In an exclusive back room at Barneys New York in Beverly Hills, we got the rare opportunity to sit down with well-known manicurist and polish maker Deborah Lippmann and talk to her one-on-one. The occasion was the launch of her namesake polish line’s 15th Anniversary Music Box collection – fifteen polishes inside of a large black music box (the whole set retails for $195, more on that here).
While fans and clients of hers were waiting downstairs, we chatted with Lippmann about everything: her transition from singer to manicurist, how she made such a name for herself, and even her first celebrity client (guess who?).
Nailpro: How did you go from singer to a manicurist to having your own lacquer line?
Lippmann: I got a degree in music from Arizona State University, where I grew up and started working as a singer at weddings, bar mitzvahs, jazz clubs, and doing some theater. But then I wanted to just focus on the kind of music I wanted to sing, and so like most artists, I started waiting tables – except I was the most untalented of all waiters. I spilled pasta on customer’s heads almost nightly. I decided I needed to find another day job. Beauty had always been my love, and so I enrolled in cosmetology school. While in school, it occurred to me that I was standing up on my feet learning hair – and then going to sing at night and standing on my feet for four hours. When I learned the manicure portion in school, I found I could sit all day long and then stand up on my high heels at night. It was really almost as simple as that. Prior to being in cosmetology school, I had been a nail biter almost my whole life. When I was in college, I got my first paid performing job with a Las Vegas kind of thing where we wore big fancy rhinestones and feather costumes. When I got to the dress rehearsal and picked up the microphone with bitten-to-the-nub nails, the director took me to get a set of porcelain nails the very next day. That’s how long ago this was – before acrylic exists! As soon as I had nails put on, it changed the way I thought about myself. All of a sudden, I liked the way I used my hands and I felt more feminine. You do your hair and makeup in front of the mirror and then you go outside and forget what you look like – but your hands are always in front of your face. If you are uncomfortable about how they look, you bite them more. And that’s how I started loving nails.
I worked as a manicurist as my day job and got up and sang at night for a bunch of years. In the 90s, I moved to New York to really become a better jazz singer, because I felt like I had already done everything I could as an artist in Arizona. My whole world was turned upside down pretty quickly. I started being written about in magazines. I worked at a high-end salon that gave me some visibility and editors sat in my chair because they came to that salon and liked the service they were getting. I have always been a huge believer in not cutting the cuticle! The cuticle is the end of our skin on our fingers and toes, and it’s meant to be there as a barrier, but we do need to exfoliate it, hydrate it. You can nip hangnails. When I moved to New York and worked in the high-end salon, it was very common to have a manicurist cut your cuticle all the way off, even in the fanciest places. However, when you do that, your cuticle grows back uneven and rougher. I stuck to my guns and it’s what I was taught and what I believed in.
I felt it was really important to educate the customer in my chair about nail care also. This was back in the early 90s, when women were using formaldehyde products on their nails a lot. For instance, they would use a base coat that had formaldehyde and then ask for a formaldehyde-free polish. There was a whole disconnect and it didn’t make any sense to me. I felt there was a lot of education that needed to happen. In the luxury market, you could get a couple colors from Chanel and Dior each season, but you couldn’t get a base coat or a top coat. You couldn’t get a cuticle remover, and you couldn’t get a polish remover on the floor of any of these luxury stores – and there’s where I felt there was an opportunity. If you went downstairs to Barney’s New York 15 or more years ago, you could buy those colors, but you couldn’t get an education on how to apply it. Nobody knew how to apply it; nobody knew why you needed to wear a base coat or should you wear a base coat, and do you have to wear a top coat?
That’s really our dream for the brand: to have high-quality 5-free products. We’ve been 5-free for a very long time. It’s not been our model to say that; I know there are a lot of 5-free brands [now]. It’s the new hot thing to be. We’ve been that forever and people don’t even realize it. It’s a long-wearing formula, it dries well, and it stays on the nail. The two things women are really looking for are: something that dries quickly so they can get on their life and something that stays on the nail. The treatments are a huge part of our business. We’re starting to get women to understand the importance of hydrating, the importance of exfoliating, the importance of sitting down to have a good manicure once a week.
Who was your first celebrity client?
My first celebrity client was probably Martha Stewart. She was a client of the salon I worked in in New York. Cher was probably the second. Marla Maples who was dating Donald Trump at the time was also a great client. We’re still really good friends today. It’s interesting how you sit across a table and hold hands with somebody for thirty minutes while you give them a manicure – it’s a very intimate service. It’s a lot closer than we’re sitting today. You’re holding energy to energy. I don’t sit and talk to my husband like that. It gives you the opportunity to develop great relationships. That’s one thing I find sad about how the market has changed. The manicure world is not the same as it once was. It’s a real opportunity that nail techs have to develop a clientele by really developing relationships – where people want to see you for a great service and also because of you and who you are.
How did your polish-making career begin?
At the start, I knew nothing about running a business, let alone how to start a business. Being naïve gave me the courage. Most likely, had I known then what I know now, I probably would have talked myself out of it. Sometimes fear can get the best of you, but in the end it has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. My husband (Jude Severin), brother (Mark Lippmann) and I dove right in. Jude took a college course in accounting, and Mark took a graphics class and we read every book under the sun.
