Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
It's a very safe sort of indecision, choosing a polish, with only the tiniest shift between each different option. To stare at a neatly organized wall of lacquer is to stare at all the possibilities of expression, all the subtle different ways you could make your hands look today, all the things that pigment can do.
These are the sorts of thoughts you can get lost in at the Essie flagship salon, a garden-level glossy white temple to color and grooming. It’s just over three years old and a collaboration with Samuel Shriqui, the Upper East side salon that houses it and also offers hair services, waxing, facials.
This flagship is the perfect expression of Essie’s brand: sleek and elevated and very feminine, something that both your elegant grandmother and your most stylish friend would appreciate. Across from the row of manicure tables, the big white lucite wall holds long rows of every Essie color on offer. The top row runs white to nude to beige to soft pinks; the next row is all bright to deep pinks, then bright to deep reds. Darker hues and the requisite outliers like greens and blues are farther below our line of sight. Chairs and couches are pink. Ice water with lemon is offered by staffers clad in all-black. There's a garden out back. It’s available for bachelorette parties.
The rise of upscale nail salons over the past decade has firmly established Essie as the go-to salon brand for higher-end and fashion-minded clientele, both uptown and downtown. By placing aesthetics and service over convenience and thrift, these salons are valuing aspirational branding more and more — both their own and that of the polishes they stock. Thanks to its iconic founder, its product design, and its signature range of colors (a wide and generous selection, but nothing too crazy), Essie has commanded this niche market, even as its primary competitor, OPI, commands a larger overall market share.
In upscale salons, particularly in cities, Essie is the brand that customers expect, and want, to see.
In 2013, the NPD group — a market research company — compiled a Nail Care and Polish Consumer Report. In the "Applied at Home" category, Sally Hansen came in first and OPI came in second; in the "Applied at a Salon" category, OPI came in first and Essie came in third. (Second was China Glaze, a California-based company known for bright neon colors.) Across the country, OPI still has the lion’s share of nails; but in upscale salons, particularly in cities, Essie is the brand that customers expect, and want, to see.
This rise of the modern, dedicated, in-and-out nail salon coincided with the rise the ‘90s working woman: busy but never disheveled. In the '80s, it was about hair — remember the hair in 9 to 5? — in the '90s, the attention shifted handwards, and towards minimalism. I’m not going to make my hair enormous, the modern '90s woman said to herself in the mirror as she tucked her black stockinged feet into practical walking sneakers in preparation for her commute, but one small beauty practice I can indulge in is getting a manicure.
There’s even a (definitely racist) Seinfeld episode in which Elaine gets into a fight with the women at her nail salon who make fun of her in Korean. That bit is not the important bit. The important bit is the fact that she is late, rushing in because she didn’t have change for the bus, in a red skirt suit with shoulder pads (and still-big hair, but it’s Elaine, okay), and she rushes out of the salon to watch Jerry play baseball, and arrives at the baseball field still blowing on her just-painted nails. She has places to go! People to see and comedians to talk to! But she still makes time for a quick and likely cheap manicure. Elaine is the '90s woman — and her nails are painted.
This was also when the manicure became an opportunity for the newly necessary need to "shut out the world and pamper yourself," says Suzanne E. Shapiro, author of Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure. In the early aughts and over the past ten years, fancier salons have emerged as their own market, as veritable spas. Nail polishes have always sold a fantasy with color names hinting at exotic locales (Essie takes us to St. Lucia, St. Tropez) and sexcapades (After Sex, Berry Naughty, Size Matters). Now, the sight of their bottles sells a fantasy too: Give us your money and your time and we’ll take you away from reality for a while. You’ll emerge with beautiful nails and a new lease on life. It’s a nice little agreement.
In the early aughts and over the past ten years, fancier salons have emerged as their own market, as veritable spas.
At budget salons — those that have recently come under scrutiny for exploiting workers — it’s common practice to offer every color under the sun. Here, you’re likely to see OPI and Essie’s entire catalog, tightly packed onto lucite shelves, underlined by long strips of paper marked with previous clients’ shades of indecision. These salons want to give you every possible option because they want as many asses as possible in their rolly chairs and massage thrones; they deal in volume. But their upscale counterparts, which have emerged over the past decade, are more interested in style and service. They look more like a mashup between a Soho boutique and a Chelsea gallery than a traditional strip mall salon. They offer complimentary champagne and online reservations, high ceilings and cooing receptionists. Often, OPI is nowhere to be found. There’s Essie, and then there’s Chanel and NARS, and maybe some gel options, or toxin-free bottles for the health-conscious set.
When opening tenoverten, a greige-walled, minimalist, slightly scandinavian Manhattan salon with locations in TriBeCa, Midtown, and Soho, former fashion boutique owner Nadine Abramcyk wanted to stock one mainstream salon brand alongside designer polishes. She went, very confidently, with Essie, partially because of the brand loyalty she already knew existed in her clientele. "People have such an affinity for the colors that Essie uses — if we didn’t have it, they would have a negative reaction," Levy explains. "People are attached to OPI colors, but they can usually find a replacement [with] Essie." There’s a certain attachment that a certain type of manicure client has to Essie — not just its colors, but its overall image. In fact, seeing lines of white-capped Essie bottles arranged on the walls of these salons, the businesses’ aesthetics seems partially driven by that of the brand.
