A Pioneer in Diverse Dancewear Forges Ahead Amid Growing Competition

In 2011, Erin Carpenter’s Nude Barre filled a void in the retail marketplace for dancers of color. Today, even as more companies move toward selling inclusive dancewear, Nude Barre continues to thrive.

Group of models with various skin tones wearing Nude Barre hosiery and undergarments, with founder and CEO Erin Carpenter at center, dressed in olive shirt and leggings.
Nude Barre founder and CEO Erin Carpenter (center) takes a break to pose with models during a photo shoot for her products. Photo by Albert Ayzenberg, courtesy of Nude Barre.

Some of the best ideas for new businesses come from founders inventing solutions to a problem they’ve encountered in their own lives. As a young dancer, Erin Carpenter was thrilled to be accepted into a free, selective dance program for minority students at the Kennedy Center in conjunction with Dance Theatre of Harlem. The problem: She couldn’t find dancewear to match her brown skin tone. 

“I went to my typical dance stores and got the darkest tan or nude that I could find, which is usually like suntan from Capezio,” recalls the Washington, DC, native. “And no one made brown ballet shoes.” But then, she says, without the right “flesh-tone” dancewear, “I was asked to sit out of class because I wasn’t in ‘proper uniform’—which was pretty embarrassing.” Carpenter quickly learned that Black dancers had to dye their tights and pancake their shoes with liquid foundation makeup, or use spray paint for leather ballet shoes. 

This became Carpenter’s routine throughout college into her early professional career dancing with the Knicks City Dancers and for commercials—and it planted the seed for her company, Nude Barre: an e-commerce business that sells fishnet and opaque tights and other undergarments in 12 shades of nude to match a variety of skin tones.

Starting Her Business

Erin Carpenter, CEO of Nude Barre, in white dress, sitting next to table where her products are displayed.
Erin Carpenter in 2011, the year the dancer/entrepreneur sold her first products—fishnet tights for commercial dancers and convertible opaque tights for ballet dancers in 12 shades of nude. Courtesy of Nude Barre.

The idea for the eco-friendly brand that Carpenter incorporated in 2009 had its roots in her dance background and was intended for dancers and active women. Today her reach is even broader. Nude Barre’s customer base is 40 percent dancers, athletes and entertainers and 60 percent “everyday women,” she says.

The 35-year-old has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Marymount Manhattan College in New York City, where she majored in ballet and minored in business management. Initially she bootstrapped her business by using a modest $3,000 from her savings and by teaching ballet barre classes. 

In the development stages, Carpenter used her Knicks City Dancer colleagues as a focus group. “I started my research by asking other performers ‘If a product like this did exist, would you actually buy it and at what price point?” she says. With their help she narrowed Nude Barre’s offerings from 18 shades to 12 shades. In late 2011, Carpenter sold her first products (flesh-tone fishnet tights for commercial dancers and convertible opaque tights for ballet dancers) directly to her network of dancers. Her mission was to cater to women of color, who represent a wide range of skin tones from fair to medium to dark. 

Group of models lying on floor with legs up on wall, displaying the range of nude shades available in Nude Barre tights and undergarments.
“I wanted everyone to be seen across the full spectrum, and I wanted to change the way that we’re even talking about flesh tone and nude,” says Carpenter. Photo by Albert Ayzenberg, courtesy of Nude Barre.

“I wanted everyone to be seen across the full spectrum, and I wanted to change the way that we’re even talking about flesh tone and nude,” says Carpenter. “Like why is it represented as one color? In dance, why is nude represented as tan, or in underwear and bras, why is it just beige? That shouldn’t even be a thing.”

“Now companies are starting to come out with one or two additional skin-tone shades,” she adds. “But when I launched Nude Barre, inclusion wasn’t really a conversation. It wasn’t a trend.” 

Networking and Growing Her Business

“I learned about business along the way,” says Carpenter, who participated in incubator programs, including one at Polytechnic Institute of New York University, where a mentor helped her develop her first business plan.

In the company’s early stages, she picked up manufacturing leads and tips from a fellow barre fitness teacher who developed “grippy socks” and by going to trade shows. 

“I think as a founder, we’re often afraid to talk about what we’re building and what we’re doing for various reasons—maybe you haven’t fleshed it out fully or you don’t want someone to steal your idea,” Carpenter explains. “But if you don’t talk to people and ask for help, it’s really hard to build what you’re building.” 

In 2012, what Carpenter refers to as a “game-changing” celebrity endorsement helped to boost Nude Barre’s visibility. Carpenter’s mother had encouraged her to contact daytime talk-show host Wendy Williams. “‘Wendy wears these nude fishnet tights on her show every day,’ my mom told me. ‘Maybe you should send her yours.’” 

A few weeks later, Carpenter received a call that Williams loved the tights, and her wardrobe person ordered all of the caramel shade that was in stock.

“What’s awesome about Wendy is that each day she posts what she’s wearing, tagging all the brands from head to toe on social media and linking directly to the products on her website. This started driving traffic to our website, which was fairly new at the time,” she says.

As word of the products spread, Nude Barre attracted other celebrity clients, including Tyra Banks, Laverne Cox and Star Jones. And in 2014, Carpenter added a seamless thong to her inventory.

Questions About Raising Capital

The next year, while recovering from knee surgery for a dance injury, Carpenter came across a book by Julia Pimsleur called Million Dollar Women and decided to attend one of the successful entrepreneur’s workshops on fundraising. “I was really having a hard time getting the business from my early stage to a bigger business because I needed more capital to do so. And I knew that, but I just really didn’t know how to go about that. Julia helped me navigate that world,” she says.

