Saturday, 28 September 2013

We are living in nail polish utopia

So far, the 21st century has been a mixed bag for the UK. Economically, we're in dire straits. Prices are rising, wages are not. Jobs are few. Riots, benefit cuts, closures of schools, hospitals, libraries. The US government (and many a marketing company) is watching you through your computer...  It's overall somewhat grim right now.

But one small but joyful corner of humanity has been flourishing to an unprecedented degree - nail polish. Nail art is a fashion phenomenon both in the UK and overseas, and it has grown to epidemic proportions. (Epidemic in a good way.)

Zooey Deschanel sports music note nail art. Credit:

The polish dark ages
Back in the 90s, it was a struggle to get hold of a nail polish that wasn't red, pink or some kind of neutral tone. When you did find another colour it was a rarity to be snatched up, regardless of whether the quality was up to scratch. I remember finding a market stall selling quid-a-job polishes in a rainbow of colours and grabbing as many as I could afford like they were the last cosmetics on earth, despite the fact that they smelled like turpentine and took 4 hours to dry.

Back then, mainstream brands saw no need to diversify their colour ranges, with the exception of the odd signature shade like Nars Zulu or Chanel's Rouge Noir/Vamp. While there were some amazing polishes out there (hat tip to Hard Candy's glory days), in the mass market there just wasn't the demand. Polish came in reds, pinks, neutrals, and white (for creating French tips).

NARS Vintage collection, a 2010 repromote of some 1990s classics. Credit:

Unprecedented diversity
Nowadays you can find all the colours of the rainbow and more at every Boots and Superdrug, and take your pick from umpteen brands for every price point and personality out there. Today's women (and some men too) are wearing all kinds of colours for all kinds of occasions. Mint green nails for work are now A-OK. Blue tips for a dinner date won't even raise an eyebrow. Colour, all kinds of colour, is now mainstream - we're embracing it fully.

And the 21st century nail polish boom has taken us beyond just new and adventurous shades. We now have a myriad of textures and finishes to play with. We've seen metallic nails, speckle nails, magnetic nails, scented nails, furry nails and nails covered with beads hitting the shelves, all following hot on each other's tails. (That's without even getting into the gel nails trend or Konad.)

It seems brands are falling over one another to produce the next novel nail trend, and as a result we're striking out into territories previously trodden only by professional manicurists and nail techs. Nail art pens. Dotting tools. Stickers, water decals. What you would previously have paid a fortune for in a salon can now be done at home using kits bought for a tenner in Boots.

Some of the kits and sets available from nail specialist Models Own. Credit:

So what caused the nail boom?
Perhaps the 21st century nail boom can be partly explained by the "lipstick index" phenomenon - a theory by Leonard Lauder of Estee Lauder. He suggested that when the economy is dire, we treat ourselves in smaller ways. Holidays, cars and big nights out might not be on the cards during a recession, but the odd £10 here or there on a lipstick (or new nail colour) is a cheap way to keep our spirits up.

I would suggest that it's also fuelled by the beauty industry's hunger for novelty. In the beauty market, consumers are looking for reasons to buy that have nothing to do with necessity and everything to do with indulgence. It's not difficult to persuade a beauty junkie to spend on cosmetics - we're looking for an excuse to splash out, to treat ourselves. Instead, the challenge for brands is getting us to spend on their products, not somebody else's. This means they're selling products not on their practical benefits, but on more abstract selling points like glamour, luxury, aspirational status, and most of all, novelty and originality. And in such a saturated market, novelty and originality are not easy to come by.

Nail art by Korean star manicurist Nfu Oh. Credit:

When it can be achieved, novelty is often the little nudge needed to tip us over the edge and open our purses. The beauty consumer's rational mind can insist that we don't need another lipstick or eyeliner in a slightly different shade. But presented with a whole new product category, even if it's got no discernible benefit (BB creams, I'm looking at you), we're able to tell ourselves that it's worth trying out. Nails present a previously under-exploited niche within the beauty market, and now seems to be the time to work it to the full.

Another factor is wearability. With colour cosmetics like eyeshadows, blushes and lipsticks, only certain shades are likely to flatter your facial features. Grey or green blush, though original and novel, is unlikely to ever catch on, because it makes human faces look macabre at best. Same goes for red eyeshadow and orange mascara - they're unlikely to ever be anything other than niche, and all the wearable colours and textures are already out there for the taking. Lipstick has a little more wiggle room, but it still takes a daring approach to wear a black or blue lip as opposed to red, pink or plum.

However, nail polish is worn on the fingertips, far enough away from the face to allow for a wide spectrum of flattering shades, much like with clothing, jewellery or shoes.

Another factor is the explosion of beauty blogs. Where in the past there was limited coverage for nail polish available from magazines and newspaper supplements, now there are huge numbers of blogs swatching and reviewing a massive range of polishes and providing tutorials and ideas for nail art. Blogs fuel consumer demand, and where bloggers lead, brands increasingly tend to follow. There's also the indie polish movement, which has acted as a vanguard injecting stratospheric levels of creativity and originality into the nail industry.

The Etsy storefront of indie polish creator Laquistry. Credit:

What's next for nails?
As the nail boom has gathered momentum, we've seen that demand exists to support a hugely diverse range of nail products. How long the nail bubble will continue to grow before it pops is anyone's guess. Personally, I'm loving every moment of it, however long it lasts.

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