Nail art takes the world by storm

It used to be seen as a niche market. But British designers are leading the way.

When Adele scooped six awards at the Grammys last month, the blogosphere lit up with speculation. But they weren’t deconstructing her dress, her speech, her tears or her performance, instead, the bloggers zeroed in on one detail the newspapers missed — her nails. “Oh my God, Adele’s nails!” wrote one on Tumblr. “I’m speechless. All hail the Louboutin manicure.” Within hours there were YouTube tutorials on how to recreate the look at home. Filed into a sharp “stiletto” point, painted in glittery silver on the upside and pillarbox red on the inside, Adele’s nails exactly matched her red-bottomed Christian Louboutin Fifi pumps.

It was a triumphant moment for Britain’s nail artists, who have for years been pushing the concept of nails as more than just a place for a French manicure or lick of red, but as canvases for self-expression.

“Nail art used to be seen as really ghetto, but the interest in it is now huge,” said Sophy Robson, the nail artist to the stars dubbed the “Banksy of the nail world” for her outrageous animal print and houndstooth and neon striped nails. “This London Fashion Week, everyone was taking pictures of and talking about nails, but even three years ago I can remember it was hard to get any interest. They didn’t even hire nail technicians — models painted their own nails. Now I think we can safely say that nail art has gone mainstream, it was on every catwalk from Vivienne Westwood to Donna Karan.”

It’s not just for the youngsters such as Alexa Chung, who was seen sporting Clockwork Orange-esque eyes on her nails at London Fashion Week, either. Sally Singer, the 47-year-old editor of The New York Times style magazine, is famed for wearing no make-up, but has developed a passionate devotion to 3-D nail art.

The only surprise, perhaps, is that it’s taken this long for us to embrace the possibilities provided by nails. While the past few decades have seen huge leaps in the trends and technologies of make-up, nails and polishes have hardly changed since the first one was released in the 1920s by two American chemists, Revlon. Adapting the new high-gloss automobile paints for nails, the brothers consigned the nail stains that had gone before to the dustbin and uncovered a goldmine that within six years transformed them into a multimillion-dollar organisation.

Fast forward almost a century, and it’s only now, inspired by flamboyant stars such as Lady Gaga, Rihanna and M.I.A, that nails have been set free from simple block colours. Nail varnish sales jumped last year by 37 per cent at Superdrug, and 25 per cent at L’Oreal, as the general public began to embrace “statement nails” — polka dotted, striped, patterned and bejewelled — as the latest way to accessorise an outfit. For those of us who didn’t have pockets deep enough to indulge the It Bag trend, the best thing about this one is that it’s cheap, the possibilities are endless, and unlike a wild new haircut, you don’t have to be too brave to take the plunge.

So far, animal prints, chequered, kisses, fruits, lacy, tribal and flower-printed nails have all been big, as have Swarovski crystal-encrusted talons and Sophy Robson’s “V gap” (where a coloured v-shaped gap splits the nail from the nail bed).

On the cover of Italian Vogue this month, a model strokes her face with superlong rainbow cheetah-print nails. This highly metallic design wouldn’t be possible with nail polish, but a new California-developed technology called Minx — a solid nail coating beloved of Beyoncé and Victoria Beckham that shrink wraps computer-generated graphics on to your nails and doesn’t chip — is opening up the possibilities even farther.

This summer they’ll be taking nails a step farther, according to Minx founder Janice Jordan. “We’re very close to coming out with textures, hopefully they’ll be ready by summer. The Vivienne Westwood show in London asked us to come out with nails that looked and felt like the grip of skateboards. We’re playing with more prototypes right now. Think leather, alligator and snakeskin.”

More than any other fashion trend, nail art has been pushed to where it is today by blogging. Sophy Robson started her So SoFly Nail blog in 2008 (10,000 followers) with the sole purpose of showing a wider audience the mini artworks she and her friends were creating. “When I started out there was no way for someone in America to see what I was doing unless it was in a magazine. But what are the chances of them reading that magazine and noticing these tiny nails? Now that whole process is speeded up. I can put a picture on my blog or Twitter and people in a Japanese salon see it and start doing it there and then.”

