Nail art might not seem like a heavy subject. In fact, the thought of anything but a classic red nail or a simple stroke of flesh-colored polish may conjure images of tacky airbrushed acrylics — and all that they imply. But now, nary an Oscar nominee or small-screen starlet can sashay down a red carpet without elaborate nail art stamped on her talons. Statement-making nails and gallery-quality handiwork are now so pervasive that no major step-and-repeat is complete without a “mani cam” (a tiny runway where celebrities strut their nails for the camera), and the Instagram hashtag “nailart” has more than 6 million photos on Instagram. With the countless dedicated blogs, lacquer launches (including the gel revolution) and new specialty salons cropping up every month everywhere from Beverly Hills to London, nail art is way past fad status.
Which is something Angelenos Jenna Hipp and Vanessa Gualy noticed last year, when they turned Nailing Hollywood, their five-year-old beauty product development consultancy, into a niche editorial and business agency for L.A.’s most in-demand manicurists. Their goal? “To represent the industry’s top talent and create looks that would change and evolve the nail landscape via our work on set,” says agent and co-founder Gualy. “Our focus was razor-sharp: We wanted to create stunning nails — gorgeous, coveted nails that could stand alone as beauty, as accessories, as jewelry and as art.”
Although celebrity editorial manicurists have long been booked for photo shoots and had their business development affairs handled by top agencies including The Wall Group, Cloutier and Celestine, Nailing Hollywood is the first bunch of “ten-percenters” to focus solely on nail artists with no trace of a stylist or groomer in sight.
“The nail category was an underdeveloped industry compared to hair, makeup and wardrobe styling. I made it my mission to change that,” says Hipp, herself a beauty industry boldfacer who has worked on the hands of Michelle Williams, Christina Hendricks and Cindy Crawford, among many others. “[Vanessa and I] share a similar vision, and together we’ve been able to corner the market with no restrictions.”
Corner it they have. Nailing Hollywood now boasts five full-time nail stylists who have worked with personalities including Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Jennifer Lawrence, Demi Lovato, Drew Barrymore and Miley Cyrus, respectively. They’ve worked on photo shoots for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and The Wall Street Journal. More than 180,000 fans follow the team's individual Instagram accounts. And although she wouldn’t release numbers, Gualy says business has tripled in the last year.
When the agency officially launched last summer, Nailing Hollywood signed two nail-art luminaries: Madeline Poole, who was discovered via her impressive blog, and Stephanie Stone, who’d assisted Hipp on shoots for years. Last December, they added Karen Gutierrez, who left a UCLA research lab job to spend her days dreaming up avant-garde, couture manicures, while this summer saw veteran nail stylist and Sheswai eco lacquer line founder Debbie Leavitt departing her then-current agency to join the team.
LEND A HAND: Hipp did the hands for Bella Heathcote's September 2012 Vogue Australia cover and Miley Cyrus' June 2013 British Elle cover.
“Rarely was a nail look planned as an integral part of the photo and styling. Thankfully, we are now on the other side of this,” says Gualy. According to global market research firm NPD, she would be correct. Since November 2008, sales of prestige nail products have jumped a staggering 246 percent, from $11,468,109 in annual sales to $39,732,615 in the period ending October 2013. More than half of women age 18 and up have purchased nail products in the past year.
“Nails are the affordable luxury,” says Gualy. Poole — who recently published her book Nails, Nails, Nails! 25 Creative DIY Nail Art Projects with Chronicle — offers another explanation: “The fact is it’s so easy to replicate. Anyone can try it; you don’t have to be trained. And you can always take it off.”
That accessibility makes the world of nail products a smart business bet. And as history has proven, what happens on the red carpet can make a trend take off. In addition to Nailing Hollywood’s, uh, nailing of said red carpets (Stone did Ke$ha and Ariana Grande at last month’s American Music Awards), the ladies are parlaying their painting prowess into products that allow consumers to achieve the celeb experience at home.
Hipp has an eponymous line of green nail polish kits at Costco (which, as of October, also includes hand creams) and an ongoing collaborative HIPPxRGB lacquer line, while her Nailing Hollywood team has an ongoing collaboration with L.A.-based NCLA on $16 sets of original, complex nail art wraps featuring some of Nailing Hollywood’s greatest hits — Poole’s famed negative space and gradient pattern, an abalone shell print by Gutierrez and the line’s top seller, Stone’s “intricate galaxy design that would be next to impossible to re-create by hand,” according to Hipp.
Hipp also informally consulted on the opening of Olive and June, the four-month-old Beverly Hills nail salon designed by Tenoversix owners Brady Cunningham and Kristen Lee. With locally made custom furniture and a color scheme of washed pastels, the salon joins the likes of West Hollywood’s Mars the Salon and accessory designer Melody Ehsani's Candy Paint in nail-art-specializing shops that look as different from the standard $12 street-corner manicure joint as can be.
“This is an exciting time, and we are lucky to be smack-dab in the middle of it,” says Gutierrez. Fortunately for Nailing Hollywood — as evidenced by Ke$ha’s elaborate glittered rhinestone- and pave-encrusted designs at the AMAs — the thirst for new and ever more innovative manicures seems unquenchable. “The industry is introducing new products and techniques every day, and the possibilities are endless.”
“A celebrity nail stylist sets nail trends and can have great influence — you see their stamp. A trademark manicure spreads like wildfire.”