Beyoncé’s Underwear Designer Once Had a Boring Desk Job

Ade Hassan and Beyoncé. Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photo: Getty, Courtesy of Ade Hassan

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want. In Payday, we talk to notable women about making it big for the first time.

British-born Ade Hassan launched Nubian Skin, her line of skin-toned undergarments for women of color, in 2014. Her first campaign went viral, and orders from Asos and Nordstrom quickly followed. Two years later, Beyoncé was wearing Nubian Skin for her “Formation” tour, and in 2017, Queen Elizabeth II awarded Hassan an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for services to fashion, a title she shares with Adele. (Prince William himself presented her the medal.) It’s a series of explosive accomplishments, but it certainly hasn’t seemed that way, according to Hassan. Here, she explains the moments when it finally felt like she’d made it.

Before I founded Nubian Skin, I worked in finance. When I was in school, someone said, “Oh yeah, people in finance make loads of money,” and I was like, brilliant. That sounds great. This was before the recession, and finance was sort of the hot thing to do. If you were smart and did well in school, you could get a job in banking. And I was like, “Well, I’m smart.” In the back of my head I knew I wanted to do something creative, something more independent, but I had to get finance out of my system and see what all the fuss was about.

After a few years, when I was 25 and it was the height of the financial crisis, I decided to take a year off to live in Paris. People thought it was mad to quit my job during the recession, but I thought, well, this is the time. It wasn’t actually scary, because I made a significant amount of money in banking, so I had a lot saved up for a 25-year-old. I had the funds to do it. I took intensive French lessons and learned to sew. At the end of that year, I came back to London and was like, Rubbish, I need to find a job. I tried management consulting, but it really wasn’t for me. Six months in, I thought, What do I actually want to do for a business? And that’s when I came up with the idea for Nubian Skin.

I realized pretty quickly I’d need more money to launch a company, so I went back into finance, because I knew I could make more money more quickly there than in most other jobs. I did that for three more years, saving the whole time.

When we were starting Nubian Skin, I made a lot of mistakes and, to be honest, wasted a lot of money. I didn’t have experience in the industry, and that lack of confidence led to me spending money on consultants. Some of them were brilliant, some of them were not. Still, there wasn’t much time to worry about the company failing because I was so excited. We did a photo shoot for the first campaign and it went viral; all of a sudden, we had a mailing list of 20,000 people and didn’t even have product yet. It was madness after that. We needed to get this to market: go, go, go!

Financially, our first big win was when Nordstrom approached us at a trade show and placed their first order. It totally changed the game. I was like, now I can pay my bills! I can cover all my costs for the next few months, and I can definitely pay my one employee! It was a huge relief, and a major point in the business getting off the ground.

One day in 2016, we got an email: “I’m Beyoncé’s stylist. We love your brand, we love what you’re doing, we’d love for you to do the underwear for the ‘Formation’ tour. Let us know if you’d like to collaborate.” I was like, that’s a scam. Someone’s messing with us and trying to get free underwear.

I have a few friends in the fashion industry, though, so I thought I’d double-check. I forwarded them the email and one responds, “I know him! That’s legit! You have to respond immediately.” So we sent off an email saying, “Of course we’d love to work together,” and then played Beyoncé nonstop in the office for hours. We really couldn’t believe it. “Formation” was this massive thing, with all this amazing imagery, especially as it spoke to black womanhood. To be a part of that was phenomenal.

We didn’t publicize it until images of the tour started coming in, and we could basically see our stuff through the sheer outfits. We emailed her stylist to say, “Is that what we think it is?” And he said, “100 percent.” We could shout about it a bit, because we had photographic evidence. It was one of those moments where you take a step back and you’re like, literally one of the biggest pop stars in the world knows about my brand, and that’s pretty sick. You’ve made some sort of impact, and an impact in a useful way. Because she is a superstar, and this is something that she needs. That’s more the perspective: “Wow, we’re clearly doing something important if somebody this renowned knows about it and uses it.”

At some point in 2017, a letter for me arrived at my parents’ flat. My sister was there and she was like, “I think you might have done something bad. Or maybe good? There’s a letter here from ‘Her Majesty’s Services.’” I thought she meant Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which is the tax agency. I hadn’t sent in my tax return and thought I probably had to pay a fine. I asked her, “Can you just open it and tell me how much I owe?” She wrote back a series of “OMG”s. I said, “Oh, is it a big fine?”

Then she sent me a screenshot of this letter, and it said, “You’ve been nominated to receive an MBE for services to fashion.” I burst into tears. One, I was not expecting that! Two, I have those moments of thinking, “This is really hard. Is it even appreciated?” Then you get something like that and you’re like, “Wow. This has made an impact, and it’s pretty amazing.”

When those moments come, like with the Queen and Beyoncé, it’s such a high. Then it’s like, right, well this is great, but I’ve got to get back to work. The outside perception is: This is the gravy train, everything must be going so well. There must be a massive machine behind it, when really it’s just not. Those big victories are amazing and fun but ultimately they’re little blips in a pretty tough slog.

We’re past the point of proving the concept for our business — we know it works. Now we’re asking, “How do we give the customers more of what they want?” The next steps are growing the range, which I’m excited about, and potentially fundraising. It’s really hard to do this completely bootstrapped, trying to play with the big boys.

Beyoncé’s Underwear Designer Used to Have a Boring Desk Job