TUMISANG NDLOVU: Welcome to this week’s edition of the SME Corner for Moneyweb. Today we speak to Gugu Nkabinde, who is the CEO and founder of Gugu Intimates. Talk to us about Gugu Intimates – what do you do?
GUGU NKABINDE: Gugu Intimates is quite simply the first skin-coloured underwear range for brown skin tones in Africa. Basically what I’ve done is taken the concept of nude underwear, which previously has not been representative of women of colour, and I said why can’t nude be my skin tone. I embarked on the project to find which basic shades I could start to develop for the market. But it was also also building a brand that can say more than just the product and start to redefine how all brown-skin toned women feel about themselves and see themselves, because of the conversations we have all been having over the past couple of years.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: I’m glad you raised the point about conversations that people around you had. How did that help you and propel you to start a business, because there’s there are the conversations, and you could call them blasé — but to actually start an entire business out of that?
GUGU NKABINDE: It’s scary, but I think I’ve read enough inspirational articles and books about founders who started businesses out of a personal need. This was genuinely a personal need. In fact, the first day I actually articulated the question about what other brown-skin toned women were wearing beneath their white shirts and t-shirts, I hadn’t even thought about it as a business, I was just looking for opinions from other women.
What do you do when it’s hot and I’m wearing a layered vest underneath this white shirt, because I have to present in a room full of people and I am so conscious of my underwear showing? I guess, as the saying goes, you need something that bothers you enough because of how challenging it’s been. All I’ve ever wanted is all of those women who come back and say I can’t wait to buy it. That’s what has kept me going.
So, taking it from the conversation about identity, that was when I first realised how big the problem was. I literally sat down with the ladies at the advertising agency where I was working at the time, and when I saw that group of ladies I thought even if I can figure this out and make 100, this will have been fun.
But as a brand strategist I was also getting a bit bored and complacent within my role, and I thought if brands are going to be innovative then they are going to have to stand for something. So then I thought: what does this brand that brings these shades of underwear to market stand for? And I wanted it to stand for:
Confidence, being comfortable in your own skin, and changing the narrative of how we talk about ourselves.
I think one of the biggest things for me was in looking at shade names. I thought why should they be about food – mocha, chocolate, caramel? It’s always annoyed me; and I’ve even moved away from makeup brands with those stereotypical names. I feel like this is what also fuels the conversations around “this shade is prettier than that shade”, because I think it starts to become associated with other things. I thought if you are beautiful, no matter what shade you are, can’t I find a way to call these shades beautiful, no matter what shade they are. Eventually deciding for it to be a truly African brand, I decided to use the word “beauty” in different African languages so as to really be part of the conversation.
The F word that everybody talks about
TUMISANG NDLOVU: How has the market received you so far?
GUGU NKABINDE: It’s been great. I think one of the most comforting things when we go through the struggle as entrepreneurs, the funding struggle, the “F” word that everybody talks about, is I’d been deep within the wilds of it, because one of the biggest things I knew to do with the system as I saw it and observed it was I needed to show proof of interest. So I went bold and decided to preview the range with 20-something women in a room. We laid the product out and – we joke about breaking the internet – but we broke the internet, our website crashed.
Women hadn’t realised they needed the product until I showed them what it could look like – and that’s not even the whole range. I’ve just done a basic range to test the market. I get invited to corporates to look, see, feel and touch, because what all women are waiting for is for us to let you know when we have products available, when we are ready to ship. So that is basically the race, the race to ship to market while the market is hot, because the interest has been great. We’ve had great interviews. I’ve shown it at a few pop-ups so that I can get women to give me proof to go to funders and potential funders and say, “here”. I guess that’s still part of the journey to find the right source of capital for my business.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: Interesting, the right source of capital. What type of funder are you looking for? Are you looking for somebody to buy into the company, buy a stake, or somebody to be an angel investor? What are you looking for in terms of the funding vehicle?
GUGU NKABINDE: I think in retrospect what has got me this far is ideas that are breakthrough and ideas that challenge the way things generally have been, without changing too much and requiring a level of emotional investment alongside it. Hence, as rejection has come from funding institutions in terms of the stage of my business, everyone gets it. Whether they are male or female they get it when I talk about it. But the formal funding institutions have said that they don’t do seed funding.
So at this point you need somebody with a personal understanding of the issue and who would have the foresight to join in on the vision of how we can do two things with the product – give women more confidence by being able to wear underwear that is representative of their skin tone, not just from a pride perspective, but also to better blend with those clothing items, and somebody who can see where this market can go.
