Discover The Nail Industry’s Rapid Expansion

Tisa Durham, a West Side Chicago girl in the early 1990s, remembers going to a little Black-owned jewelry shop with her aunt. Durham’s aunt—a nail trendsetter—bought 24-karat solid gold nail plates and had them applied at her nail salon. A trend-setter.

By 14, Durham was wearing extra-long acrylics with spirals, gems, and any other embellishment she could find and decorating nails for her friends and family. Durham warmly remembers self-expression via art.

Durham now operates Glitter Manicure Salon in the Chicago suburbs and Glitter Nail Academy, a licensed Continuing Education training school. She draws inspiration from her aunt and the other ladies she watched at the local nail salon.

Read on to learn how we got here and how much the nail industry has changed in 50 years. So, go with Teeanime for all your doubts!

How it started

Understanding the past helps us comprehend the present.

“Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure” by Suzanne Shapiro dates nail ornamentation to the 18th century. Henna-dyed or crushed flower-colored nails were prestige symbols in ancient Egyptian and Asian societies. Long nails were linked with Chinese nobles, who wore stiletto-shaped nail guards in pairs, ornamented with costly metals and stones, for good luck and status.

Shapiro calls these “exotic” activities “a fashionable way for women to invite international culture and sensuality into their lives.”

Dr. Sitts, a 19th-century foot doctor, cleaned and pushed back King Louis Philippe of France’s hangnail with his custom-made instruments, creating the modern manicure. In the 1890s, Dr. Sitts’ niece took over the practice and taught the first major manicurists.

According to Shapiro, the first American nail salon—then termed a manicure parlor—opened in 1878 in New York City, ushering in a more mainstream view of manicuring in the early 1900s.

Dr. Fred Slack, a dentist, devised the acrylic nail in 1957 after cutting his nail in his lab, according to NAILS magazine. He invented the first nail form by using aluminum foil to connect nails with dental acrylic.

Other recent achievements:

  • The French manicure was invented in the late 1970s by Jeff Pink, founder and president of Orly, who devised the style to save time repainting nails numerous times each day on movie and television sets.
  • The debuts of two important nail brands: CND, founded by Dr. Stuart Nordstrom in 1979, and OPI, developed by George Schaeffer in 1981.
  • And technological improvements such as gel polish and CND’s Shellac, which debuted in 2010.

Vietnamese influence  

Vietnamese generations of nail artists have also transformed the American nail industry. In Adele Pham’s documentary “NailedIt: Vietnamese & the Nail Industry,” 50% of nail salons in the US are owned by Vietnamese immigrants, and 79% of nail salon workers are Vietnamese.

Kimberly Pham of NAILS magazine said in 2015 that Tippi Hedren’s 1975 meeting with 20 Vietnamese ladies led to this domination.

Hedren is a humanitarian who helped refugees during the Vietnam War. Her best famous part was in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film “The Birds.” She transported a group of refugees from Camp Pendleton in San Diego to Weimar Hope Village, a refugee camp at an abandoned tuberculosis sanitarium outside Sacramento, CA, with Food for the Hungry. Hedren taught sewing and typing, but not everyone was interested. Manicuring became possible then.

Hedren’s personal manicurist, Dusty Coots, flew in from Los Angeles weekly to teach the women at the refugee camp proper nail procedures, and the basics of manicuring. After these lessons with Coots, the women were taken to Citrus Beauty School in Sacramento, CA, where Hedren tried convincing the school to allow the women to enter a nails-only program, something that was uncommon at the time. Initially the school was resistant, but finally relented.

Guided by Black women 

Black culture—particularly Black women—influenced nail art’s development. They pioneered Kylie Jenner’s elaborate, inventive, and show-stopping manicure styles, yet they’re not recognized. Cultural appropriation often occurs.

