Oblivious to the crowds brushing past, the nail artists are sensitive to every subtle move of the floor, ready to pause mid brushstroke, or hold that bottle of color steady, ever alert to the possibility of smudges and spillages. Is the lack of space backstage annoying? “Oh, nails have always been at the bottom of the hierarchy,” says Newman breezily. “In fashion, the hair gives the silhouette, the make-up tells the character, the designer does the creating. The nails? They’re an accessory. I’ve accepted it. I don’t think it will ever change.”
While the pressures of working backstage will always keep the nail artists under the table (or on their knees if they are doing a model’s hands), elsewhere, change is afoot and Newman is at the vanguard. Previously the preserve of teenagers and YouTube tutorials, nail accessories have seen an exponential rise in popularity of epic proportions. Search #nailart on Instagram and you will find over 44 million posts. As for the nail artists, they are stars in their own right. Industry insider Elizabeth Morris, of The Nail Hub, refers to them as “mini Picassos” who work on “tiny nail canvases”.
Tokyo-born, New York-based Eichi Matsunaga is one of them, creating works in miniature for fans including Nicki Minaj and Lorde, and for Swarovski’s Wanderlust Spring/Summer 2019 Nail Inspirations. Eun Kyung Park of the Unistella nail studio in Seoul, South Korea, is another. She regularly tours the US to demonstrate her ‘shattered glass’ or ‘wired’ nail techniques, and has worked for Vogue and Carine Roitfeld’s magazine CR Fashion Book. Meanwhile, New York’s Maria Salandra is Rihanna’s go-to manicurist, and this year she partnered with Swarovski to create the star’s decadent nails for the Catholic-themed Met Gala.
As for Newman, she holds her own in terms of refinement and technique. Her work for accessories designer Sophia Webster’s glittering, ballroom-dancing-inspired Fall/Winter 2018 presentation exemplified her passion for precision and creativity. Leading a team of five artists from CND, she gave nails an orange ombré effect and covered them in Swarovski crystals and Swarovski Crystalpixie. There were also fun fishnet patterns, polka dots and exotic fruit designs, each individual look complementing the models’ outfits.
With the UK professional nail industry, for example, worth around £153 million ($181 million) in 2016, according to consumer specialists Kantar Worldpanel, designs such as Newman’s are important for inspiring a growing salon industry and fueling demand among clients. “Social media has become a huge influence,” says Sherrille Riley of Nails & Brows Mayfair, which counts Meghan Markle as a customer. “The immediacy of being able to share designs and ideas means that trends are quick to be popularized across the globe. Many of our clients come in with a design they’ve seen on Instagram or Pinterest.” Never has nail art been so popular. “You couldn’t see all these amazing pictures of crazy nails before, whereas now you can’t avoid it,” agrees Newman. “It’s one of the biggest categories on Instagram, because nail professionals want to say, ‘Look what I can do,’ and all the DIY-ers are sharing it on social media.”
However, while the looks on social media are inspiring, attempts to copy them aren’t always so successful. The intellectual property rights for certain nail art designs often come under scrutiny (one big nail brand was recently accused of copying a well-known nail artist’s work after a public outcry from the nail artist’s followers). Then there are the practicalities of attempting to replicate some of the more flamboyant looks in salon conditions. “If one nail takes 45 minutes to do for a show, how can that be done in a salon and charged for?” says Newman. “Professional salons need to design looks that can be executed quickly.” Her look for Sophia Webster’s show is a case in point: “We created different designs for each of her eight models so that the nails became an accessory as much as the bags or shoes. Some took a bit more time to create, with the addition of Swarovski Crystalpixie.”
“I’m a huge fan of Unistella, but it’s not so wearable,” says Krisztina van der Boom, who with her sister Anita Puluczkai founded London nail studio DryBy, a favorite of beauty editors. “We tend to follow what Marian Newman does at the shows each February and September and adapt it to make a more wearable version.” With one-third of all hand treatments in the salon including nail design (and nail art comprising 70 per cent of that), design has become a huge factor within the business, and originality is what counts. “We started with a lot of freehand nail art when we launched, based on geometrics and the moon, but we noticed that clients were responding to our own original work the most, with the nail art worn as jewels for the nails or as an accessory,” says van der Boom. “Now, whenever we launch a new collection we are fully booked.” She also cites the recent collection for brides by beauty influencer and former Glamour beauty director Alessandra Steinherr as being a huge hit, featuring gold foil delicately and graphically laid over a nude nail, with half moons and crystal details.
Riley has witnessed a similar trend and encourages her team to experiment and collaborate, offering a wide range of options, from gold-leaf manicures to nail jewels and intricate painted designs. “For us, it’s an extension of what’s happening in fashion,” she says. “A few years ago, long stiletto nails were the look of choice for celebrities. Now, clients want treatments that are as natural as possible, so the nail art is becoming more pared back and subtle, with healthy nails at the forefront of the design. Nail jewels add a new dimension and sparkle to natural, clean-colored manicures. The most elegant look is on
a couple of tips rather than every finger.”
Technology and technique also help shape trends. Newman values education within the industry (her background as a forensic scientist naturally embracing the biology of the nail), and her book, The Complete Nail Technician, is a must-read for nail professionals. She has also recently launched a nail video tutorial with Swarovski to demonstrate how to use its Swarovski Crystalpixie nail art products at home. In fact, at the recent Premiere Orlando beauty fair in the United States, where Swarovski partnered with CND to create a magical nail art wonderland, Newman led workshops on using Swarovski Crystalpixie Petite and the new Swarovski Crystalpixie Bubble.
“Education – for the client tempted to pick off their shellac, or the professional who hasn’t learned all the basic rules inside and out – is the most important thing,” says Newman. People should also be aware that “coming off the back of the explosion in nail art are lots of tiny cottage industries buying stuff from China, repackaging it on their kitchen tables and selling it as a niche brand,” she adds. “A lot of it isn’t compliant with EU regulations – even glitter needs to be cosmetically approved. And people are using Sharpies to draw designs on their nails (despite Sharpie issuing a statement telling people not to), as there are many YouTube videos out there showing you how to do it.”
While social media has pushed nail art into the spotlight, for innovators like Newman, true inspiration still comes from human contact and reality. “Words are more inspiring to me than visuals,” she says. “A short conversation with a designer gives me a visual image in my mind. And I’ll look around at nature, or at fabrics, patterns and textures. If I look at Instagram for inspiration, I know it’s already been done – and I can’t do anything that’s done!”
This story appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of SALT magazine.
Image credits: Ambra Vernuccio; Kevin Mazur/Monica Schipper; Getty Images