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Photo: Courtesy of Nubian Skin.

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Why Is It So Hard for Women of Color to Buy a Nude Bra?

Meet the young brands filling this huge gap in the marketplace

“Nude” underwear collections — specifically ones that cover a variety of skin tones — are trending. Just look at all of the hype surrounding the lingerie brand Naja’s “Nude for All” campaign this past May. In fact, the campaign, which featured women of various shades and sizes, went viral, getting picked up by all of the major fashion magazines and blogs and garnering thousands of likes across social media platforms.

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The same goes for Nubian Skin, the two-year-old lingerie brand that created a line of nude underwear, bras, and hosiery in a variety of shades for women of color in 2014. The brand made headlines again this year when Beyoncé and her dancers wore Nubian Skin's nude lingerie under sheer white Balmain bodysuits during Bey's Formation World tour.

But still, there's no denying that the fashion and beauty industries have a "nude" problem. For years companies have upheld whiteness as the norm by shelling out "nude" or "flesh-colored" products like pantyhose and bras exclusively in pale tones of beige and tan. Ironically, they were just following the official definition: Up until last year, Merriam Webster actually defined nude as "having the color of a white person's skin." (Public backlash, including a petition, finally changed that.)

Luckily, some brands have already started to expand their definition. Women of color can now hop on over to Christian Louboutin's website to check out his capsule collection of seven shades of nude pumps that launched in 2015. And for dancers of color, the dance apparel brand Mahogany Blues is the answer to all neutral-colored tights and leotard needs.

Naja's "Nude for All" Campaign launched in May 2015. Photo: Courtesy of Naja.

There's even been some progress in beauty; the nail polish brand Zoya launched a new Naturel Collection of neutral nail polishes created to coordinate with every skin tone.

But the most notable change — or lack thereof — is for lingerie. Nude bras and underwear may seem trivial, but their ability to serve as invisible, flesh-toned layers under light-colored clothing play an essential role in getting dressed every morning.

While the lingerie industry continues to be one of the guiltiest purveyors of exclusionary versions of nude, small, young brands — like Naja and Nubian Skin — are proving to be more progressive than underwear giants like Victoria's Secret.

Photo: Courtesy of Nubian Skin

"There's no reason why Victoria's Secret can't have nudes," says Catalina Girald, Naja's founder and owner. "They already have a bunch of styles. Just like they can make their signature ‘Very Sexy' bra in a bunch of different colors — red, yellow, blue — they can make seven shades of nude. But I guess they just choose not to."

When Naja launched its viral "Nude for All" campaign this May, Girald said that in order for her expansive nude collection to work, she had to set up her own supply chain.

"Our supply chain is very fast. It takes about two months from concept to store to make products, whereas it takes most lingerie companies 12 months," Girald says. "Because of the shorter supply chain and the ability to produce small runs, we're able to make many colors without it having a massive impact financially on the company."

So instead of producing the typical 10,000 units per style in 12 months, Naja only produces 200 at a time in one month.

For startups like Naja and Nubian Skin, producing smaller batches like this seems ideal, especially since they have nowhere near the amount of money big lingerie brands have to risk on overproduction.

Just look at the hundreds and hundreds of bra options currently available on the Victoria's Secret website. Not only is there an exhaustive list of underwear styles (bikinis, thongs, V-strings, cheeky's, and cheekinis to name a few) and a variety of push-up bras and bralettes (The Bombshell is a favorite among customers), each style comes in a variety of different shades, including "nude" — a peachy beige that perfectly matches the skin tones of the blonde models wearing them. But in the sea of reds, pinks, and purples, hues that would match the skin tone of women of color are nowhere to be found.

Photo: Courtesy of Nubian Skin.

Victoria's Secret reported $7.2 billion in net sales in 2014. Its parent company, L Brands, currently owns 61.8 percent of the lingerie market share (a booming $9 billion industry in 2015), which means that unlike indie brands, Victoria's Secret could easily eat the cost if it produces a larger number of items or makes a mistake with an unpopular pattern or colorway.

Yet despite all of the positive feedback brands like Naja and Nubian Skin have received for producing a wider range of "nude" shades, the company has yet to take the "risk" themselves. Questions about whether or not the company would go forth with nude for all styles in the future also went unanswered by a Victoria's Secret representative.

In an interview with Racked in December 2015, Morningstar retail analyst Bridget Weishaar said that the lingerie industry is a unique space.

"Think about all of the sizing that goes into bras compared to if you're selling T-shirts, where you just sell in small, medium, and large sizes. With so many sizes in undergarments, it costs a fortune to stock your store. It's also very hard to make undergarments. With a bra, there's over 10 components to it, so to get the sizing, fit, and quality right is much harder than making clothing. That's really been a sufficient barrier to entry to keep people out."

