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What’s the best nail polish brand? Interview with celebrity manicurist, Deborah Lippmann!

Nov 23, 2016

Deborah Lippmann has been a trailblazer in the nail industry for over 15 years. Her polish lasts a long time and I love the names (each polish is named after a song because Deborah is a singer) & colors. It’s a family-run business, where Deborah works alongside her brother and husband. I’ve had the honor of working with this industry legend, and am thrilled to interview her for our designer interview series. We curated a shoppable selection of Deborah Lippmann’s polishes for you at the end of this post so you can try them out for yourself!

Where did you grow up, and how did you decide to move to New York?

I grew up in Arizona. After graduating college with a degree in music, I started my career as a Jazz singer. This is a passion of mine that is still part of my life today. I quickly realized that I needed to do something during the day to pay the bills, so I pursued my second love – the beauty industry – and went to cosmetology school. While there, I decided to specialize in nails, which allowed me to sit during the day and stand at night in heels while I was singing. One day I decided I could either be a big fish in a little pond, or go for it in NYC. Ironically when I came to NYC to audition for Broadway, my manicure career took off.  This hasn’t stopped me from enjoying my first love. Creating music is a part of me and I’ve had some truly magical moments along the way. I couldn’t be prouder of the three albums I’ve made to date – Nightingale, Vinyl, and Deck The Halls. One of my first years in New York, Martha Stewart asked me to produce her first television Christmas Special. I’ve also sung back up for Leann Rimes at the Rockefellar Center Christmas Tree Lighting. With my brand, I’ve managed to incorporate this other important aspect of my life by naming all of my polishes after song titles.

How did you pick your bottle design, brush bristles & font?

When I first decided to launch a brand, I told my brother who thought I was out of my mind. The next day, he emailed me a whole series of fonts for my new logo. He had stayed up all night figuring out designs. When it came to the bottle, I wanted something that would project elegance, would not tip over and was functional. I created a sleek shape with a square grip at the base so you could hold it easily between your fingers while applying polish. Cher actually helped me pick my final bottle. We sat for hours on her bed with all my packaging, going over the choices. Even today, she still introduces me to friends and it’s an out of body experience—she’s like, ‘This is my friend Deb Lippmann, I picked her bottle.’ She has played such a big part of my brand because I love my bottle.

My iconic polishes offer my traditional brush, which is wonderful at applying thin coats. My new Gel Lab Pro bristles are easier to use because of the advanced contour brush. The brush has a rounded tip that follows the nail shape and 320 bristles spread evenly so the polish goes on effortlessly with a smooth finish every time.

Describe the process of choosing a nail polish color & name. How do you decide what the next season’s collection will be?

When I was getting ready to launch my brand, I considered the products that I personally buy in order to figure out how to name the shades. As a consumer, I’m extremely visual but I also found that the name of a shade could make or break whether I bought a product or not. If the name didn’t match my perception of the shade, I would get confused and not buy it. I decided to name my shades after song titles because I’m a jazz singer and passionate about music. I felt strongly that the names should evoke a feeling rather than a specific shade because we all see color differently.

Brainstorming is a lot of fun at our office. Sometimes we’ll pop open a bottle of wine, and get four or five people around computers looking on iTunes. We’ll also review customer suggestions. So many people email us song titles for potential colors. While we do have an ongoing list of songs, the color always comes before the name. I also really take time to think about what is missing from the marketplace, and what trends I am seeing on the red carpet and on the runway that I think my customers will love and want to wear.

I get my color inspiration from everything and it’s always changing. It goes along with the trends, what I see around me, music that I am listening to, the people I am with, etc. It comes from working on the runway with fashion designers…standing with Narciso Rodriguez and creating the colors for his collection…or on a photo shoot and working on the Hudson River, looking at the greenery and at the clouds in the sky…or in an old industrial building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard…No matter what the inspiration, it is always very personal and that is the most important thing for me.

What does NYFW look like for you?

New York Fashion Week is always a busy time for me, but I try and fit in as much as I can. Don’t be fooled by the name—it’s more like Fashion Three Weeks between all of the preparation, meeting and tests.

I love spending time with the creative geniuses behind these collections and the process of dreaming up looks to complement the gorgeous clothing they conceptualize. I do a lot of tests for shows, but ultimately, we pick the final selection the day of. I try and treat my hardworking team to a fun lunch to celebrate our success. Each fashion week is different depending on the shows and designers I’m working with, but it’s always a joy being able to collaborate with these talented men and women.

