feel a little bit less powerless.

The amount of support we got from that was phenomenal. Then the rest of that month, a lot of places were highlighting Black businesses. People were waking up to their own biases and prejudices. It was a great moment for people recognizing that this was an issue if they had their head in the sand before. It definitely impacted our business, because everybody was talking about supporting Black businesses as a way of giving back to the Black community.

Every time my business is showing up for Black people, every time I go hard, Black people are like, “Great – you’re going to do this? We’re going to go in 110%.”

We did it for the first week of June [2020]. We donated 20% of all revenue to the Black Lives Matter movement. That’s a big deal, especially for a small business. Because it was COVID, obviously it was not a great year for me to [laughs], but I was like, You know what? I’m going to do this.

And every time my business is showing up for Black people, and I feel like every time I go hard, Black people are like, “Great – you’re going to do this? We’re going to go in 110%.” We donated a lot more than I thought we would.

I: How has your “why” changed since you started the business? You started [Nubian Skin] to fill this gap; now what keeps you going?

A: It’s really interesting because I’m quite goal oriented. There are times in the business where I haven’t hit this goal, I haven’t hit this level of financial success that I want to hit. And then I get really frustrated and angry. One of the things that I’ve been working a lot on recently is knowing that this is my dream. It was my dream to start this company and I am living it. So, it’s like, the journey is it – it’s not when I hit this thing. This is the journey. Building the business – that’s it. That’s the thing.

I think that helps me keep going, that perspective of: You are living it. This is your journey. This is the dream.

Getting feedback from people just saying, “Thank you” is just amazing. And now, one of the things that I’m so proud of is the quality and giving Black people [and] people of color something that’s beautiful and considered. I get excited when I think about the future, because we get to take it to the next level.

It’s empowering people.  It’s all about embracing your color. I always say, if anyone ever feels issues around colorism or issues around body confidence, I wish you could come to a Nubian Skin shoot. The celebration of body and color and tone – that’s what drives me now.

I: Are you considering any forays into other areas of fashion?

A: Well, definitely thinking about expanding the color slide. There’s a lot we’d like to do around loungewear, around ready-to-wear. We’ll see, because we are small. Everything you have to consider: Can we do this? Can we afford this? We have to grow intelligently and take our time. There’s definitely some things coming up which I think are going to be great.

I: What do you do to stay sane?

A: It’s really having an incredibly supportive husband. Even before the pandemic, he’s always been really, really great.

One of the things I did before the pandemic – and I’m really glad I did – was go to therapy. I’m a big advocate of getting therapy because working through things can make the mental process so much better.

For me, family and having time to just be quiet and silent and journaling and reading scripture and reading things that are inspiring is really, really important to me. Just having some quiet time, even if it’s for 20 minutes in the day, that’s probably the most important thing that I can do for myself.

You can purchase Nubian Skin on the Nubian Skin website, from Net-a-Porter, or from a variety of other retailers.

Note: Cover photo by Cass Michael. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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