So an angel investor for me is probably likely to be that kind of capital, but an angel investor who has access to some kind of new knowledge and new markets for me, enabling me to still say I’m on my own in this business,
I haven’t diluted equity thus far because I really have been looking for somebody who brings something that can make this a truly African brand as it is beyond a South African problem.
So I want someone who has a bit of guts to go through with it. For me to resign and leave my job, all I have done is show the guts that I have and the passion for the business and the belief in it. I’m looking for a funder who will walk the journey with me and mirror that.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: Where do the guts come from? You leave a cushy corporate job that you’ve been working hard at and you start this brand new baby.
GUGU NKABINDE: I don’t find it a different path for me. My life has been a consistent journey and a path to creating stuff. Going into journalism I wanted to be a producer, I wanted to do all of these things, but all I realised was that I wanted to tell stories. So coming across a company like Unilever – when I was in varsity they said come and tell brand stories, and I didn’t even know the term was being used in marketing culture.
So I have always been on that journey, and this for me is just an extension of it. I moved from mainstream corporate, working on different brands, and I went to an advertising agency as a strategist and [now] I’ve gone freelance. So I haven’t left my path because what gave birth to this brand is what I do. So I’ve always made sure that I keep that stream of creativity, that stream of inspiration coming from big brands.
I also love working on smaller businesses that need help with brand positioning because every time I go back to my own business my mind is that much more open. So I didn’t change paths. I just advanced my career, a career of actually creating something tangible and creating my own brand for a change, rather than working on other people’s brands. So the challenge was definitely worth it. Every other day I think and I look back and I think, as challenging as it is this is my life. I wake up and I can make decisions around something about which women are already saying they love – and they haven’t even worn it yet. So already for me that has made it worth it.
Using creativity strategically
TUMISANG NDLOVU: Your creative background gives you a distinct advantage. How do you plan on using that strategically?
GUGU NKABINDE: I’ve been using the term “creative strategist” for a while because I struggled in corporate with where I was told my role stopped and started. I’ve always been a child who said but why, what makes you think I can’t do that as well. So the brand has been such a blessing for me because I’ve been truly able to go far back into who I am, which is quite creative but also quite analytical.
So to be able to see a few steps ahead of a lot of things like to see, with the conversation about makeup almost two years ago, that it should relate to underwear, I’ve combined those two. I almost moonlight as the creative director of Gugu Intimates. I literally have gone to the point where I know what the end looks like. When you look at the shoot, I had help but I saw those visions a year ago, I saw those pictures. We’ve done a shoot again recently with another group of non-models, beautiful young ladies; every time I’d say “I see her like this” and when I look at the images and realise that this is all I wanted to do, to merge the strategy with what it looks like, what the solution actually feels like. That’s my favourite part.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: Wonderful, where to then for the company as a whole? What can we expect from you?
GUGU NKABINDE: Any day now there will be a big launch. I have dreamed about it for about two years to the day, and it’s palpable, I can feel it. I think the biggest hurdle we have to cross for the brand is in securing that pilot capital – and we land immediately into a ten- to eleven-store distribution list with partners who are women of colour, reaching women of colour, a database of over 10 000.
So going non-traditional in our approach you can expect to see where women are going to go to beautify themselves, because we want to celebrate brown, beautiful skin. Also expect to see us in more collaborations because the reason I went into business was to be able to show this what I’m good at. But it’s going to be a collective of people being good at what they’re good at that’s going to make great things. So expect to see me in new collaborations. I am more encouraged, I am more inspired to really go through with the pictures in my head, some of which are crazy. But I think it’s where we need to go as women, creating solutions for ourselves.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: Women would kill me if I don’t ask you about sizes. Who do you cater for – do you cater for all of us?
GUGU NKABINDE: I intend to cater for all of us. I think the trick about going into business, being an entrepreneur at the time myself, was that I need to bite off what I can chew, so get to a minimum viable product. So what I’m launching within this pilot is five shades of brown in sizes 32A to 38D, because the research I had in the market was that I’m very sure that buying in the current retail market involves these sizes. I also came across distinct feedback from plus-sized women who were also struggling with the European and US cuts of bras.
So I thought, let me give myself time to land with the concept so I can put more energy behind developing a size chart that is representative of African women. I’ve had a swimwear brand for plus sizes approach me and say, let’s work together. I don’t know how I feel about the term plus size, because it’s plus what, really. So for me I’m in the business of trying to get that fit, that function, that form and to make you feel beautiful. It is going to be the widest skin-colour underwear range that is most representative of African women. So if it is size and shade, it will be included in Gugu Intimates over the next year or two.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: I personally can’t wait and I wish you all the best.
GUGU NKABINDE: Thank you and thank you for having me.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: Thank you for your time. That was Gugu Nkabinde, the CEO and founder of Gugu Intimates.