Ade Hassan always wanted to be a fashion entrepreneur. While she was working in England as a management consultant, she often struggled with finding lingerie that matched her skin tone. Most brands didn’t seem to make lingerie with people of colour in mind. After much frustration, in 2011; she decided to make her own lingerie! She launched Nubian skin in October 2014 and it literally became an overnight success.
Fast forward to 2016. Over 70,000 Instagram followers and thousands of lingerie sold; Nubian skin has been featured in international publications like the Huffington post and stocked by retail chains like Nordstrom and ASOS.
Leye Makanjuola, Chief Marketing Officer of Intense Digital had a chat with her at Terra Kulture about her innovation, social media success and her plans for the Nigerian market.
Why did you create Nubian skin?
Nubian skin was created out of my frustration. I was working in the corporate field and a lot of time when we wear blouses – women’s blouses are quite light weight or sheer or you’re wearing a white shirt. The last thing you want to worry about in a meeting is like ‘Oh somebody might see the colour of my bra’. In England we usually wear tights and nobody wears nude tights, you can’t find tights in your own colour so you only have to wear black but in your head you’re like ‘Yeah I’ve got this great outfit’ and everything works well, so you want to wear something that matches your own skin you know? So I’d always wanted to be an entrepreneur and I’d always wanted to be in fashion but not clothes and so the idea just sort of came to my head. Going to shops and asking, they think I want something nude then somebody gives you something the colour of your palm…which doesn’t work, so I decided that was what I was going to focus on.
How did you test your assumptions about lingerie for people of colour?
All you have to do is the maths. So you look at the number of women in the world that have brown skin – how many people are like me? Maybe they’ve got a bit of disposable income, they’re into fashion a lot – most of them are into fashion. They might be having the same problem and I was based in London and obviously there’s lots of women in London, there’s lots of women all through Africa – Nigeria being the key one. Lots of women in the US and I just thought ‘You know what? This is legit. This is something that people would want. I know I’m not the only person’.
How did you get funded?
So I came up with the idea in 2011 and we didn’t actually launch until 3 years later. The first step was I actually changed jobs. I needed to raise money, I needed to make more money just so I could save. I was in consulting at the time so I went back into finance so I could make money to save. The initial capital was what I saved and then my family also invested because I think when they saw how much I put into it and they realized I was serious they realized this is actually a fundamental part. I was going to factories to visit for inspections, so they came on board as shareholders and that’s been it so far. It’s been funded that way. We haven’t received any outside money.
Where there any brands that stocked nude lingerie at the time you were starting off?
Well, there’s plenty of brands that stock nude lingerie, it’s a very specific type of need but there was nothing for women of colour.
How did you make your first sale?
Before we launched I had done a photo shoot and I went away on holiday for a week and that photo shoot eventually went viral and so before we even launched we had people come out to say ‘This is amazing, when is it coming out?’ We got approached by ASOS, they said ‘We want to stock your product’. At that point I hadn’t even been thinking that I’m going to do wholesale and we had a mailing list of of 20,000 people by the time we launched because people were interested in the product and I was blogging, giving updates slowly, leaking information about the brand, when it was going to come out. We made our first sale by word of mouth, by social media. We didn’t sell out because we produced in China. We needed a lower price point and we had a lot of stock, but there was healthy demand from the beginning.
How did you distinguish yourself from other lingerie brands for women of colour?
Obviously we were the new thing for about a year and then slowly some brands came up with similar concepts, you know – copy cats, which is fine. I think we have a great customer base. People do recognise in addition to just having something which is helpful, we actually saw a need and we wanted to target a market that was not being represented and people appreciate that a lot. I think people like the fact that it is owned by somebody who looks like them. It’s not just the big corporation trying to sell people something to make money, it’s actually somebody who had that experience and said ‘You know what, I’m going to make this for us’ and then it’s just listening to customer feedback, trying to give customers what they want, trying to innovate and trying to always stay one step ahead so hopefully we’ll be able to do that.
Do you have personal relationships with your customers. Do you respond to them yourself?
Definitely! I run the Instagram account and so I’m always responding when people say ‘Oh are you having more sizes? Can you ship here’ – So I say ‘Yes, send us an email, we’ll get back to you’- so I’m very hands on with that. It’s a great way for communication, we get emails from people all world all the time and we always respond. We get on twitter and have conversations. Social media is actually such a helpful tool for staying in touch with people and for communicating.
You launched in 2014. Your products are now available on ASOS and Nordstrom and you have over 70,000 followers on Instagram. How were you able to get popular so fast?