What some shoppers fail to realize is that independent lingerie businesses are completely different from Victoria's Secret when it comes down to production and costs. Indie brands are often run by only a handful of people, not a multinational corporation. There are labor costs (sewing and pattern- cutting), materials (fabrics, wires, and trimmings), and operating expenses to be accounted for (the 300 million VS catalogs the brand pushes out each year cost around $125 million to $150 million annually).

Cora Harrington, the woman behind the inclusive lingerie blog The Lingerie Addict, said that although there have been some gains in lingerie, it's still far behind other industries today.

"The good news is the lingerie industry has made more progress in the last 18 months than in the previous six years combined," says Harrington. "The bad news is the lingerie industry is still so conservative, homogenous, and hard to break into that they're lagging behind the beauty and fashion industries in terms of representation at nearly every level — from designers to models to bloggers."

Naja's nude selection includes seven different shades. Photo: Courtesy of Naja.

When Ade Hassan founded the U.K.-based Nubian Skin back in 2014, she did so out of frustration with the lingerie industry and its lack of color choices. There's only so many clothing options you can actually get away with without the right color bra, after all.

On Nubian Skin's website, there are bras, underwear, and hosiery in four rich shades of brown, from lightest to darkest: "Café Au Lait," "Caramel," "Cinnamon," and "Berry." On the other hand, scrolling through websites like Journelle and scouring the racks at Macy's and Bloomingdales will only get you pages and rows filled with the same old beiges and tans we're used to seeing.

"I wanted something I couldn't find in shops, and I knew I couldn't be the only person that felt this way, so I decided to create it," Hassan says.

Hassan says she thinks big brands and stores are hesitating to follow suit because they don't know if their customers will buy into it.

Photo: Courtesy of Nubian Skin.

"I think that larger companies wanted to see how we fared before dipping their toe in the water.  They may not fully commit, but there are definitely more ‘mochas' and ‘chocolates' cropping up in recent collections of large brands," Hassan said. "Larger brands will always focus on who they believe their key demographic to be. It's business, so they have to look at their bottom line."

Several mid-tier lingerie brands like Cosabella and Hanky Panky have already started experimenting with darker nude shades, and hopefully it won't be long until the rest of the industry follows suit.

One major retailer is already taking the step towards inclusion. "We were at a tradeshow last January and a couple of ladies had come up to our stand. I was excitedly telling them about the collection, and stopped myself to introduce myself and find out who they were," said Hassan. "I found out they were the buyers at Nordstrom and they were interested in my collection, which was unbelievably exciting."

Nordstrom is currently the only major retail chain that stocks the Nubian Skin brand in-store and online. And according to Margaret Myers, Executive Vice President and General Merchandise Manager for Women's specialized clothing, including the brand in its lingerie section was important.

"We want to do our best to serve all of our customers, while also looking for opportunities to meet their individual needs in a more personal way. We realized in lingerie, we could do a better job of offering a broader selection of neutral bras — the color that used to be labeled ‘nude' didn't necessarily work for every skin tone," said Myers over email. "We were excited to launch Nubian Skin in the summer of 2015 because it is not only beautiful product, but it also gives our customers even more color options."

Their customers are fans, too, and Nubian Skin has inspired Nordstrom to be more inclusive throughout their lingerie selections. "We got great feedback and have been working to expand this approach across our bras, panties, shapewear, and legwear offerings, working with other vendors to offer expanded color tones and encouraging them to use more accurate color names as the new norm."

Photo: Courtesy of Nubian Skin.

If anything gets other lingerie brands and chains to offer a wider selection of nudes, it might be seeing how successful both Nubian Skin and Naja have been doing over the past few months. Girald says that since she launched the viral "Nude for All" campaign this year, her business has continued to grow. Naja's seven shades of nude "Sasha" bras are even sold out.

"From a customer perspective, everyone was really excited about it," says Girald.

One thing Harrington said she hopes to see in this new nudes for all moment, are bras that cover various skin tones and come in a wider variety of larger sizes — something Hassan said she is working to expand on this summer with Nubian Skin.

"I loved — and still love — Nubian Skin, but a significant complaint during their first few seasons has been the lack of options for plus sizes and fuller busts. I've heard similar criticism regarding other brands doing multi-toned nudes like Naja, Hanky Panky, and Cosabella. Even knowing that every brand can't do everything, there are still a lot of people being left out of ‘nudes for all,' and I'm looking forward to seeing a brand — perhaps even a new brand — address the needs of larger sizes," said Harrington.

The lingerie industry may be slow to catch on to certain inclusive trends, but the smaller brands are definitely beating out the larger ones in progress.

"It is my hope, however, that this trend becomes a permanent feature of the lingerie landscape. Several major brands, like Natori and Chantelle, have made darker shades of nude part of their regular colorways, and new brands, like Naja, are also moving into this space," says Harrington. "It's a very exciting time. There's never been so much to choose from."

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