Move over Victoria’s Secret. Ade is now in the building.
Over the last few months, many of us have seen and been excited by the photos circulating the web from Nubian Skin, the UK-based retailer that served up black-girl realness for “nude” bras, panties and hosiery. Celebs like Kerry Washington and Thandie Newton have even tweeted about it.
The company is the brainchild of 31-year-old Ade Hassan, a London-born Nigerian who saw a huge gap and filled it, and by the way, may have revolutionized the panty game.
Hassan, who came up with the Nubian Skin concept in 2011, but just left her full-time finance job in November, spoke with HelloBeautiful to talk about being a boss and what drove her to do what she does.
“Nubian Skin is a lingerie and hosiery brand providing skin tone lingerie and hosiery for women of color, because if you’re not a woman of color, you can walk into any department store or drugstore, pick up a pair of tights and nude bra with no problem. If you have darker skin, it’s actually been incredibly difficult to find.”
Four years ago, Hassan, who was born in the United Kingdom, has lived in Nigeria, and went to high school and college in the U.S. (majoring in Economics and English at Duke), was like most millennials, and not quite sure what her “destiny” was. She knew she loved fashion, but wasn’t sold on doing clothing.
“I had previously been working in finance, took some time off, and realized I still hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do,” she recalls. “While I was there I was incredibly frustrated. I thought, I know I want to be an entrepreneur, but what is it that I want to do?
“It’s pretty cold in England, so you generally want to be wearing some sort of pantyhose and I just wasn’t able to find a color besides black that works, which is really annoying,” she continues. “I was sitting at my desk, and then it just came to me: If you can’t find it, why don’t you make it? I remember shooting off a text to one of my friends saying, “I figured out what I want to do when I grow up.”
“For the first two years, it was just me coming up with ideas and different concepts and okay, what do I want to call it? Nubian to me signifies darker skin, and I love that. I initially wanted it to be Nubian Nude, and then I realized pretty quickly that having the word “nude” on the Internet is quite tricky, so it was like, what is it that I’m trying to convey? I was like, it’s all about the skin. And that’s how I came up with the name, Nubian Skin.”
Hassan says that the brainstorming continued for a time, and that she didn’t tell many people. But delightfully, it was a sister friend who saved the dream for her after life got in the way.
“In 2012, I spent some time in New York with one of my friends from university, and I told her about the concept. She was like, ‘That sounds really, really cool.’ Then I went back to work, it was busy, and I got sidetracked and didn’t focus on it that much. Then the following year, shortly after my birthday, I got a birthday card from this friend, and on the front of it, it said, “It’s time to start living the life you’ve always imagined.” On the inside, she’d just written this long message about how she really believed in the idea, and she was really excited about it. The next day, literally, I registered the company name and started actively working.”
The first problem she encountered was that she had no experience in the lingerie industry. So she hired a consultant for some expert advice, and had her sign a confidentiality agreement. “I went over my presentation, and she was like, you know what, this is actually legitimate. There isn’t anything like this right now. You should definitely go for it,” Hassan says proudly.
The next obstacle was that, because the company was primarily online-based, Hassan knew that there were going to be some problems with matching. But the budding entrepreneur found a way around that as well.
“On the website we have a skin tone guide,” she explains. “When it came to finding colors, the initial starting point for me was looking at a lot of different foundations. We have a guide which basically says, if you’re the MacNW 45 or if you’re this in Bobbi Brown, then this is your color.”
Based on the guide, one could then order one of four “delicious” shades from the Web site: Berry, Cinnamon, Caramel and Café Au Lait. That or, from ASOS.com – complete with international shipping fees. That all changed this week, when the company announced that it will be available at Nordstrom.com, a boon for American women, Nubian Skin’s biggest market.
Based on feedback, Hassan, whose color from her line is Cinnamon, said her next move will be to expand the size options for Nubian Skin.
“We started off with a very limited size range. We recently released some bigger backs, and we’re working on larger cup sizes because there’s just been a huge outcry. We want to grow smartly because we want to be around for the longer term. The plan is just to keep expanding our retailers, and then looking into additional products that people are asking for.”
Hassan, who says she’s definitely a “matchy-matchy” lingerie girl (“Sometimes when you haven’t done laundry, you just put on whatever. It’s like bright orange and blue, who cares? But my preference is I really do like matching them,”) says being an entrepreneur is incredibly hard yet rewarding. And although her less-than-year-old company is not in the black yet, she is steadily expanding. And that takes sacrifice.
“I used to have a very nice collection of shoes,” she laughs. “Now, it’s like, maybe one day I’ll be able to buy those again but for now it’s not happening. I put everything I have into [Nubian Skin]. I think if you believe in something, you have to give it all you have.”
Being in the throes of a brand new, rapidly expanding company, Hassan says she uses prayer and meditation to keep her grounded, but also looks to inspirational women to keep her on track as well. She reveals that she is incredibly drawn to Eunice Johnson, founder of Fashion Fair cosmetics, and another ground-breaking black woman visionary from the 1960s.
“She’s an inspiration as an entrepreneur and a woman because she took matters into her own hands when she saw the absolute dearth of makeup offerings for women of color,” says Hassan. “A lot of women of my generation view Fashion Fair as our mothers’ make-up brand, so we forget how unbelievably revolutionary it was at the time. The Ebony Fashion Tours she created were avant-garde in using black models and promoting the work of African-American designers. The industry has come a long way since then, but it’s important to remember those who opened doors and whose shoulders we stand on.”
In the scheme of things, some pooh-pooh lingerie or even fashion as something important, when women of color have much more to focus on. But Hassan doesn’t quite see it that way.
“Lingerie is something that you put on every single day, but it’s also the foundation of an outfit. Sometimes fashion can be seen as trivial, but for a lot of women, it’s how you present yourself to the world,” says Hassan. “With something as basic as lingerie or hosiery, everybody else can wear and find their own skin tones so that they can make an outfit look exactly how they want, whether you have on a white T-shirt or a sheer blouse. It’s incredibly frustrating just on a general level but also then it is for some people it can have that effect of, ‘Why isn’t there something for me? Why shouldn’t I be catered to?’ Because quite frankly, if you’re spending the same amount of money as everybody else, then why shouldn’t you get something that works for you?”
Ade Hassan’s Top Three Entrepreneurial Hacks For Budding Bawse Chicks
(1) Stand on a very solid idea. “It’s really important to research your idea to make sure that whatever it is, it’s valid. Make sure you really believe in the idea especially if you’re working in another job. If you’re up at 4:00 a.m. or 2:00 a.m. working on this, then you want to believe in it.”
(2) Be willing to work really, really hard. “Everybody who is going to start something anticipates that it’s going to be difficult, and that it’s going to be hard, but it will be so much more difficult and so much harder than you can prepare yourself for.”
(3) Have faith in yourself and surround yourself with positive people. “Because if you don’t believe in yourself, then who will?”