Black women have long been overlooked and underserved across all industries, an injustice that is finally being brought to the forefront, with Black women leading the movement against racial inequality. To honor just how truly essential Black women are, Unbothered has partnered with Target to share the stories of those who are fighting for inclusivity, challenging stigmas, and prioritizing mental health — stories that shed light on their incredible strength, ambition, and humanity.
Erin Carpenter always knew she wanted to dance — from a young age, she loved to move her body. So it came as a surprise to no one that she ended up building a career around the art form, going on to land a gig as a Knicks City Dancer at 24 years old. But as it turns out, dance was simply a stepping stone to Carpenter’s true calling, as the founder of Nude Barre, a line of undergarments working to make the fashion industry more inclusive.
Nearly 20 years ago, when she was a high school senior, Carpenter was told she couldn’t take classes at the Kennedy Center Dance Theatre of Harlem’s professional residency program because she wasn’t in “uniform.” She didn’t have — nor could she find — flesh-tone tights that matched her skin tone (they were either too light or too dark).
“[Sitting out during a class] was so embarrassing because I had to sit in front of the class and everyone knew you did something wrong,” Carpenter says. “I asked the teacher what to do [so I could participate next time] and she told me to dye my tights and shoes to match my skin. I thought that was ridiculous.”
From then on, the only way for her to take classes was to paint foundation on her tights and shoes. It wasn’t until her Knicks City Dancer days — from 2007 to 2009 — that Carpenter had the idea to turn her experience into an opportunity: a line of flesh-tone undergarments to match every skin tone. She asked dancers on the team and other industry friends to offer feedback on her product and to lend advice on tones. From there, she selected 18 shades and eventually finalized 12 that ranged from light to medium to dark skin tones. After years of research and development, she officially launched Nude Barre in 2011.
“When brands aren't inclusive, it ultimately boils down to systemic racism,” says the 35-year-old Washington, D.C native. “They don't care about diverse customers so they don't make products for us, which is why you see such a surge of Black-owned businesses that have launched things that cater to women of color.”
Carpenter isn’t alone in her endeavors. According to research by American Express, from 2007 to 2018, the number of Latina and Black women-owned businesses grew faster than the average rate for businesses owned by women of color. But this year, with the pandemic and civil rights movement, all businesses are faced with unprecedented challenges. Carpenter, who manages a team of five, says there have been both good and bad moments.
“On one hand there’s been an uptick in sales and we’re mentioned in conversations surrounding Black-owned businesses — we’ve gotten business from more white women and that’s been great,” she says about the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement. “But on the other hand, because of the pandemic, we’ve had supply chain issues. Many manufacturers had to shut down for a period of time and that greatly affected business.”
Whether the Black Lives Matter movement will continue to shape the landscape of fashion for the better, Carpenter says it’s too early to tell.
“It will be interesting to see the shift,” she says. “[The movement] could also be a trend, so it’s hard to say what’s going to happen. But I feel hopeful that people are taking the importance of Black businesses seriously.”
While Carpenter says she hasn't encountered blatant racism, she has experienced difficulty with fundraising, and she believes it’s because she’s a Black woman. According to a 2016 survey by the Federal Reserve, Black-owned businesses, compared with white-owned firms, are less likely to receive approval for financing. And according to PitchBook, only 2.8% of capital in 2019 went to U.S.-based female-founded businesses. It stands to reason that of the 2.8%, an even smaller percentage is going to women of color.
“Raising traditional funding is hard for Black women,” Carpenter says. “The [giant social media platforms] of the world [have it easier] because people invest in people who look like them. And yes, there are new Black venture capitalists now, but it’s not nearly enough [to support] all the Black female founders.”
Carpenter believes generational wealth is a large factor, too. “If you want bank loans, you need assets, but most Black women don’t have assets to leverage for a loan,” she continues. “It’s [one of the] the biggest factors in what causes Black businesses to grow slower than other businesses.”
But failure isn’t a part of Carpenter’s vocabulary. She’s determined to run a profitable business, while reminding herself of the banner moments that have led to her success. That’s what keeps a smile on her face. For instance, she loves reflecting on how a big-time talk show host was one of her first celebrity fans. Another hallmark moment? Seeing arguably the most famous tennis champ in the world wear her tights at various matches (she is now an investor for the brand and continues to offer support).
Right now, Carpenter is focused on keeping a level head, and she expects a bright future for her brand. For the upcoming quarter, she plans to launch Nude Barre in new retailers and bridal stores, and she dreams of one day expanding the intimate offerings to include shapewear and camisoles.
“I want Nude Barre to be a big brand that offers undergarments in diverse skin tones for all women,” she says. “My goal is to shed light on the struggles women have when trying to find flesh-toned apparel. Brands aren’t offering them, but we have the solution.”
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