Innovator Series: Deborah Lippman, Celebrity Manicurist

When it comes to celebrity manicurists, Deborah Lippmann is at the top of the game. Not only is she responsible for the red carpet nails of celebrities like Lady Gaga, Scarlett Johansson, Kim Kardashian, Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Lena Dunham, but she works with designers including Donna Karan, Rodarte, and Narciso Rodriguez to help set runway trends. A regular in glossy publications, we spoke with Deborah Lippmann about her background, nail care tips, and her namesake polish empire.

Have you always had a passion for nails?

I actually used to be a nail biter, so I was always obsessed with trying to stop. My passion for nails grew out of desperately wanting to stop that disgusting habit that I’ve had as early as I can remember. To have beautiful, groomed nails was a passion and it took me a long time to get there.

Interesting! Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what let you there?

I grew up in Arizona and went to Arizona State to get a degree in music to become a professional jazz singer. In order to make ends meet, I needed to do something in the interim to pay the bills while I sang at night, so I pursued my second love – the beauty industry - and went to cosmetology school. While there I decided to specialize in nails, which was smart because I could sit during the day and stand at night in heels singing!  I moved to New York to pursue jazz, which I still do today, and worked at a few high-end salons. When I was working at Frederic Fekkai (at Bergdorf Goodman at the time), Martha Stewart sat in my chair and had a manicure with me. She told me that I was extremely talented and I was flabbergasted - it was a big deal to me that she was even in my salon chair! A little while after that, Allure sent a reporter in undercover and called the salon afterwards to let them know I was going to be included in “The Directory,” a section of the nation’s top industry spa/salon/stylist pros. It all happened within a year - I was blown away. After that, an agent called and said that they wanted to represent me as a manicurist.

I eventually had to make a decision to leave my day job and dedicate my time entirely to freelance, which was a really big deal because I didn't know when my next job was coming or when I'd get paid. But I haven’t looked back since! I love schlepping to a set with my suitcase and the creativity of being backstage, working in tandem with makeup artists and stylists. In the world of freelance, I get to work with different amazing people every, which has helped to unleash my creativity. I’m constantly excited by the next opportunity to try something new.

At what point did you decide it would be viable to start your own brand?

For the brand side of things, while I was at Frederic Fekkai, I noticed a hole in the marketplace. As a luxury shopper, you couldn’t find everything you wanted for nail care from one brand. Chanel, Dior, YSL had nail shades, but not everything to address your nail needs - from a base coat and top coat, to cuticle oil and color.  It simply didn’t exist the luxury sector.  The affluent women who were coming into the salon understood their hair and skin needs and wants, but when it came to their hands, they didn’t know about nail care. There was a need and hunger for education.  That hunger was both in the salon and the luxury consumer retail space.  People have so many questions about their nails and it was exciting for me to educate women.  

What are some of the biggest challenges running a fast growing business?

Starting your own business is harder than I ever imagined.  It’s also the most incredible journey I’ve taken.  I’ve had to learn things that I never thought I’d have to learn, but am now happy to have learned.  Don’t start your own business because you are going to have less. You are never truly off - your wheels are always spinning.  It’s your baby! At different stages of the business you have to let your baby grow up, and you want it to, that’s a challenge.  Every day is a challenge, and every day is different.

What keeps you excited about the industry after so many years?

I look forward to always being on the cusp of modern technology - to making polishes that have more natural formulas, are easier, better and lasting longer, and really pushing the boundaries of the nail industry. I am excited about creating the things I haven’t even yet imagined, becoming possible. I look at how much technology has changed in the last 15 years – it’s so much better – and look forward to continuing those improvements over the next 15.

There are so many polish colors out there. How do you continue to innovate?

My inspiration is also always changing - it goes along with the trends, what I see around me, whether that’s from working with fashion designers on their collection for NYFW and runway, to editorial and red carpet jobs, to the music that I am listening to, and ultimately the people I am with. No matter what the inspiration, it is always very personal, that is always the most important thing for me.  

What's the 'next thing' in nails?