At first we started the business right out of our home. Taking orders, shipping, and customer service were handled by the three of us. Customer service calls would come straight to our home line and would be ringing in the middle of the night. Jude and I use to tease it was our version of “feeding the baby.”
We’ve continued to grow the business by being open to the learning process and ultimately trusting our guts. Driving innovation and creativity has kept our clients excited about nails. I look forward to always being on the cusp of modern technology – to making polishes easier, better and lasting longer, really pushing the boundaries of the nail industry. I am excited about creating the things I haven’t even yet imagined, becoming possible. I look at how much technology has changed in the last 15 years – it’s so much better – and look forward to continuing those improvements over the next 15. I am blessed to have my husband and brother as my partners in the brand and look forward to pushing the nail care landscape for years to come.
What is your favorite nail shape?
I feel very strongly that once you’ve done a proper cuticle shaping, you should mimic the shape of your cuticle to guide the shape of your nail. The most flattering is an elongated version of this nail shaping.
Do you personally wear a lot of nail art? What are your thoughts on nail art?
In my opinion, I find the most beautiful hand is one that is healthy and groomed. I love the natural, round shape of nails paired with a sheer, nude lacquer! Your hands show your age first, so even if you don’t have time to put on nail lacquer, it’s important to make sure that your hands are hydrated! Drink lots of water and regularly apply hand lotion.
What do you see as the up and coming nail trend right now?
2014 is more about creams and a return to femininity. Pastels, less nail art and a little more lady like. While women may be wearing darker shades, they will be a more understated look from the wacky finishes that we’ve been seeing over the past few years.
Nudes are taking a turn this fall – it isn’t just about light beige – there are grays, pinks, and browns in the mix, too. The shape and lacquer shade helps to elongate the fingers and warms the skin. Pulling from my Barneys NY Exclusive Nail Lacquer Collection: Magic Is In The Moonlight, When Doves Cry and Knock on Wood would work great for the trends this upcoming season.
Do you always keep your nails polished?
Yes, at the very LEAST I always remain well groomed with a sheer coat of lacquer. Years ago, women used to tell you your nails needed to “breathe” without nail lacquers on them. This is a myth! Nowadays, base coats and lacquers contain vitamins and minerals that strengthen and improve nail health!
All of my lacquers and base/top coats are 5-free and contain unique nutrient and vitamin blends for continued nail health. My formulas include biotin and green tea, along with Aucoumea Klaineana extract (a natural resin from West African trees) strengthen, hydrate, stimulate nail growth and prevent ridge formation.
What advice would you give to someone looking to build a brand of polish and nail art?
I would say to listen to as many woman entrepreneurs as you can, and really consider their advice. Starting your own business is harder than I ever imagined. It’s also the most incredible journey I’ve taken. I’ve had to learn things that I never thought I’d have to learn, and am happy that I have. Don’t go into business because you think you’ll work less – if you own your own business it’s 24/7. Every day is a challenge, and every day is different. It’s an extraordinary journey, but really study and learn a lot before you get into it because it’s probably not going to be what you think it is looking ahead – nobody’s journey is easy.
If you could create one last polish but the name and color was to reflect on your whole life’s success what would the color be like and what would you name it?
That’s a tough one! They’re like my children because I create them all – I can’t choose a favorite. It’s like asking me which kid is my favorite. This year I am celebrating the brand’s 15th Anniversary. The Until Your Dreams Come True Limited Edition Music Box represents the most beautiful elements of my career. It is the closest I have come to creating a collection representing my life’s success.
The collection consists of 15 shades that were put inside of a beautifully lacquered keepsake box. Each lacquer name tells a story about a different milestone for the brand, so the songs become very personal. They include Hey Jude, Love Will Leave a Mark, and We Are Family. (Below are specific descriptions.)
• Hey Jude – Jude is my husband’s name. Having him a part of my life, my business, my everyday has made it better, better, better, better. Hey Jude, I love you!
• We Are Family – At first there were three: my brother, my husband and me. Now, just let me state for the record, we have an extraordinary team. We are family.
• Love Will Leave A Mark – Love has definitely left its mark on my business. My brother Mark wears many hats and fixes everything to keep me up and running. Without him, his passion, perseverance and patience, the Deborah Lippmann brand wouldn’t be what it is today. I love you, Mark!
In my 15th Anniversary 6-Piece Set titled, “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” there is a shade/song title that speaks directly to my own personal style – Fashionably Late. Obviously it’s something I don’t recommend – I’m working on trying to be on time!
Do you plan on expanding into gel? Do you have any other extensions planned for the brand (nail art, etc.)?
Gels have a lot of potential for damaging your nail beds. Especially in the removal process, or more specifically the improper removal process. A lot of people get inpatient with the amount of time that it takes for the gel to dissolve, and they end up pulling the product off and that’s what damages the nail.
I created an amazing Gel Lab Base Coat and Top Coat that are quick-drying and give the high-gloss, soft, cushion-y finish you’d expect from a gel manicure with the same extended wear. Plus, you can use your desired nail shade without any limitations, and the application and removal processes are hassle and damage free.
I will definitely continue to extend my treatments as it was one of the founding principles of starting my brand. Stay tuned for some more developments in the spring!
Images: jazz singer: Mark Schafer; music box: Deborah Lippmann