As the popular saying goes, necessity is the mother of all invention. For Black women, this reads more like an unofficial mantra. Gugu Nkabinde can attest to this. The South Africa based entrepreneur saw a void in the market for nude underwear designed for Black skin, so she decided to use her expertise as a brand strategist to create one. Gugu Intimates, a line of skin color intimate apparel soon became a hit among customers in South Africa. Just before 2017 wrapped, Gugu celebrated the official launch of her brand in the U.S. after less than one year in business.
I caught up with Gugu to chat about what it took for her to create a brand that serves as a positive affirmation for black women and one Black women would be proud to tell their daughters about.
Describe the Gugu Intimates brand.
I would describe it as Africa’s first skin color underwear brand. Because skin color is the base of the category where the need is met. When you talk of nude underwear, you talk of something that is complimentary to your skin tone. But I was finding that in Africa, the most diverse number of skin tones available, there was only one shade of nude that was available in the stores and it wasn’t for brown skinned girls. Gugu intamates is an answer to underwear that adores and appreciates your skin tone as you are. It’s also a body positivity brand. While the product answers a need, the brand itself has a big role in driving body positivity and for every woman to be comfortable in their own skin.
The colors are so beautiful and the names of the colors actually mean beautiful in different languages. What was the inspiration behind that?
You can imagine being a storyteller and being a strategist. It’s part of my daily job so I can’t help but to tell stories in my work. And when I decided I was going to actually figure out how to make this product and I had an opportunity to build a brand, I asked myself, ‘what do I want this brand to stand for?’ one of the big things that came through for me as I worked on this skin tone underwear range was that even in my own skin I only really became comfortable much later on in life because brands play a big role in helping us define who we are so I was like, okay, this is one brand that I want every woman to see themselves in. I want you to look at it and not feel like you need to be any skinnier, any lighter skinned, and just to be an inclusive brand. So when I asked myself what I would call the shades, I was like, well this should be an affirmation. When you pick a shade it should be an affirmation about yourself, that you are beautiful. We have different countries of origin that we can learn more about so I thought it’s a cool way learn a new language by learning how to tell yourself you’re beautiful.
What were the challenges when you were creating this line?
It’s been one giant growth phase for me I think from the beginning. I am a brand strategist, I was never an underwear designer so I had to get out of what I thought I knew and make sure I understand enough about the category. And then starting a brand is not the same as running a business. So I had to learn quite quickly how to leverage my own strength. And then with that to originate a new concept is also quite difficult. It’s like how do you make as many people happy with the information that you know. I spent so much time trying to research African skin tones. And then after that you’ve got this product. How do you find somebody to back you financially? You need to money to get this thing off the ground.
So how did you end up finding the funding for it?
The whole story for this business is just a series of, what I call, covering your bliss and doors opening where you didn’t know there would be doors opening because after going through what we go through in South Africa, which is, usually as a start up you go the government funding root where different industries have funds allocated to small businesses. But the next challenge is trying to convince people before you land in the market with anything of your own is even more challenging, so I got turned down quite a bit and the start up capital was not small. So I started to think, let me push this to private investors. As I was making calls like, do you know anyone I can pitch my business to, it turned out that my investor was actually a co-owner of the accounting firm that looked after my business, that had just taken on my business. I met them for lunch. They never really heard about me, but they were looking for the next Black female owned business that they would invest in and it turns out I was right under their nose and vise versa. So we’ve had this interesting relationship where they sort of just believed in me and my vision for the business and just provided the support where needed. That was for phase one. It was a huge chunk just to get the product off the ground, which was getting all five shades into the market because that was a minimum requirement. So now we can see the interest, we can see people are gravitating. Now we need distribution and we are bracing ourselves for round two of funding because now we need to expand physical distribution, which is another cost.
Gugu Intimates is now in the U.S. at the TNT Concept Store in Brooklyn via The Narativ. This is your official launch in the U.S. How does that feel?
It’s actually been surreal. It took me a couple of days to grasp what this actually means because one minute you’re just studying the logistics on email about how much stuff you’re going to bring, what the contracts would look like, and the next thing you’re actually standing in the middle of the store and you’re setting up your product on the shelf and you’re thinking ‘this is so far away from home to be setting up my product.’ It’s been quite surreal because when I was going through the challenges of building this brand and trying to think outside of my limited understanding, I came to New York to take some time out around this same time last year, and it’s quite surreal to come back with the actual product and I’ve launched. Because last year I was just meeting with women and asking, ‘would this resonate with you.’ Because I know in Africa it’s a thing but how global is this brand? And they were all like, bring it! So to be back here is quite surreal.
We welcome as many brands as possible for Black women because there’s such a void for Black women when it comes to so many things.
On so many levels. I think the conversation about being comfortable in our own skin as dark skinned girls especially as stopped becoming micro as in our own respective corners of the world. It’s become a global conversation for the first time. So brands that can provide a platform for us to appreciate are so needed. I just thought there was a huge opportunity to create brands we can love and brands we can be proud for our daughters to get to know and to help us see ourselves as we are, not needing to change into something else.
What’s next for the brand?
In 2018 we will be launching an additional two palates to the range making it 7 shades. We will be going two shades darker. I’m quite excited about it because the interest is giving me more confidence. It was always a part of the plan but it seems like we can achieve them a lot sooner than we thought.