While the gallerists of Bond Street would likely scoff at the notion that these nail technicians are artists, Vyner Street in East London hosted the world’s first nail-art exhibition in autumn last year. Called Nailphilia, it brought together the UK’s top nail artists in an orgy of fingertip love. The response from around the globe was “phenomenal”, according to curator Ryan Lanji, and they’re building up for an even bigger show in Central London this year. “Nail art certainly needs to be respected as an art form in itself,” he said. “This was the first time we’d taken a moment to pause and look at the intense creativity that can go into fingertips. Fashion designers have to work with the body and redefine it every season, but nail artists have to do this too and with a tiny canvas, plus the trends are so fast moving, it’s just fascinating.”

Aficionados insist that there are even different genres within nail art, from 3-D (where you fix charms on to the nails) to high-fashion nail art, hugely impractical “fantasy” designs and more graphic street nails. There are also recognisable cultural differences, according to Robson. “Every continent has its own style of nail art. In London it’s all about the drawing and design, in America it’s bling and square tips. Then you’ve got the Eastern Europeans who do these very skilled flower paintings, whereas Japan, Korea and China are big into more cartoony looks.”

Many of the nail artists on show had backgrounds not in beauty, but in art and design. Sophie Harris-Greenslade, of the Illustrated Nail, is an illustration graduate renowned for her fantastically detailed designs and a favourite of M.I.A and Nicole Scherzinger, while Jenny Longworth, who is flown around the world by Rihanna and Jessie J, is a graduate of London College of Fashion. “We were taught at college how to take reference from different things, and so I’ll take inspiration from art galleries, by looking at antiques and architecture, and trawling through art shops for unusual materials to use,” she says.

But can these millimetre-squared canvases really fulfil them creatively? “Definitely,” Harris-Greenslade says. “To begin with I wasn’t sure whether it would, but its rise in popularity has made me bring more and more creativity to it, and now I’d certainly consider it an art in itself.”

For Robson, a single mum who started painting nails to earn money to provide for her daughter, not only is it creatively fulfilling, but it has provided a lifestyle she could never even have imagined. “People say to me ‘don’t you get bored of just doing nails?’, but I love nails, and I get more than enough excitement out of doing it. And then there are the perks. I’ve travelled first class around the world, met amazing people, stayed in the swankiest hotels, eaten the most sensational food, partied with A-listers, and half the time I’m thinking ‘what on earth am I doing here?’ ” she cackles.

The question is, will nail art be a permanent new fixture to the world of fashion, or is it just one more trend that will sink as fast as it rose.

Alex Fox, long-time editor of Scratch and Gloss magazines has been watching the rise for a decade, and has no doubt that this is a revolution: “The pop world is nail crazy, the fashion world now sees nails as the accessory that completes a look — no longer is it just hair and make-up — nail art is here to stay.”

The nail files

Nails have been part of our beauty regime for thousands of years. Around 4,000BC the noblemen of southern Babylonia used solid gold tools to give themselves manicures and pedicures. A 3,000-year-old manuscript from the Chinese Ming dynasty describes how nail colour was indicative of social status, and royal fingernails were dyed the colours of the ruling dynasty by soaking them in a mixture of mashed rose and orchid petals, mixed with egg whites and beeswax. Members of the lower classes caught copying the royal trend would be sentenced to death. In Pre-Raphaelite Europe, artists and authors were preoccupied by something called a “filbert nail”, a demure, rosy, pink oval with a pure white crescent tip. They were as picky about filbert nails as they were bee-stung lips, both believed to be possessed only by the truly refined. The modern manicure was first developed in France around 1875, and named for the Latin words for hand, manus, and care, cura. Its signature white tips and natural pink base quickly found favour with women and became extremely popular during the 1920s, when nails were tinted with scented pastes such as “Lustr-ite – the dainty little cake”, which promised “a brilliant, extremely rapid and lasting polish for the fingernails. No dust, pumice or grease.”

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Louis Graves

I like pretty things and making myself, and others, pretty. Long time dog mummy and lover of beauty. Come and join me in my world.