“Every time you’d see nude described in fashion media, it was always just beige. I kept waiting for it to change.”
“I knew from a young age that I wanted to work in fashion but I didn’t know how that was going to happen,” says Chantal Carter, founder of the Toronto-based undergarment brand Love & Nudes. Growing up in Montreal–her mother worked in the garment industry there, and Carter describes it as “the fashion mecca of Canada”–she says she devoured hours of style-focused television shows, and gleaned knowledge of design at a young age.
But something she uncovered through her avid fashion fandom, and her eventual foray into styling in adulthood, instilled a feeling of non-belonging in the world she wanted to be a part of so much.
“Every time you’d see nude described in fashion media, it was always just beige,” she says. “I kept waiting for it to change–every time a new trend was introduced, I wondered, would I see something that looks like me? And I was always disappointed.”
Carter’s awareness of this issue was heightened as she observed Black and other models of colour–who were expected to arrive at a photo shoot set wearing ‘nude’ undergarments–show up in items that didn’t match their skin tone at all. “It created stress before they’d even get to the shoot,” she highlights, adding that in many cases models of colour have historically also brought their own makeup to set because they weren’t confident that a makeup artist had the correct supplies to make them look their best.
The issue of ‘nude’ wasn’t helped by the fact that up until five years ago, when a petition for inclusivity was created by a college student named Luis Torres, that the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition of the word included the description of it as “having the color of a white person’s skin.”
“It was huge for me to find that out,” Carter recalls. “That you can’t even trust the dictionary! I started to hunt on the market for anything–camisoles, shoes–anything that looked like me and was described as nude. And I could never find anything.”
Carter even took her search State-side in an effort to essentially validate her existence as a consumer–something no one should ever have to endure. “I thought it was a Canadian problem,” she says. “So, I looked in New York. I swore something would be there. There are all kinds of people who live there, and it’s a fashion capital. And I found nothing.”
This was the first spark for Carter’s lightbulb moment. “I thought, oh my god, this is a thing. And I realized that if wanted that look, I had to make it myself.” She bought a white bra and pair of panties, and used fabric paint that matched her skin tone to create a ‘nude’ effect. “It was so hard and crusty on my skin, but I didn’t care,” she says. “It gave me the look I needed and wanted.”
Delving into more research about this void in the market, Carter says she was stunned to learn that many women of colour didn’t even realize how deeply entrenched the notion of what ‘nude’ was within themselves. “I would ask them, ‘What does nude mean to you?’ And they’d describe peachy or tan,” she says. “In reference to colours, it was always peachy-beige because that’s how it was marketed. And that’s not the whole picture.”
Pointing out that this was a glaring element of systemic racism within the general design lexicon, Carter says she deepened her resolve to right this widely-accepted wrong and began working on Love & Nudes in 2015. She launched the line in 2017, and it’s since attracted attention from the Black-owned brand-focused e-commerce platform, Yard + Parish.
“There were a lot of stop and starts because I didn’t know how I was going to do it, even though I worked in fashion,” she notes. “And I wasn’t telling anybody because I felt like I would be ridiculed, or people would discourage me or steal my idea.”
That apprehension shifted as Carter underwent a period of personal development, and says that hearing something in a podcast was a catalyst for what came next. “It said if you want to do something, you have to find the help if you don’t have the answers,” she recalls. “And you have to tell people what it is you’re trying to do or want to do, so you can get guidance. It just has to be the right person.”
A friend pointed out that Carter should reach out to another female founder of a lingerie brand who not only directed her to a fashion accelerator program, but also mentioned the caliber of manufacturing happening in South America. After a trade show trip, Carter connected with a female-owned factory that still produces her products today.
“Many of our bra and panty makers are single mothers being paid a fair wage,” Carter says. “That really resonated with me as a single mother myself. I could feel the goodness in [the team], and I still do. I wanted to work with people who are aligned with my values, and care about making things better in the world.”
Today, Carter says that she’s nurturing the inclination within herself to act in a mentorship role as it so greatly impacted her own brand’s development. “When you help other people, you learn too,” she says, adding that it’s not easy for her to put herself out there as a founder and business owner.
“I was asked to be part of a small business panel, and they wanted me to speak about leadership and resilience,” she says of an opportunity she said yes to recently. “I wanted to laugh. Me?! You want me to talk about that? You don’t even know what’s happening in the background. But, I thought, I’m going to step into this and be real about my experiences and what goes on–the good, the bad and the ugly. I don’t have all the answers, but I give what I do know. It’s about being on the path–as you move forward step-by-step, something shows up, be it a person or information that can help you. You just have to keep going.”
While her product offering instils self-confidence in customers who finally feel seen by a fashion brand, Carter also aims to instil the notion of confidence through learning via the Love & Nudes blog. It features women with interesting and inspiring stories who run the gamut from sports consultant Tessa Thomas to author, singer-songwriter and breast cancer survivor, Pastor Patricia Russell.
Showcasing an incredible cadre of women in the Love & Nudes community is of utmost importance to Carter, who points to how under-represented Black and other women of colour are in so many facets of business leadership. “We have such a strong influence in pop culture, yet we’re not behind the scenes of anything? There’s something wrong here,” she says. And the idea of working on “building generational wealth”, particularly within Black communities, keeps Carter motivated for the future.
While she’s looking toward that future, Carter says that the COVID-19 crisis–and its ensuing uncertainty and limitations–has allowed her to gain a different perspective on how she runs her brand; one that has had a largely positive effect on her mental health. “I was so go-go-go before, and this time has shown me that no, you don’t get to control everything,” she says. “It’s allowed me to be perfectly imperfect, and be ok with that. I realize that I was paralyzed by trying to be perfect, and to be everything to everybody. Now it’s like, just get ‘er done as best as I can. I’m grateful for this time–it’s challenging for a lot of people, but it helped me change my mind and grow more as a person.”