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Self Portrait with Monkeys by Frida Kahlo.
Photo: Roberto Serra - Iguana Press/Getty Images

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Searching for Frida Kahlo at CVS

Republic Nail’s lipsticks and polishes feature the iconic Mexican artist’s work — and in the US, they’re only available at the drugstore chain.

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The discovery of Frida Kahlo in the bins at the front of CVS seemed like an accident. How did nail polish and lipsticks intricately illustrated with the artist’s portrait and motifs come to mingle with mini tweezers and travel-sized Purell? Given America’s well-documented Fridamania, this under-the-radar placement seemed like a mystical accident.

“You would think that something so beautiful would get more attention,” says Karen Monterichard of Makeup and Beauty Blog. She first spotted the Republic Nail collection on Instagram, but was surprised to find it wasn’t available to purchase online — or even at every CVS, the sole distributor of this Mexico-based makeup line. However, after visiting multiple CVS stores, the adrenaline of the hunt kicked in. “I kind of liked that not a lot of people knew about it,” says Monterichard, who ultimately netted four of the nail polishes and five lipsticks.

Frida Kahlo nail polish and lipstick.
Photo: Republic Nail

There are 12 packaging designs in total. One depicts Kahlo as a deer pierced with arrows, based on her painting The Wounded Deer (1946) — a metaphor for the chronic pain Kahlo suffered throughout her adult life. Another shows a green parrot like the ones Kahlo kept as pets at her famous home, La Casa Azul. In 1941, Kahlo painted a self-portrait titled Me and My Parrots surrounded by these feathered friends. They perch with confidence, as Kahlo balanced her complex personal relationships — most famously with her husband, Diego Rivera. (If you’re interested in more direct parallels between the packaging and Kahlo’s art, the Makeup Museum has a great breakdown.) The bottle I own depicts Kahlo as La Catrina, the bourgeois skeleton embraced on Mexico’s Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

Kahlo’s visage isn’t hard to find replicated in the United States, although her actual art is scarce. A 1980s UNESCO decree prohibits exporting her work from Mexico for sale, although it may travel for temporary display. Even before I was gifted a bottle of scarlet Frida Kahlo polish, my own Kahlo-ection included a refrigerator magnet, a Forever 21 tank top, and a set of nail decals. It’s safe to assume that not all of these images are sanctioned (Forever 21 doesn’t have the best track record with intellectual property), but the intricacy of Republic Nail’s illustrations seemed particularly brazen if they were indeed created without the estate’s blessing. The company is small enough to have under 10,000 followers on Instagram, and just 376 followers for its US division. It didn’t seem capable of absorbing the cost of a lawsuit — if one could track them down. I decided to try.

The first phone number on Republic Nail USA’s website is disconnected. The second reaches Langston Baptist Church in Conway, South Carolina. It’s only given out to church members who are traveling or in the hospital, so I don’t recommend calling it — after some confusion, I was wished a “blessed day” by a lovely woman whose name I don’t recall. A general inquiry through Republic Nail’s website went unanswered. But yet after taking to Facebook message, I was promptly put in touch with Republic Nail USA COO Rocio Jimenez.

“She was ahead of her time,” Jimenez says. Kahlo’s life seemed to state “I am who I am and I’m strong enough, I’m good enough, I’m beautiful enough.As Jimenez puts it, “Deep inside, we all want to be that secure.” Rather than a one-off collection, the Frida Kahlo beauty line is affiliated with the Frida Kahlo Foundation for Culture and the Arts, which already operates a Frida Kahlo-themed restaurant in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and is reportedly opening a museum there this year. The foundation, run by businessman Alejandro Tamayo and political activist Germán Trejo, won a national award for corporate social responsibility. It was a relief to learn that the alluring makeup line is actually part of a foundation to promote Frida Kahlo’s legacy. But so-called Fridamania doesn’t sit well with everybody.

“Kahlo's move into the cult of personality is a familiar pattern in which women stop being the artist and become the subject of art, transformed from a powerful creative force to an ideal of quietly suffering femininity,” writes Stephanie Mencimer in The Washington Monthly. At this point, it’s impossible to separate Frida Kahlo, the artist, from Frida Kahlo, the feminist, bisexual, disabled, communist-leaning icon. However, the admirers I talked to don’t see her as a victim — and her art doesn’t seem to be suffering.

“I’m mostly drawn to her artwork… I admire women who live their truth,” says Monterichard. She hasn’t used the lipsticks she purchased because she can’t bear to open them up, but she says the light blue shade of polish is incredible with a base and top coat. Reviewers on the CVS website write that the quality is on par with OPI products — Monterichard agrees. Teresa Zuniga Odom, who blogs at Southern Señora, made multiple trips to Alabama CVS stores to hunt the products down. “I’m half Mexican; [Kahlo’s] always been in the background because of that,” says Odom. The Republic Nail collection is displayed prominently in her bathroom. Odom wore one of the dark lipsticks for Birmingham’s annual Day of the Dead Festival, which she says has grown in popularity over the years. Always, there are Frida Kahlos marching in the procession and a long line for La Catrina face paint.

Frida Kahlo nail polish in black.
Photo: Republic Nail

Republic Nail’s Frida Kahlo line is currently stocked in 4,000 of CVS’s 9,000-plus US stores. Of the 12 different designs, only five are currently carried in America, confined to the store’s “Beauty on the Go” section. “We’re always in search of premium lines, and niche products that can be difficult — or impossible — for our shoppers to find until they shop our aisles,” Alex Perez-Tenessa, vice president of merchandising for beauty and personal care at CVS, says. “The Frida Kahlo nail polish and lipstick collections are unique with beautiful packaging that inspires and lends an aspect of fun to the beauty shopping experience.”

According to Jimenez, they are that section’s second-most popular seller. “I’m fighting to have a better display,” she says. Republic Nail is also hoping to get picked up by Target and Walgreens. Both the polishes and lipsticks retail for $7.99 each. Unlike brands like Essie and Urban Decay, the colors aren’t named — making the packaging all the more important for distinguishing the hues.

Fifty years after Frida Kahlo’s death, Japanese photographer Ishiuchi Miyako was allowed to access her closet. Miyako’s portraits of the artist’s artifacts include two bottles of dried Revlon nail polish. (Patti Smith also made a pilgrimage to photograph Kahlo’s things at La Casa Azul.) “The more pain she felt, and the more incapacitated she became, the more elaborate her outfits were,” explains the Guardian. And yet, Mencimer does have a point. What business does this force of nature, who fought the patriarchy and her own physical limitations, have being relegated to a lipstick tube?

“I wonder if she would have approved of this. I like to think she would have,” says Monterichard. Makeup offers the power of transformation — even in the face of deep trauma. It reminds me of the testimony of a WWII lieutenant colonel who witnessed the delivery of red lipsticks to female prisoners at the recently liberated Bergen-Belsen camp. “I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius,” he wrote. “That lipstick started to give them back their humanity."

The Republic Nail polish also comes in black. This bottle reads “Dolor Arte Amor,” which translates to “pain, art, love.” It’s not a direct Frida Kahlo quote, but it’s certainly a trifecta that explains something about her experience. “I don’t think anyone ever really knew her, but they hang on to certain pieces of her because that’s what they need in their lives,” says Odom. For a while, I too am content to just look at the bottle. When I finally use it, it glides on smoothly, more pink than I expected it to be. I get distracted, forget to paint the other hand, and return it to my bedside table — a small token of the unknowable.

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