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Why Do Nail Brands Sponsor Fashion Week Shows?

If so many designers ask for a simple nude nail, why get involved in the first place?
Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

Nude happens a lot backstage at fashion shows. Not just when models are changing into their second looks, but on their fingernails. Amid a frenzy of blowing hair and brandished makeup brushes, nail techs squat beside the girls, rubbing off the last show's polish and replacing it with a fresh coat. Understatement is in right now, and you'll hear a lot of lead manicurists describing to reporters "soft, glossy nudes," "matte nudes" or "sleek, high-shine nudes."

It's a lot of description for a pretty minimal look, but for the beauty companies that sponsor shows, participating is an advertising opportunity. They've got to milk it for all it's worth.

"Say someone wants to do a nude color. We can do a line, like simple nail art. That way you still have the clean nude thing, and we can talk about something more," explains Jin Soon Choi, a well-established industry manicurist who launched her own line of polishes in 2012 and now sponsors shows. "Sometimes I can say we used a matte topcoat. There are some ways to make it a little more, to expand the story."

There are of course plenty of designers who don't go for natural-looking nails, and as with everything, trends in nail polish are cyclical. But Alicia Torello, a manicurist who works solo as well as freelance for nail sponsors during fashion week, says that she created almost entirely nude looks last season. Choi says that out of six shows, three or four did the same. For some sponsors, a designer's request for a blush shade isn't a big deal. Others are expecting slightly more for the money they pay to get in on the action, though — namely a look that's going to get editors' and consumers' attention and put a spotlight on the products.

"I did Jill Stuart with Zoya. They asked to do a natural nail, and Zoya doesn't really seem to mind. Like, 'It's our beautiful natural color, and we're totally fine with that.' There's not a lot of pressure from them," Torello says. "I worked with another brand where one of the designers was like, 'We really don't want anything,' and the sponsor was like, 'You kind of need to do something.' I had to figure out how to make that happen. I was like, 'Okay, let's do a nude moon on a bare nail.'"

And that's the rub. If designers don't want the nails to distract from their clothes, why do sponsors so badly want to be a part of fashion week?

Choi worked New York Fashion Week as a lead for Sally Hansen and Revlon before launching her own brand, and now she sponsors shows herself in addition while continuing to work with those two. Unlike some nail companies, she doesn't pay for the privilege to create the nail look; she just provides her own polishes and team. Bringing her brand into fashion week was a good way to create an image and excitement for her young line, she says. Choi is thinking about doing some European shows in the future, but says that would be entirely for marketing purposes — she already has relationships with those designers from working on campaigns.

Fashion week sponsorships weren't always a thing, for nail brands or for hair and makeup. MAC Cosmetics, one of the first companies to start sponsoring shows, began officially supporting New York Fashion Week in 1996.

Deborah Lippmann, the nail artist and founder of her eponymous polish line, first started doing nails backstage in 1994, working on another manicurist's team for the Calvin Klein show in her first season. By 1999 she had started her own line of polishes and was using them for runway shows. A designer would book her directly as the lead manicurist, she says, budgeting enough to pay both her and her team. Lippmann, who was already working with designers and editors year-round on campaigns and editorial shoots, describes creating nails for runway shows in that period as not being as much about the brand as it was about the look.

"Then this whole sponsorship thing started happening," she says. "Before I knew it there were manicurists who were never involved in fashion week and brands who were paying a fee to be associated with it. Some of the hair and the makeup brands now will pay a lot of money to the designer to get to have their name in the program and get to work with them on a color from their collection and talk about that."

Money meant competition, and although Lippmann says she made a decision not to pay a sponsorship fee, she did start offering to work pro bono for the brands that had previously covered her costs. 

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"Someone in the office would call me and say, 'Here's what's going on. Some brand or other is offering to pay us. We want to be loyal to you,'" Lippmann says. "And within that conversation I offered to pay for my services and pay for my team. [They] were like, 'Okay, great, perfect. We'll stay with you.'"

She lost some collaborators, including a few that were small and needed the sponsorships. Some she still describes as good friends, despite taking up with a new sponsor.

The look Deborah Lippmann created at Kate Spade's presentation in February 2014. Photo: Imaxtree

The look Deborah Lippmann created at Kate Spade's presentation in February 2014. Photo: Imaxtree

Lippmann says that while it used to bother her that brands not originally involved in the high fashion industry were taking out show sponsorships, it doesn't any more. Some have done an excellent job helping designers with their brands, she says, and besides, that's how business and advertising is done. But as both an editorial manicurist and as a business owner, Lippmann is still grappling with her responsibility to the designer's artistic vision and an obligation to promote her brand.

"I try not to go into a show saying, 'Oh, I want to use something from my next collection.' I'm an artist, and I struggle with that in my head. My company would say, 'Try to use something from the upcoming collection,' but if it's not the right color, it's not in me to go there. Even though I know it would benefit my brand to use something for fall, if the color is right from 10 years ago, I'll use that," she says.

For Lippmann, the benefits of sponsoring a fashion week show run deeper than a dose of media attention. A lot of it has to do with her own creative process, she says.

"In terms of creating trends or being on trend, being able to sit with Donatella Versace, what she sees in her collection, is helpful. To have Narciso [Rodriguez] look at a color," Lippmann says.

She got the idea to create her "Whisper" collection of polishes while standing offstage at one show and watching the light filter through the models' dresses like a veil. Her waterless nail treatment products were the result of not wanting to spill water where there were electric hair tools plugged in. When Lippmann says that the fashion industry is part of her brand's DNA, it doesn't seem like an empty catchphrase.

"I'm going to see a trend because I'm in the middle of it. I'll see something that merges; I'm working with photographers every day, shooting with then. Then I'm like, 'Wait a minute, something's happening here,'" she says. "We jump and create a color and get it out and sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm wrong."

Lippmann also doesn't see designers' proclivity for nude nails as an obstacle to her business, the logic being that if a lot of fashion houses are doing some version of nude beige, and that becomes the trend for the season, nail brands are going to wind up selling a lot of nude beige that season.

"I completely understand that when we talk to editors we want to give them a story to talk about, but we should never say sorry because it's sheer pink. Sheer pinks are incredible sellers for brands. If it's a sheer pink, be really strong and confident about why it works with the collection," she says. "The reason you should be there is to tie in the look with the hair and makeup and clothing. Make it work."

Sponsor-free shows, though rare now, do exist. Torello says that when she works with Oscar de la Renta, as she will for the upcoming season, the house lets her use whatever nail polish she wants and pays her for her time.

"They'll tell me they want to do a clean nude, and I'll show them colors and just do each girl according to their skin tone," she says. "And use whatever brand works for their skin."