If you, like me, identify as a woman of color, then the following scenarios are probably all too familiar:
- You’ve made a trip to your favorite department store in search of a pair of “nude” heels, only to discover that the shades offered are peach and beige.
- You need nude hosiery for a dance recital, theatrical production, or interview, but the “nude” stockings, bras, or underwear at the local CVS aren’t actually flesh-toned.
- “Invisible” Band-Aids are very noticeable…and they look ridiculous.
The list could go on and on.
While women of color have long grappled with fashion’s idea of “nude,” the issue was brought to mainstream attention in 2010, when First Lady Michelle Obama was photographed in an evening gown to meet the Indian Prime Minister. Indian-American fashion designer Naeem Khan described Obama’s dress as “nude,” to which Dodai Stewart at Jezebel responded: “Nude? For whom?” The Associated Press also came under fire for its use of the term “flesh-colored” to describe the dress, which they later amended to “champagne.”
With New York Fashion Week coming to a close, issues of representation both on and off the runway are again entering public discourse surrounding the fashion industry—and rightfully so. The most recent research conducted during NYFW’s Fall-Winter 2014 Season revealed that nearly 79% of outfits shown were worn by white models.
Though this is a marked improvement from years past (the presence of Black models—currently at 9.75%—experienced a modest increase from the previous season’s 8.08%), representation among some demographics of color has actually worsened. The prevalence of Asian and Latina models, for example, decreased to a mere 7.67% and 2.12% respectively.
Clearly, there is still a lot of work to be done. But these two companies are leading the way—the runway, that is—by redefining the nude trend.
1. Nubian Skin
Like many of us, Ade Hassan was frustrated by the lack of diverse options available when shopping for nude underwear. The British management consultant-turned entrepreneur channeled her frustrations into a business plan, and thus, just a few short months ago, Nubian Skin was born.
“A nude bra and skin tone hosiery are the basics of every woman’s wardrobe, at least in theory. For many women of colour, finding suitable skin-tone hosiery and lingerie has not been an option…it was time for ‘a different kind of nude’.”
Currently, the company offers flesh-tone bras, underwear, and hosiery in four distinct shades along the nude continuum. They range from Café au lait to Caramel, Cinnamon, and Berry, sizes small to extra-large, 30B to 36DD. Headquartered in London, Nubian Skin products are available online at their website, with options for worldwide shipping. Also included on the Nubian Skin website is a “more sizes survey” which the company plans to incorporate in introducing further sizing availability.
French footwear icon Christian Louboutin made even bigger headlines in 2013 when he announced his “Les Nudes” collection—a shoe line that featured nude pumps in five different shades. The famous red-soled heels are now available in a continuum of flesh-tones ranging from “pale blush” to “rich chestnut”.
Whereas many companies have had limited shoe offerings in tan and brown, Christian Louboutin is among the first to style them in accordance with skin tones, in addition to categorizing them under the nude umbrella.
Louboutin shared with UK-based journal Fashion:
“This collection offers a spectrum of nude, re-imagining the perception of the color as a pale blush, and introducing it as the color of flesh, which ranges well beyond this traditional reference.”
The company has also devised an app called Louboutin Shades, that allows shoppers to find their perfect nude by taking photos of their feet.
Why Not Sooner?
Fashion bloggers and social media users the world over have responded positively to both of these lines. Amid the excitement, however, many consumers are asking why the shift hasn’t happened sooner.
Janice Ellinwood of Marymount University’s fashion merchandising program explains how “designers are encouraged to produce what will appeal to their perceived median customer”. Oftentimes minority demographics, sizable as they may be, are not taken into account—even if they should be, as Louboutin and Nubian Skin are proving. Louboutin’s Les Nudes collection sold out shortly after going online.
Obviously the demand is there, so what’s the hold up?
Nubian Skin’s Hassan thinks it may have less to do with consumers, and more to do with to industry leadership:
“I think it’s a matter of perspective—the heads of most large retail brands are middle-aged, white men. They know what sells for them, and they’re never going to wake up in the morning, put on a sheer blouse and think ‘I could really do with a nude bra to match my complexion under this.’ It’s not their fault, it’s just their reality.”
High Fashion, Fast Fashion, and Representation
What does this mean in our reality—for most of us Average Janes and Joes who can’t afford a glossy pair of Louboutins? (They start at $625 by the way.)
Quite a lot, actually.
As previously mentioned, most designers pander to their “perceived” ideal customer (in this case read: white, cisgender female). Once a product has garnered enough popularity, “it [is] re-created for the missing demographics,” Ellinwood says. High-end labels like Christian Louboutin, rife with clout and resources, are able to eschew this process. Since elite brands are arguably the trendsetters of the fashion world, it is only a matter of time before these concepts become more accessible (and more affordable) through “fast fashion”.
Mainstream fashion’s current definition of “nude” is not merely about certain demographics being unable to purchase products that match one’s skin tone. It is, rather, the constant reminder that whiteness continues to serve as the norm.
Where many are quick to dismiss the progress being made by companies like Nubian Skin and Christian Louboutin as yet another marketing ploy, we should be careful not to dismiss a product just because it’s profitable. By expanding the industry’s conceptions of nude, these companies are sending the very important message that it is valuable to recognize and cater to the target demographic of women of color.
And that alone is a pretty big deal.
Chrislyn Laurie Laurore is a junior at Mount Holyoke College, where she is also a contributing writer for the campus newspaper. A self-proclaimed music aficionado, she can almost always be spotted donning headphones blaring Motown or British rock while complaining about the frigid New England winter. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr @kreisleine.