How Gugu Nkabinde Built Her Premium Underwear Empire: Gugu Intimates

Gugu Intimates was launched in 2016 by Gugu Nkabinde, as Africa’s first premium underwear range for women of color.

Gugu IIntimates

The brand was launched as a movement to give women of color confidence, Gugu felt like they weren’t represented well in the shades of underwear they can wear under white or sheer clothing.

With Gugu Intimates, every African woman can feel beautiful, and comfortable in their own skin and with her own skin tone.

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Gugu Nkabinde, founder of Gugu Intimates

Gugu Nkabinde was born in Zimbabwe to her exiled South African father, and Zimbabwean mother. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of The Free State in Bloemfontein.

After varsity, she went on to build a successful career working on several big multinational brands including Shield, Knorr, Dove deodorants, Bacardi, Castle Lite, Standard Bank and more.

One day, she was presenting a strategy to a client on a very hot day in the summer of 2015 in Joburg, and felt self-conscious as she stood in the boardroom full of people.

She was wearing a long-sleeved white shirt that was a bit see-through, and had to wear a black top underneath so her underwear wasn’t visible. She was so uncomfortable and kept wondering if everyone in that room could see through her shirt.

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Gugu Intimates

Gugu Intimates

After her presentation, she went on to attend an office party where most of the attendees were women of color. She told them about her boardroom presentation and how uncomfortable she was feeling in that see-through shirt.

They then started sharing secrets of how to layer like a pro so they could never feel like the whole world can see their underwear.

“As we were talking I thought, ‘Wait! This is broken. Why can’t the underwear actually do what it’s supposed to do?’”

Gugu Nkabinde after she got a lightbulb moment to start Gugu Intimates

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That day marked the birth of Gugu Intimates, a skin-colored underwear range for women of color – the first of its kind in the African continent. While it took a year until the line was actually created and ready for the market, the seed was planted on that day.

It baffled her that on a continent with multiple skin tones, when the word ‘nude’ gets mentioned, there was no underwear that matched an African person.

She then started doing research and found that the only truly nude underwear for brown-skinned women could only be found overseas. When she ordered a pair, it cost her around $200(R2901), after including all the duties and customs costs.

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She was shell-shocked, and felt it wasn’t right that a single pair of underwear can cost that much. She realized it wasn’t a long-term option for her – or a viable one for many women in SA or across the continent.

It wasn’t until New Year’s Eve of 2016 that Gugu got really serious about the underwear business.

A friend challenged their circle to come up with ideas that would benefit the women as individuals, rather than the corporates they worked for, Gugu decided to make the underwear her project.

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Initially, her idea was to make around 50 pairs, sell them on social media and maybe get a lifetime supply for herself.

But that plan quickly took a 360 degree turn, as she did more research and traveled to other parts of Africa, and discovered that in a continent where the majority of the population were black, there wasn’t no single underwear brand that catered to this specfic – she saw a market gap, and had a deep desire to fulfill it.

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Gugu Intimates store

She had the good fortune of an angel investor who helped her with prototyping right up until she placed the production order in October 2016.

After that, many doors were closed until she eventually met her current investors in June 2017.

When it came time to think of a name for her new venture, Gugu didn’t look far, she chose her own name.

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Her first name “Gugu,” means a treasure, something of desire and something to be adorned, so she couldn’t have thought of a better name for her new underwear brand.

Gugu Intimates

Gugu Intimates comes in many shades of brown, and rather than give the different shades names that further play into the objectification of women, Gugu and her team decided on labeling each shade “beauty,” in different African languages: Elewa(Yoruba), Amara(Arabic) Buhle(Nguni), Zuri(Swahili), Runako(Shona), and Beleza(Spanish and Portuguese).

Over the years, Gugu Intimates has become immensely popular, distributed through partner stores across SA, Zimbabwe, and the US.

Despite the traction her brand has made, she still doesn’t believe it is a success, she’ll only consider the brand successful when women worldwide can say, “I’ve found my nude, for my size, with the right fit and support for my needs”

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To expand the brand, she’s looking to include maternity wear, shapewear, and swimwear – meeting the fit, form, function, and also, the fashion requirements of women all over globe.

She’s also hoping to partner with local suppliers to have everything produced locally, making her products more readily available and accessible to an African market.

She wants to develop unique lines in partnership with leading retailers who speak to the same audiences as Gugu Intimates with the same message: you are beautiful in your skin, no matter your size, shape, or colour.

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According to Gugu, aspiring entrepreneurs should constantly refine their product to better their odds of success or getting funding.

Each time she was turned down, she improved on her plan and immediately looked for the next avenue to pursue.


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