In 2017, Carpenter participated in Pimsleur’s Million Dollar Women Summit. “Julia talked a lot about how she built her company and got to a million in revenue, and how female founders overall are really underfunded,” she recalls. “Women don’t raise capital because there are so many boundaries. Silicon Valley is very white-male dominated, and these men invest in more white males. So it doesn’t get diversified, like a lot of things in our world.”

Pimsleur, who’d also built a company based on a personal passion—second-language education—says she saw a parallel in their businesses and liked Carpenter’s positivity and drive. “The fact that she was trying to solve a problem that she had experienced resonated with me. Erin had that great mix you’re always looking for in an entrepreneur: confident enough to do it, but humble enough to ask for help,” says Pimsleur.

The Serena Effect

Another pivotal point in Carpenter’s business came in 2019 when she entered and won a pitch competition for female entrepreneur funding by Serena Williams and Bumble CEO and founder Whitney Wolfe Herd. Williams was already a fan of the brand and wore Nude Barre tights during her games at Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the U.S. Open in 2018. 

“It was a big credibility builder,” says Carpenter of winning the competition out of reportedly 1,000-plus applicants. “It helps me raise more money or get more interest from other potential investors.” 

Carpenter will not disclose how much she has received from outside investors, but Black Enterprise reports that the Bumble Fund and Serena Ventures will invest between $50,000 and $100,000 in Carpenter’s company and the business of another pitch-competition finalist, depending on the scale of business.

Connecting With Buyers

Carpenter, holding a Nude Barre package of tights, with shipments of Nude Barre products in boxes.
Carpenter sells Nude Barre products direct to consumers, as well as to dance retailers. Courtesy of Nude Barre

Carpenter is her company’s only full-time employee (she declines to disclose her salary), but her team is a mix of interns and part-time staff. She enjoys selling her products directly to consumers, although early on she spent time pitching to dance retailers, without much success. Now she builds relationships with dance retailers who contact her directly—she currently sells to six (in addition to three online retailers), including Ms. Ro’s Dance Closet in Atlanta, GA. 

“I believe in this brand that is inclusive of all shades of nude and has been very important to the Black dancer,” says Ms. Ro’s owner, Roshawn Buxton, who has carried Nude Barre since 2015. “I love the tights. I wear the fishnets, so I can vouch for how lovely they feel.” (The brand’s intimates were always designed to be durable enough to be worn by dancers and active women, but stylish and comfortable enough for everyday use.)

Buxton says her customers’ demand for Nude Barre has decreased now that bigger brands with large followings are also offering more diverse dancewear, and dance schools and studios tend to ask for those brands in their dress codes. But she still orders the undergarments on an “as-needed basis”—her bestsellers are the tapioca cream and caramel convertible tights and fishnets.

“It is my duty to support Black-owned businesses,” Buxton says. “Now we are seeing a lot of brands—mostly online—jump on the bandwagon because it is the ‘thing’ to do. Some of these bigger brands are going to do real damage to the smaller companies that started their businesses to fill the void initially—companies that knew our needs and made the products for us and not to capitalize on us.”

Black Businesses Matter

“A lot of times I show up for a meeting and people are not expecting me—a Black person, a Black woman,” Carpenter acknowledges. She has found that in pitching her business, “people will focus on me being a dancer and not really talking about my business.”

But as the number of businesses owned by African-American women continues to rise, hopefully these perceptions will shift. Although research shows that women of color receive less than 1 percent of venture funding, data also show that as of 2018 women of color account for 47 percent of all women-owned businesses. That same year, there were reportedly 2.4 million businesses owned by African-American women.

Fortunately, Carpenter says, her supply chain hasn’t been drastically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic because she wasn’t manufacturing when production halted in China.

“We were really fortunate that our shipping facility stayed open and we were still able to ship out orders,” she says. “Now we are in that process of manufacturing, and it may take anywhere from 20 to 30 days longer because they are practicing social distancing while they work to keep everybody healthy.”

With so many dance classes or performances on hold, Nude Barre’s dance customer base has dipped during the pandemic, although the brand’s nondance customers are still active—ordering merchandise from the website and sharing the brand on social media. 

The Black Lives Matter protest movement against systemic racism has also given a bump to the business. “We’ve had a big spike in sales because people want to support Black-owned businesses,” she says. “They will buy a seamless thong or tights, or they’ll buy a gift card. It seems they want to do whatever they can to be helpful, which is really awesome.”

So What Does the Future Hold for Nude Barre? 

Carpenter, who lives in New York City with her husband, toddler daughter and Maltese, expanded her product line in summer 2020 to include a bralette and a bikini panty, and will launch other products into 2021. To realize her goal for Nude Barre to become “a fully inclusive brand in the intimates, undergarments and hosiery space,” she is hiring more staff and is in talks with “big retailers” who want to work with the brand. Even as her company grows, however, Carpenter has not forgotten her dancer roots and her brand’s impact for dancers of color.

“Making products for young dancers that were not available when I was growing up means a lot to me. Not having products in your skin tone can have an effect on your confidence and ability to fit in onstage and in the classroom. Nude Barre has the pleasure of changing that,” says Carpenter.

Erin Carpenter, CEO of Nude Barre, holding her daughter on her daughter's first birthday.
Carpenter, on her daughter’s first birthday last fall. Courtesy of Erin Carpenter

“Young girls like my daughter will have options that represent them. They get to feel beautiful onstage, instead of feeling awkward in beige or tan tights that do not match their skin tones. We are taking that discomfort off the table and empowering young performers.”

Tracy E. Hopkins is a Brooklyn-based writer who has contributed to Essence, Woman’s Day and Sisters from AARP, among other media. She is also a producer on an award-winning documentary about tap dance legend Maurice Hines