Honestly I literally thank God because I’m like ‘This is a miracle!’ When I started I didn’t have a marketing budget or a marketing plan which when I look back it really is not a good way to go. I will never tell anyone to do that. I got really lucky because we did a photo shoot and we had this image of four girls and it was a great image. I put it on Instagram and at that point we had 50 followers; most of them my friends. I went away on holiday and a couple days in, my phones kept ringing and we had a 100 followers. I was new to social media at the time and I was so excited. By the end of the week we had 1000 followers and then I started to know something was happening. I went back home and all of a sudden things went crazy like we were getting newspapers asking us for rights to these images, people saying they wanted interviews. In 4 weeks we had 20,000 followers and that was literally off people reposting and liking. It was phenomenal, we had the Mail Online do an article, we had Glamour, you name it. People had done online articles about us, we were being shared everywhere and you can’t buy publicity like that.
Why are you in Nigeria?
It’s very exciting, obviously I’m Nigerian and Nigeria is such a potent market for me and we are going to be launching soon in Lagos so finally people would be able to actually walk into a shop and pick it up and buy. I’m so very excited to be stocked at Sshhh Lingerie in Lekki because it’s going to be a phenomenal store and I think they are going to showcase our product perfectly, so yeah very excited.
What was it like growing up in Nigeria?
We moved around so much when I was younger but the years I stayed in Nigeria, I loved it. We were very personal, we lived in Maryland then moved to Festac and this was when Festac was just amazing. I know Festac is not that way now but it was literally at its peak and it was beautiful and I had lots of family around. For me it’s like an ideal you know, you see things like a rose tinted glass. I just loved it. We’d walk to school or we’d be driven to school. There was just a lot of freedom and I think sadly that’s the freedom which kids don’t have now. We’d get into so much trouble, trying to get fruit down from trees. I loved it and I think that was a very specific moment in my lifetime and one that sadly I don’t think exists anymore. Maybe in other towns but not in Lagos. Friends and family – good times!
What do you think about Nigerian women and their taste for lingerie?
I don’t think you can ever tell, like you can’t make assumptions but I do think that they have high standards and sophistication which is why I think things that are happening in the market right now are exciting because you’re starting to see people who see that it’s not like somebody just walks into Marks & Spencer to buy a bra, they want something that reflects who they are and that allows them to express themselves. I think that lingerie is such a personal thing and I don’t think that you can ever assume what people’s taste are because you’ll never know and I think that’s actually one of the most intriguing things about lingerie is that it is private. It’s only for the person that’s wearing it and the person you choose to let see it. Sometimes people say Nigeria is conservative but you don’t know because you haven’t been invited (laughs)
What kind of Nigerian woman would love Nubian skin lingerie?
I think Nigerian women especially in Africa have very sophisticated taste, we love fashion so it’s great because Nubian skin is a line that can work with people because it’s very functional, so obviously you need a strapless bra to go with the Aso Ebi you’re wearing for somebody’s wedding and even just going to the office you need plain ones so nobody’s distracting people when you’re in the office or you need something a little bit more special – but yeah women have different needs for different occasions.
Can you tell me more about the colour range of Nubian Skin lingerie?
One of the reasons why Nigeria is so important from a brand perspective is because Nubian skin has 4 skin tone colours and if you just walk down the street you have women of all different shades, whether they are very dark or they’re quite light. Nubian skin has 4 colours – So Berry – which is our darkest, Cinnamon, Caramel and Café Au Lait are there to match the skin tone of the person who’s wearing it so if you’ve got something sheer and you just want that smooth blended look, its perfect because it matches your skin tone. It’s not made from a brand who’s thinking ‘Oh my target market is white’ so everything is default as white. This is actually from the makers with you and your colour in mind.
Which ones will be a hit among Nigerian women?
These four colours will be most appropriate for Nigerian women
Do you wear only Nubian Skin lingerie?
I would say I wear it 80% of the time and then the other 20% – I’ve got other options. Being in this industry now, I have lots of friends who make beautiful things and so it’s always nice to be able to try other products, because you can’t do everything. We are focused on making our product excellent for what’s needed within that range. If you make Coca-Cola, sometimes you want Schweppes. You’re not going to say you want to make your own Schweppes. It’s already there, just enjoy it
Where can women find your lingerie in Nigeria?
In Nigeria we are stocked in both Lagos and Abuja. In Abuja we’re at Lulu Lingerie and in Lagos which I’m so excited about we’re at Sshhh Lingerie in Lekki which is just absolutely fantastic.
If you could travel back in time to day one of your start-up to talk to yourself, what would you tell yourself?
Oh my goodness there so many things I’ll tell myself, I don’t even know where to start. First off, I’ll be like ‘Don’t worry its actually going to go well’ and I think I would say ‘There are a lot of things which can save you money, so this is the list; lets go back and make sure that we can save money where we can’ but then hindsight is always perfect.
What’s next for Nubian skin? You’re very big now, where do you see yourself in 3 years?
I think we’re very small, we’re tiny – but yeah, the next thing is we’re listening to customer feedback. One of the biggest things we’re doing is launching fuller cups because that’s something people have been asking us for a lot, so we’re going to work on that. We’ll get that out by the end of summer and then there’s lots of exciting things in the pipeline that I can’t tell you but they’re exciting so watch this space.