I think beautiful, opaque pastels are going to be a big trend, especially for this spring. The soft, light colors are very refreshing!  To coincide with this softer, more subtle nail trend can be created using my new Spring 2015 Collection, Whisper, is comprised of 4 such whimsical, light shades – A Fine Romance, Chantilly Lace, Like Dreamers Do and Misty Morning. Like Dreamers Do, a sheer pale bisque, was used at the spring previews for NYFW S/S 2015 and at shows like Badgley Mischka, Theory and Donna Karan.


There is also the take on the “new neutral and nudes.” Our interpretation of what is acceptable for nudes and neutrals is expanding, such as the warm camel that we used at Narciso Rodriguez, which we’ll see more of this summer and fall 2015, which is exciting!

Elsewhere, I am always looking to make healthier nail and hand lacquers and treatments, as well as products that are easier and faster to apply, last longer, and deliver better results. All About That Base CC Base Coat is my new favorite long-wearing base coat. All About That Base It is THE nail perfecter. A special hydrating complex with Panthenol helps to moisturize, strengthen and protect the look of nails while treatment correctors help to conceal impressions, brighten, prime and fill ridges for a smooth matte, flawless finish with improved wear. Truly, it makes the nail look perfect before any color goes on it, including those beautiful, soft nudes, most popular for spring.  

Thoughts on nail art?

Nail art has really brought nails to the forefront of the beauty conversation. But we went full tilt with the trend – we even saw 3D elements being added to nails. When a trend comes on that strong, sometimes it goes away. I never say never, there’s always a moment where it works. Nail art is something that still resonates with women so today it is about scaling back and becoming more simplistic and keeping the look tasteful. 

What is the process like working with designers?

It starts with a flurry of emails that begin weeks in advance. It differs with every designer but I often receive inspiration boards from them, or sometimes I see clothing weeks in advance, and then there are times when I don’t see anything until the hair and makeup test! At the hair/makeup/nail tests, usually a few days in advance of the show, it’s a collaborative process between the designer, the stylist, hair stylist, makeup artist and myself.  It is one of the most magical and inspiring moments when we all get together and talk through the vision for the clothing, his/her customer, the vision of who this woman is.

When picking a salon for mani/pedi, what are key things to look for?

I always think the best source of information on where to go is to take into account the word of mouth from a friend who has had a great experience.

In trying out new places, I always keep cleanliness top of mind as one of the key things I am looking for. It’s not always apparent – make sure you check the corners of the room and the manicurist’s drawer. You want to see what the dirt factor looks like on the inside, not just on the surface.

During the service, I strongly advise against cutting cuticles, so I would look for a salon that pushes them back instead. During application, including top and base coats, be sure that the manicurist caps the tip of the nail to seal the color – it will make a huge difference in the wear.  It’s also important to never shake any nail product vigorously because it will cause bubbles and streaks in the finished manicure, instead roll the bottle gently between your hands.

Lastly, you may have the best result when you bring everything with you including tools, treatments and lacquer.  If you don’t bring your own tools, it’s important to make sure that they are sanitized before being used on you.  If the manicurist doesn’t open a clean set of tools in front of you and you are unsure if they are clean, ask them to open a new pack.  Don’t be afraid to speak up!

Is it possible that some polishes last longer on one person than on another?

Everybody’s nails are different and respond differently to the products used, much like skincare.  What I put on my hands and nails may work for my needs, but not my friends. And depending on the time of year, you may need switch up your products. For me, the base coat I use in the spring may look great, but may not be what I need in the summer. And absolutely positively application is always slightly different on each person.

Next, those that put their hands through more everyday wear and tear are bound to see their polish not lasting as long as others. I always recommend wearing gloves when doing things like dishes or housework – things that we tend to do with our fingers all the time that we don't even think about.

How can we extend the wear of our mani/pedi?

I suggest using my 2-Second Nail Primer, it is a deep cleanser that will lengthen the ware of your manicure by a day or so. As for polishing, I created an amazing Gel Lab Base Coat and Top Coat that are quick-drying and give the high-gloss, soft, cushiony finish you’d expect from a gel manicure with the same extended wear. Plus, you can use your desired nail shade without any limitations, plus the application and removal processes are hassle and damage free. 

But the most important rule of all is to allow all layers to dry a minute or two between coats. There are ingredients that have to evaporate, otherwise they will get trapped and the names may never dry all the way through and adhere properly, resulting in more chipping. By waiting a minute or two, this allows the lacquer to dry faster, adhere better and last longer on the nail.