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The Manicure Gets a Makeover

As demand for nail products and services still lags behind 2019 levels, nail art has proven to be a bright spot in the category.
Nail art and men's nail products have emerged as a trend in the nail care market. Getty Images
Nail art and men's nail products have emerged as a trend in the nail care market. Getty Images

People are starting to pay attention to their nails again.

After a difficult 18 months, which saw working from home and reduced social calendars dampen demand for nail products services, the broader nail category is “on the road to recovery,” said Matt Maxwell, strategic insight director at data analytics company Kantar Worldpanel.

But while sales of nail products and salon services are up compared with last year, they’re still lagging behind pre-pandemic levels. In the UK, the category is about 10 percent below 2019 levels, Kantar data for the three months ending September 19 shows. Meanwhile, salons are still tracking 20 percent below pre-pandemic levels.

In the US, e-commerce sales of nail polish doubled over the pandemic period. Now growth in the nail colour category has slowed significantly, although it is outstripping other makeup segments, up 12 percent year on year for the year ending August 2021, compared with 1 percent growth in the lip makeup category and a 3 percent decline in the face makeup category, according to data management company 1010data.

Despite a slow recovery — other beauty sectors, such as prestige and skin care, are up on their 2019 numbers — there are bright spots for the industry.

The end of pandemic restrictions and a reemergence of the social scene is seeing nail art at salons boom, with sales up 20 percent on 2019 levels for the quarter, according to Kantar. Meanwhile, a new wave of brands is hoping to capitalise on the trend by marketing at-home nail art as a means of everyday self-expression, regardless of gender identity — attracting attention from major retailers like Sephora and investment from beauty giants like Estée Lauder.

“It’s a category where anything goes and beauty narratives can be pushed,” said Clare Varga, head of beauty at trend forecasting agency WGSN. “For many Gen Z-ers, nails are the ‘gateway drug’ of beauty experimentation and self-expression.”

“For many Gen Z-ers, nails are the ‘gateway drug’ of beauty experimentation and self-expression.”

Nail Art Craze

The pandemic gave rise to the “anti-manicure,” which saw demand for products and at-home treatments focusing on the nail health boom, said Maxwell. Sales of nail care treatments are up 19 percent versus 2019 for the three months ending September 19 in the UK, Kantar data shows. But while bare nails aren’t going away, there’s a cohort of younger consumers that want theirs to look the exact opposite.

Social media, where nail art looks from celebrities like Billie Eilish and YouTube star Emma Chamberlain go viral, is helping fuel the trend. Just take one look at beauty TikTok, which is awash with teens showcasing rainbow-coloured talons or bejewelled claws that more closely resemble works of art than the classic french manicure loved by their mothers. For Gen Z, extravagance and creativity rule.

Hana Ben-Shabat, founder of research and advisory firm Gen Z Planet, says over the past year, major trends she’s seen on social media include smiley nails inspired by emojis, golden nails, mismatched nails and even “true artistic creations” from nail artists like Vivian Xue, who used nails to show off famous artworks from names like Caravaggio and Leonardo Da Vinci.

“There is no doubt this is a mega TikTok trend,” she said, noting how #NailArt has generated 15.7 billion views on the platform.

At Ulta Beauty, nail art and “pop-on” nails are currently top-performing product categories in the nail vertical. Nail art and DIY manicure sets from brands like Dashing Diva and Kiss are among customer favourites, according to a spokesperson. The retailer is anticipating a further boost in the category as the holiday season approaches.

Expanding Gender Boundaries

Brands that challenge gender norms within the manicure space have also been gaining traction, after lockdowns helped give more men a safe space to start experimenting with the nail trends endorsed by high profile celebrities including Lil Nas X and Harry Styles, said Umar ElBably, co-founder of male beauty line Faculty.

Going into the pandemic, Toronto-based ElBably and his co-founder, Fenton Jagdeo, were gearing up to launch Faculty with a line of concealers aimed at men. However, they soon discovered concealer was a very capital intensive product, thanks to high order minimums and the vast range of shades needed to be inclusive of a spectrum of skin colours. Meanwhile, Covid-19 had sent sales of makeup plummeting. As a result, the duo decided to switch gears, and look for an alternative launch product. In July 2020, Faculty launched with a men’s nail polish.

“As we were thinking about this, there was like this massive rise on social media — whether it be TikTok, or Instagram, it was just kind of everywhere — everyone around us in our community starting to use nail polish,” said ElBably.

The brand adopted a streetwear “drops” approach to product, launching polishes and nail art stickers. Without a marketing budget, Jagdeo and ElBably relied on social media and word of mouth to promote their new products. Each drop sold out faster than the last, and soon, the brand attracted the attention of a string of high profile investors.

In June, Estée Lauder Companies led a $3 million seed round. Actress Maisie Williams and rapper Iann Dior also joined the round, along with a handful of venture capital firms. (Estée Lauder declined to comment). The investment will help the brand expand into other makeup and skincare categories.

Flowerbed Nails campaign. Courtesy.

Faculty is joined by other brands like Crete, the brainchild of rapper Lil Yachty, which sells a curated selection of gender neutral “nail paint” and nail stickers and launched in May. Meanwhile, this June, Bondi, Australia-based friends Bridie Alman and Crimson Dunstan, launched gender-fluid nail art stickers under the brand Flowerbed Nails.

Alman and Dunstan saw the rise of nail art as an opportunity to build a brand specifically for the social media generation that wanted an easy-to-apply and relatively cheap nail art solution — that includes women, men and gender non-conforming people.

“For someone who’s wanting to just play with gender identity or self expression, swiping on blue eyeshadow might feel like a big step,” said Dunstan. Putting a chilly or a smiley sticker on your nails, however, can feel more approachable. “We wanted to be there for the first steps of people just like trying something new and having fun.”

The duo declined to share revenue figures but noted that two months into launch, the brand was already profitable. Meanwhile, beauty giant Sephora has already come knocking. While Alman and Dunstan are keen to keep the brand direct-to-consumer for now, they are entering a one-off tie up with the retailer for a special collaboration over the Holiday season.

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Enjoy 25% BoF Professional membership until December 20