 Deborah giving a manicure backstage at NYFW
Deborah giving a manicure backstage at NYFW

What does the collaboration process look like when choosing the nails with a designer for their runway show? How far in advance do you begin working on this? 

Working with a designer starts with a flurry of emails that begin weeks in advance of the show. It differs with every designer, wherein often I receive inspiration boards from them, or sometimes I see clothing weeks in advance. On the flip-side, sometimes I don’t see anything until the hair and makeup test. The hair/makeup/nail tests are usually a few days in advance of the show and are my favorite moments. It is a collaborative process between the designer, stylist, hair stylist, makeup artist and myself. It is one of the most magical and inspiring moments when we all get together and talk through the vision for the clothing, his/her customer and the vision of who this woman is.

What is your favorite Deborah Lippmann nail polish and why?

My favorites are always changing! I’m usually a big fan of whatever color I’m wearing and the newest shade I’m working on.

What does it take to get someone red carpet ready? How early is this scheduled?

Planning the look for an award show is a very collaborative effort. I work with the stylist, the hair and makeup teams, and of course the celebrity herself. We want to make sure everything works together and produces a moment on the red carpet. We don’t settle on a color until the day of the show when we see the dress, choose the jewelry and collaborate as a glam team on what is going to be the focus.

What is your travel schedule like throughout the year?

I spend about 1/3 of the year traveling. Whether it’s for HSN, to Europe for my retailers, Miraval in Arizona or Laguna where I have my own deborah lippmann nail salons. I travel to Los Angeles for editorial shoots or red carpet season. It’s always different depending on what I’m booked for, but that’s what keeps it so interesting and fun!

How did you make a nail polish formula that will last & is healthy for the nails?

I’m part of this group called ICAMD—Independent Cosmetic Manufacturers and Distributors. It’s full of people who are in the cosmetic industry and entrepreneurs who have their own brands, and regulatory guys. I’m constantly learning from them, and it’s a great group for small cosmetic brands to be a part of. They help me keep ahead of the curve and know what is potentially harmful. Ingredients are considered harmful now that weren’t considered harmful 20 years ago. I work with chemists to improve the wear, gloss and dry time. Those are the things that are the most important: shine and dry time. We’re continuing to try to remove harmful ingredients. If I’m taking formaldehyde and camphor out, what are we going to put in? Well, biotin and green tea for one.

Nail art is still on everyone’s mind, but it will come into play a bit differently with minimalistic properties. Negative space and color blocking will be popular trends for those wanting to experiment with nail art while maintaining a simpler, more low-key look. Consumers will also take more of an interest in metallic to create a statement look. This was seen on the runway at NYFW and will keep gaining momentum. I think people will also continue to take a greater interest in natural ingredients and using products that deliver healthy benefits for hands and nails. Our brand continues to strive to create lacquers and treatments that not only work to strengthen and protect nails, but also provide the long lasting wear and shine we all crave.

Describe what it’s like doing manicures for editorial

Editorial shoots can be slotted into my schedule months in advance. From the Vanity Fair Hollywood covers that I have been doing for almost two decades, to a few weeks or even days before. Like my other creative projects, it’s often a conversation with the Creative Director, the photographer, the stylist, and hair/makeup teams to decide what the focus of the shoot is going to be and how to best bring to life the overall vision. As hair/makeup is getting done, I tend to my client. When they go off to shoot there can be a bit of waiting around, until the next look or touch ups are needed. From start to finish, these shoots usually last about eight hours.

How have you chosen which celebrities to partner with for your nail polish colors?

The clients that I work with can often be a huge inspiration for me. But I have to say that all of the collaborations that I have done have been completely organic. These A-list clients that I work with have access to everything, and when I hear them say, “I wish I could find a color that had this, that or the other,” then I look around and say, let’s try to make that. For instance, I met Sarah Jessica Parker in the days of SATC, and she always wore Prelude to a Kiss. She thought it was the best sheer pink ever. It used to be in Carrie’s bathroom in Sex and the City! After a few years, she said to me, “My life has changed, I have kids, I wish you had a color that was a little more forgiving, more beige.” So we created a color together called Sarah Smile, which came out of her talking about her personal needs. If she had those needs, then so do a lot of other people…

 Deborah giving a manicure to Sarah Jessica Parker
Deborah giving a manicure to Sarah Jessica Parker

Why is it important to only put healthy polish on your nails?

It’s important to use nail products that benefit your nails. Avoid using nail lacquers that contain a significant amount of toxins. All of my lacquers and base/top coats are 7-free meaning they contain no Toluene, Formaldehyde, Formaldehyde Resin, Camphor, Parabens, Xylene or DBP. They do contain nutrient and vitamin blends for continued nail health, including biotin and green tea, along with Aucoumea Klaineana extract (a natural resin from West African trees), to strengthen, hydrate, stimulate nail growth and prevent ridge formation.

