The workers hunch over their stations; little paper masks protecting them from the noxious fumes and floating detritus. Furiously they file and buff; there is no time for small talk. If you’ve come to the nail salon expecting a bond akin to the one you have with your hairdresser, forget it. You talk only when relaying information about which treatment you want: gel or acrylic, patterned or plain.
Hackney nail technicians are too busy for chat. Over the past decade, nail art – that’s what they call it when they paint patterns onto nails – has become increasingly popular, and business is booming in the countless nail bars that have opened in east London. Although they boast names like Las Vegas Nails and American Nails 4 U, these businesses aren’t run by Americans. In fact they’re mainly owned and operated by Vietnamese people.
As the names suggest, nail art is a US import that arrived in London in the early Noughties. Yes, we used to get our nails done pre-2000 but we opted for safe mani/pedis; there was none of the flamboyant colour and out-there designs that are so popular now. The UK Vietnamese community – which is largely centred in east and south London – used family networks in the US to provide advice and expertise when it came to opening their own nail art bars over here.
Jessica Mai Sims, who authored a 2007 study on the UK Vietnamese community for Shoreditch think tank, The Runnymede Trust, says: “Nail salons have become the fastest-growing UK Vietnamese business sector, and account for over half of all Vietnamese businesses in London.
“Nail salons are employing more and more overseas students and other newly arrived immigrants from Vietnam as the second-generation Vietnamese move towards more ‘mainstream’ employment.”
And while the vast majority of nail bar customers are women, the same can’t be said for the staff.
“I actually think men do it better. They take more care than women, you know, take their time,” says Shanay Charaf, a 19-year-old who works in a nail bar on Graham Road in Hackney.
Charaf’s boss – a Vietnamese man who goes by the name of ‘Jack’ and owns two salons in the area – scuffles downstairs after I strike up a conversation. I am the only customer in the salon and I realise the hesitation in talking may be due to issues surrounding visas and work permits. “Hi, my name’s Lynn and I’m a journalist” probably wasn’t the best way to introduce myself.
Hackney-born Charaf is eager to chat away though. “We get all sorts in here,” she says. “A bit of everything – old ladies, young school kids, black, white, but never Vietnamese actually. The Vietnamese run the nail bars but they don’t get their nails done.”
On Kingsland Road, Sharmadean Reid – the twenty-something sports editor of Arena Homme – is operating a very different type of nail bar. There are friendly smiles all round as you walk in. The waiting area table heaves with high-end fashion mags. Taking her cue from the bright, patterned and often garish designs offered by local salons, Reid incorporated that into an altogether more stylish business. That doesn’t mean French manicures by the way: nobody – well, nobody cool anyway – has had one of those in the last decade.
Most of the staff, including 24-year-old salon manager Melanie Ashley, are from a fashion background. “We don’t use the ‘airbrushing’ technique that other salons use; we hand paint all our designs,” she says.
And it’s a concept that’s going beyond the East End. There’s a Wah Nails concession in Topshop’s flagship store on Oxford Street and they’ve just opened another in Harvey Nichols in Dublin. There, like in Dalston, the leopard print design is the most popular.
So from America to Hackney, with the help of the Vietnamese diaspora, and then onto Ireland, this is one trend that’s truly global.