Deborah Lippmann Dishes on 15 Years in the Nail Polish Business

We talked a lot about Cher and glitter.
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We talked a lot about Cher and glitter.
Photo: Deborah Lippmann

Photo: Deborah Lippmann

The mid- to late-1990's were a heady time for nail polish. Chanel was getting everyone worked up (and starting unheard-of-at-the-time waitlists) for shades like "Vamp," and Hard Candy's launch of the baby blue polish "Sky" inspired people to think beyond pink and red nails. Singer-turned-celebrity-nail guru Deborah Lippmann entered this creative market back in 1999 when she launched her luxe lacquer range with her brother and husband. In addition to being a favorite manicurist of celebrities and a perennial presence backstage at New York Fashion week, Lippmann almost singlehandedly put chunky glitter polish on the map, thanks to the now-iconic “Happy Birthday” polish, launched in 2009. This year the company is celebrating its 15th anniversary.

Earlier this summer, I was invited to an intimate dinner with Lippmann and a few editors, followed by a showing of "Motown the Musical" on Broadway. Lippmann was an aspiring singer before she became a manicurist, and she still loves music. (All of her polishes are named after song titles.) I got a sneak peek at the limited edition products the brand is offering to celebrate the big milestone, including a lacquer music box featuring 15 new polishes ($195) which plays an original song Lippmann wrote. There are also 2 more modestly priced collections:  a six-piece collection for Sephora ($49) and a three-piece collection ($29) more widely available. (Attention, magpies: The matte glitter polish "Celebration" is very fun.)

The limited edition lacquer box. Photo: Deborah Lippmann

The limited edition lacquer box. Photo: Deborah Lippmann

I cornered Lippmann at the bar prior to dinner. I wanted to find out how her career took off, how she continues to innovate in an industry increasingly glutted with new nail polish brands and to get her take on nail trends.

Here, 15 tidbits about Deborah Lippmann and the nail polish business, in honor of her 15th nail-versary:

She can sing, but don’t let her serve you pasta: Lippmann has a degree in music and came to New York to be a singer. She waited tables to support herself, but wasn’t good at it. “Pasta on people’s heads!” Lippmann says.

Good things happen at Bergdorf: After realizing waitressing wasn't in her skill set, Lippmann started doing nails to support herself. She worked in the salon at Bergdorf Goodman with Frederic Fekkai in the 1990s, before he launched his brand. “He had all these women who were at the top of Fortune 500 companies and who were really smart. But they would pull a base coat out of their purses that was very, very famous then, that had formaldehyde in it.” It planted the seed of an idea for her future line.

Another beauty guru helped launch Lippmann’s career: While at Bergdorf, Lippmann caught the attention of none other than Bobbi Brown, who turned Allure editors on to Lippmann. This resulted in a listing in Allure’s influential beauty directory.

Cher apparently reads Allure: Shortly after she was featured, Lippmann got a call from the singer, who became her first celeb client. “I went to her room, and I was just pouring sweat with fear,” Lippmann says. “I was just shaking. I mean, she’s Cher!”

Cher in 1999, when "Believe" was a number 1 song. Photo: Barry King/Getty

Cher in 1999, when "Believe" was a number 1 song. Photo: Barry King/Getty

Cher picked out Lippmann’s bottles: The two became close.“I sat on Cher’s bed for four hours with my edited bottles and brushes before I launched the brand,” Lippmann says. To this day, Cher takes credit (jokingly) for Lippmann’s oft-copied bottle design.

Manolo Blahnik wasn’t the only brand that SATC helped: Sarah Jessica Parker was a fan of one of Lippmann’s earliest pale pink colors, "Prelude to a Kiss." “She used to have [the producers] put it in Carrie’s bathroom on Sex and the City. I’ve had people be so generous to me! I had no idea what product placement was and that people paid jillions of dollars to do stuff like that,” Lippmann says.

Manicures as human connection: “The beauty of holding hands with someone is that it’s so intimate. One of my first employers told me that when I went to work for her,” Lippmann said. (During the course of the interview, she grabbed my hands a few times, not even realizing it. The gesture really is very personal and conveys a lot of warmth.)

She doesn’t have a favorite polish color: “It’s like 'Sophie’s Choice'! I always say whatever I’m wearing at the time is my favorite,” Lippmann says.

She had to initially fight for one of the company’s bestselling shades: "Fashion," a nude shade, was a favorite of designers backstage, but it wasn’t resonating with consumers when it first launched. Now, nudes are huge and "Fashion" is totally in fashion. Moral of the story: Go with your gut.

But the best-selling Deborah Lippmann polish over the last few years is: "Candy Shop," a pink-based glitter.

The recession in 2009 was good for glitter: “When the recession hit, I said, ‘You know, I work in fashion where we wear either nude or red unless we’re doing some crazy weird shoot, but we need to create a little happiness we can see.’” Lippmann says. And as everyone knows, glitter = happiness. Lippmann played around with formulas with different-sized pieces of glitter, which was a new concept at the time. She wanted it to be mistake-proof and for the pieces to purposely look a little haphazard. A trend was born.

Glitter’s going nowhere: “My customer is still insatiable for glitter,” Lippmann says. “My last two collections weren’t glitter, and Sephora was like, ‘Please don't stop making glitter!'”

Why the beginning of fashion week sucks for a manicurist: “Models don’t usually do manis/pedis on their own, by and large,” Lippmann says. “You have to do a full mani/pedi on these girls at the beginning of fashion week because their nails are ragged and disastrous.”

The hardest runway manicures aren’t what you would expect: Sure, sometimes designers want elaborate nail art, but the simplest styles are actually the hardest to execute perfectly, thanks to high-definition photography and the internet. “A lot of [show] producers think, ‘Oh, just a clean nail, you only need three assistants!’ But to do a ‘clean’ nail on the runway now with photography and the Internet and blow up—NO,” Lippman says. “Getting a clean, perfect nail is the most challenging thing to do. Sometimes I have a heart attack looking at the zoomed pictures [afterwards].”

Speaking of heart attacks, Narciso Rodriguez once gave Lippmann her most stressful backstage moment: Rodriguez, whose minimalist style extends to the nails, usually requests a nude or pale pink. So when his office called her a few seasons ago the day before the show and said, “We’d like grey,” Lippmann’s response was, “Um, is that an April’s Fool’s joke?” But she whipped it up, and beauty editors backstage went crazy for it. She called her husband, Jude, and said, “Guess what!” The color, "Stormy Weather," subsequently went into her collection and is still really popular. “That’s one of the great things about us,” Lippmann says. “We can be nimble and make it happen.”

Here’s to 15 more years of making it happen, Deborah. 

The limited edition Sephora collection. Photo: Deborah Lippmann 

The limited edition Sephora collection. Photo: Deborah Lippmann