Tell me about when you painted your nails sometimes 3-4 times a day. (In middle school, I would paint my nails each night to match my outfit for the next day. My favorite was when I was wearing camouflage pants, and so I created camo nail art using different polish colors for the following day)

It still happens today! Every time I’m in the office, I find myself polishing my nails two to three times a day. It’s hard to resist when you’re surrounded by bottles and bottles of polish.

What has your global expansion plan been, and how has it changed over the years?

When we first launched, I envisioned the brand to only be a luxury retail brand. Over the years, there was such demand from high-end salons and spas—we couldn’t pass up these incredible, unforeseen opportunities.

What does a week look like for you?

What I love about my job is that every day is different. It really depends on the time of year…January to February/March is Red Carpet season, so I’m usually either helping my clients prep for the Awards Show or on a plane flying back and forth between NYC/LA. For a few weeks in February and September, you can catch me backstage at NYFW or at hair/makeup/nail tests. Otherwise, I am usually on photo shoots for editorial and advertising campaigns throughout the year. Working is also really important to me and that’s something I enjoy doing with my husband, who is also my business partner. And of course, I try to spend time in the office whenever I can, so that I can develop new products and shades.

What was your experience like working at Elizabeth Arden in LA?

I moved to L.A. at one point to pursue singing, and I worked as a manicurist at Elizabeth Arden on Rodeo drive. Audrey Hepburn, Betty White, Raquel Welch—they all came to that salon. This was back in the early ‘80s. It was very old school. Every stylist was called Mr. Stanley, Mr. George or Miss Whoever. I’d walk in every day and think, ‘I can’t believe I work here. This is iconic. I can’t believe they chose me.’ At the same time it was really tough. We used to carry little carts to each client, and one of the other manicurists was late, so I was sent to do her client. She came in and literally knocked me over with her cart to get to the client, because we all worked on commission. That’s really what they mean when they say ‘If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.’

What is it like working with celebrities?

It’s such an honor to be able to work with the talented group of celebrities I’ve had a chance to meet and work with over the years. I have been blessed in my work as a manicurist to hold hands with at least 11 women (and one man!) on the day they won their Oscar, Golden Globe, Grammy, Emmy and so on. The day they were nominated for the biggest award in their industry. I consider award shows to be like their wedding day. They are so careful about who is in the room with them and you become a most trusted friend. I don’t take that lightly and I am completely honored to share in a part of that experience.

When & how did you decide to start your company?

While working at Frederic Fekkai at Bergdorf Goodman, I noticed a hole in the marketplace. As a luxury shopper, you couldn’t find everything you wanted for nail care from one brand. Chanel, Dior, YSL had nail shades, but not everything to address your nail needs – from a base coat and top coat, to cuticle oil and color. It simply didn’t exist in the luxury sector. The affluent women who were coming into the salon understood their hair and skin needs & wants. However, when it came to their hands, they didn’t know about nail care – what ingredients to stay away from, what the steps to a proper manicure were, and more. There was a need and hunger for education. People have so many questions about their nails and it was exciting for me to educate women.

I remember standing in C.O. Bigelow with one of my close girlfriends looking at polishes and daydreaming about what I would do differently if I had my own line of luxury lacquers and treatments. It was then, I decided to stop just talking about starting my own company, but actually take the leap and do it. I officially launched the brand in 1999 at Henri Bendel and Fred Segal and haven’t looked back since!

I don’t know where I would be without all of the people who have mentored me and been so generous with their time over the years. I feel very lucky in this regard. Laura Mercier and Bobbi Brown were two women I met while working at Frederic Fekkai who inspired me to launch my brand when I was first starting out. Martha Stewart approaches business is a way that I have always deeply admired and has personally always been a most helpful resource.

Any advice for someone interested in starting their own company?

I would say that if you have the yearning at your core and you want to try it, you have to go ahead. Go with your gut, and get as many mentors as you can. There’s not one road to success. Estée Lauder didn’t get to where she was the same way as Bobbi Brown. I’m not getting there the same way as anyone else before me. Be true to yourself and be willing to listen. Looking back on when I started, I wish I could’ve tape-recorded people who mentored me in the beginning. I’m pretty sure they told me how hard it would be, and I didn’t believe it. It’s not an easy road, but it’s very fulfilling. There are few times when I’m like, “Wow, look what at what we’ve done.” It’s more like, what’s happening next?

Delia Folk

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