Middle-class white women had short pink or nude nails in the 1960s and 1970s, whereas Black women experimented with color, length, and decoration. In 1966, Donyale Luna, the first Black supermodel, wore acrylics on the cover of Twen magazine. In the 1970s, disco superstars Donna Summer and Diana Ross wore long acrylics in vivid red and reflective metallics.

Then came Flo-Jo—Florence Griffith-Joyner, track star and Olympic medalist (and 1993 NAILS magazine cover star)—whose acrylic nails were almost as famous as her record-breaking speed. Griffith-Joyner, a nail tech, wore a special red, white, blue, and gold set during the 1988 games, and Lynchburg College Assistant Professor of Sport Management Lindsay Pieper observed that reporters focused on her fingertips, indicating normalized whiteness.

“The continual reporting of Flo-nails Jo’s presents an interesting cultural moment where race and gender intersect,” she adds. Griffith-Joyner maintained her features to express Blackness while presenting conventional femininity. Nails show race and gender as well as personal style. French manicures and pastel colors represent white, middle-class, heteronormative attractiveness, regardless of intent. Long, sculptured, airbrushed nails are signs of Blackness, sexual deviance, and oppressed femininity. Flo-fingernails Jo’s were intriguing and repulsive, discreetly underlining race. The runner was weird, deviant, and strange because she liked long, colorful nails.

In the 1990s, Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim had nails like Flo-Jo. They wore acrylics with hand-painted motifs, piercings, glitter, and more, inspiring many viral social media looks today.

How it’s going 

As the industry has evolved, it’s taken nail professionals from backstage to a starring role.

Jan Arnold, co-founder and Style Director of CND, remembers the same thing when she started in the business in the 1980s. Arnold, whose father Dr. Stuart Nordstrom started the company she now runs, is often credited with helping to elevate the perception of nails.

In 1996, after looking at runway shows and magazines and realizing the models’ nails were bare, Arnold decided it was CND’s mission to make nails what she calls “a true fashion accessory.”

Other early notable collaborations for CND include Betsey Johnson—”her dresses were girly and frilly,” Arnold says, “and when we added a pointy red nail the story then became naughty and nice”—and even with Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton.

“Marc was very into nails,” Arnold says. “He always used to say, ‘When a woman is holding a handbag on her arm and it’s curled up, what’s noticeable? Her nails.’”

Seeing nail artists rubbing elbows with Jacobs or Rowley, contributing to the exciting and beautiful fashion moments in history, made it more acceptable for everyday women to wear beautiful nails. And more desirable.

In the spotlight 

Celebrities and fashion runways influence nail perception. Jenny Bui, owner of two NYC nail salons and the Jenny Secret Collection, recognizes celebrity’s power. Her Instagram tagline—”Cardi B’s Nail Tech”—is instantly desirable.

Celebrity and social media can boost nail professionals. They can share their art with the world on various platforms, elevating the debate.

Many nail technicians remember when a full set cost $25. Convenience and speed superseded artistry. The pendulum has reversed.

COVID’s impact 

The pandemic closed salons and shops, forcing nail technicians to adapt swiftly to stay afloat and engaged with clients. Nail professionals embraced social media and education to make the most of the shutdown.

The shutdown showed that people value nail services—perhaps more than professionals thought.

The pandemic also educated the public that salon visits cannot be recreated at home. Pampered self-care is more crucial than ever.

After the pandemic, nail specialists are more valued than ever.

Today’s possibilities 

Outsiders or newcomers may not realize how complex the nail industry is. As the industry evolves, nail experts can work in many different roles.

Sreynin Peng, a star nail artist with over 20 years of expertise, says her “wonderful” beauty school teacher reminded her that before entering the field, she had to pick where she belonged. Peng, who has worked as a nail tech, schoolteacher, and R&D consultant, advises finding your niche, “mastering it,” and following technology to strengthen your route.

While technology has revolutionised the nail industry and will continue to push its boundaries—recent breakthroughs have given CND’s PLEXIGEL 3+ week system and OPI’s Velvet Vision gel effect—nail professionals’ care and attention to clients hasn’t.