From acrylic talons adorned with gemstones and piercings to surreal mini sculptures modeled on nails, the way we think about nail art has been completely redefined over the past few years. In the US alone, according to data brand Research and Markets, there are nearly 30,000 nail salons (nearly six times the number of barber shops in the country). And pretty much all of them were forced to shut their doors when the pandemic hit, with some reporting 90% drops in income.
As with many service-based industries, lockdowns forced some nail technicians to explore self-employment, says Krisztina van der Boom, co-founder of London-based luxury nail salon DryBy. These newly freelance nail artists began sharing their work on social media, which, in turn, has led to a surge of people discovering and following nail artists on TikTok and Instagram. People are also keen to join this emerging nail subculture: Google searches for ‘How to do your own nails’ peaked in late March 2020.
Take Meagan Knight, an LA-based graphic designer and nail artist, who has quickly amassed more than 10,000 Instagram followers. One of her services is a $100 ‘Artist's Choice’ manicure, where she paints a mystery design. Or, take San Sung Kim, who creates satisfyingly detailed nail art, featuring lacework designs and even a 3D tree. While she doesn't offer nail art services, she earns commission from products sold through an Amazon storefront. Independent nail technicians like these are propelling the industry and the art form forwards, and they're also forcing nail salons to roll their sleeves up and rethink their business models in a time when social media and content creation reign supreme.
After a salon takes a cut of what a customer pays, to cover rental, equipment and insurance costs, the nail technician – the person who grooms and tends to someone's nails – is left with very little. So, it makes sense that nail artists would prefer self-employment over being employed by a salon. Not only can they keep the full amount that they charge for their art, but they can also develop a personal style or brand. These independent artists make up a big chunk of the industry: although Research and Markets calculates that nail salons rake in around $8 billion a year in the US alone, self-employed technicians make an additional $9 billion. That's a pretty substantial portion of the US hair and beauty industry, which, according to market research firm Statista, is worth $42 billion.
TJ, the owner of Beverly Hills salon Bicolor, invested all of his savings into furniture, nail tools and polish, opening the studio in mid 2021. Sales have been increasing between 25% and 35% each month, but shouldering the cost of opening a studio from scratch was a financial shock, TJ admits.
Pricing is a big part of how he's looking to recoup his initial expenses: ‘When I set the price for my service, I divided the daily rent by the working hours and set the base price. After that, I calculated the product in use and how long it would take, and added the base price to the approximate price.’ Like many other nail artists, TJ has also felt the impact of nail art spread on Instagram. ‘Some of my clients have been coming up with more detailed designs lately. So, depending on the product used and how long it takes, I need to increase the price of nail art.’
‘A huge number of independent nail artists have also become content creators, which is a very interesting moment in our industry. These micro businesses will drive the future of nails,’ says Krisztina. Along with her sister Anita Puluczkai, she launched DryBy in London in 2016. Since then, the team has grown to 36 people. Krisztina believes that it's vital for nail businesses to adapt their business models to incorporate freelancers.
By offering them space in the studio, DryBy can tap into the existing online fan bases of these freelance nail artists. This pre-vetted curation of artists also means DryBy's able to charge a more premium price. ‘When we started, we estimated our initial turnover and came up with a relatively small [profit] margin of 11% to 12%,’ Krisztina says. She and Anita also price their services in this way to help people recognize the time and effort that goes into high-quality nail art. ‘If you break down [the cost of] a £25 manicure, you quickly understand that something isn't working. After tax, what about the costs of people, sterilization and equipment?’
In Singapore, Germaine Monteiro encountered the same problem of under-payment and launched The Nail Social, which provides employment to marginalized women. ‘Apart from equipment, renting and inventory, salaries and training expenses were the most significant costs,’ Germaine says. ‘We initially partnered with a nail school for training, but we realized that the beneficiaries required more personalized, one-on-one training, so we decided to bring the training in-house. It took almost a year to get back on our feet.’
Germaine also noticed a growing demand for at-home nail care and maintenance, and began offering people the option to purchase a nail toolkit in the salon. Regular customers started taking matters into their own hands during the pandemic when salons shut down, and salons have responded by launching their own product lines: nail-care brand Tenoverten, for example, permanently closed two-thirds of its physical salons in 2020, shifting focus almost entirely to selling an online range of nail polishes and care products.
A slightly dystopian trend has also emerged. In San Francisco, nail salon Clockwork promises a 10-minute robot-performed manicure with ‘no slip ups’ and ‘no small talk’. In comparison, a trained technician can take up to an hour to paint nails. How can technology improve the customer experience, while not disenfranchising technicians?
Some brands are already thinking about how to marry technology with the talent of self-employed artists. Nail brand Glaize creates made-to-measure gel manicures for application at home. Users take four photos of their hands for a program to craft a 3D model of their nails.
The team is also working on a nail-art marketplace, collaborating with independent artists on a commission basis. ‘We do everything from manufacturing to shipping, and they push it on their social channels. It's a smart way to tap into an already-engaged audience,’ says co-founder Gina Farran. ‘You've got these amazing nail artists that are geographically constrained or always booked. There's an exciting opportunity to break that barrier and make nail art a lot more accessible.’
California-based ManiMe uses patented 3D-model technology to develop custom-fit gel nails. Co-founder and CEO Jooyeon Song says that, alongside the gel nails themselves, ancillary care products like the cuticle pen and base coat are some of her best-selling products. Like Glaize, the ManiMe team also collaborates with independent nail artists for their designs. ‘Social media is how we find new creators to partner with, and we love seeing how nail artists build a platform to showcase their craft beyond the hands of their clients,’ Jooyeon says. ‘Many professional nail artists are becoming beauty influencers with massive followings.’
She thinks it's time salons braced themselves for a permanent shift: ‘We expect the nail industry to follow other beauty categories in abiding to clean beauty standards. We know consumers don't want to expose themselves to harsh chemicals or ingredients any more. We also believe that nail art is going to continue growing, as at-home beauty rituals remain the preferred consumer behavior.’