Bottle design plays a huge factor in this. Talk to any professional Essie fan, and they will gush about design. "The OPI bottle is a little dated looking to me" says Levy, noting the signature rounded — not square, like Essie’s — cap. At tenoverten, "we are very aesthetically driven, and we didn’t really want that on the shelf." More and more, salons are putting a lot of thought and capital into their design — bottles included.
It’s also an issue of functionality. The Essie bottle’s shape makes the manicurist’s job easier; Levy and other manicurists have told me that the square shape and small cap are more comfortable to hold, and that the narrow brush makes application easier and more flexible. "I can do tons of artwork with the [Essie] brush," says Julie Kandalec, Creative Director of Paintbox, a "high-design nail studio" in SoHo. "It’s not too small, so you can fan it out and get full coverage, or flip it and do a small stripe. Other brushes are really wide and designed for full coverage," so you need a separate tool if you’re looking for more intricate nail art. At the end of the day, Kandalec concedes, "I’m a bottle snob." We like things that are pretty. Pretty nails, pretty bottles, pretty salons.
Kandalec concedes, "I’m a bottle snob." We like things that are pretty. Pretty nails, pretty bottles, pretty salons.
The small details of bottle design can be an enormous thing: Essie’s cap is a bright, soft, glossy white, airy in the way that these salons hope to look on a macro level. It pops against a wall when placed on a shelf. The bottles line up neatly. For professional manicurists who need to either travel with or display a large number of polishes, this last detail is huge. The OPI bottle, on the other hand, is bulbous and irregular, not as comfortable in the hand, its black cap almost rough. It's not nearly as tidy.
These aesthetic differences — bright and airy versus dark and deep-hued — extend to all corners of these brands. Take their websites: OPI’s is full of serious-looking models and 50 Shades of Grey collection promotions, all rich deep hues and black backgrounds, reminiscent of the '90s, or someone trying to evoke an exotic foreign country. Essie’s is minimalist with a white background, lots of negative space, all lower case, with pull quotes from Essie Weingarten herself.
Weingarten started the company in 1981, after working in fashion for years. She saw a lack of great nail polish colors, so she found a chemist and started making her own. Her three original shades were Bordeaux, a deep winey red; Blanc, a chalky white; and Baby's Breath, a softer white for the french-mani set. From the beginning, she was the face of the brand, selling her wares salon door-to-salon-door, and developing — and naming — all the colors herself. To this day, at 66 and after a L’Oreal buyout, Essie still remains the creative force — and the face — of the company. She’s classy and vibrant, world-traveled, refined but not boring. She is an excellent form of capital for her brand.
Click on Essie.com’s "latest collections" tab, and you’ll find quick, cheeky quotes about each recently launched color signed "Essie," plus a styled photo of the bottle. Check out the 2015 bridal collection: "after you toss the bouquet…I suggest you have Hubby For Dessert! —Essie" is paired with a photo of the bottle in question — a soft, dusty, purplish nude — with a white silk tie waving from its neck.
Color and character have always been two of Essie’s core values. There are nearly 60 shades on the white-nude-beige-light pink spectrum within the brand’s catalog. Nearly 40 on the red spectrum. Nearly the same for pinks. These classic shades are Essie’s bread and butter. (According to Kristina Shaho, the manager of the Essie flagship, the salon’s three most popular colors are High Maintenance, a soft light pink; Sugar Daddy, a shimmery light pink; and Mademoiselle, a "classy, grown-up pink.") And they’re just what regular salon clientele want.
"Essie fits very well with the clientele that’s the regular at the nail salon," explains Karen Grant, a Global Beauty Industry Analyst at NPD group. Because while younger buyers (think teens and early twenties) are looking to experiment, often at home, and looking for bright colors and crazy shimmer to DIY their nails with, women in their thirties and older looking at a manicure less as a form of expression and more as a grooming ritual. Hence the classic colors, the upscale salons, the willingness to spend $30 on a manicure.
Essie has sold these women her own image, the image of a woman who sits down on the Upper East Side every week for a the same red polish. "She calls it the Essie club," says Josephine Allen, head manicurist at Essie’s flagship, of the women who have weekly standing appointments on the Upper East Side. At salons downtown, younger women are joining the club, too — with shades more colorful and designs a little more creative, but the same emphasis on hands that look tidy and chic.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Essie the person has been her unfailing energy, her ability to give her brand lasting power. "When you find that the [brand’s] creator is still around," Grant explains, "they can help keep the brand’s original essence intact. The challenge can become that new young energy comes into the marketplace for different sources, so it’s about staying original and being innovative at the same time… Essie has to stay current." And she has, by capturing the affection of these higher end salons that continue to attract younger clientele and continue to innovate in the salon space. She has introduced gels in the past two years, a response to the boom in gel manicures. She has dabbled in metallics and shimmer. She has hired Rebecca Minkoff as Global Color Designer. She has done all the right things, it seems, to keep her customers happy and colorfully chic and well polished. And as more women of all ages rethink the ethics of their $10 manicures, Essie’s soft pink empire will only grow stronger.