Lauren LaRouge, a former burlesque dancer, now a creative nail artist at Love LaRouge, her salon in Sydney’s Stanmore.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer
About nine years ago, when one of Lauren LaRouge’s friends painted nautical-themed designs on her nails – a flurry of wavy white and navy shapes – she couldn’t stop laughing.
“I said ‘It’s very authentic, it looks like it was done on the high seas’,” says LaRouge, who was then working as a burlesque dancer and preparing for a gig on a boat. “They looked a little bit jacked.”
Fast-forward to today, and LaRouge has become a popular nail artist with a salon in Stanmore in Sydney’s inner west offering designs that venture into similar terrain: wavy rainbow stripes, ombre hearts, the Louis Vuitton logo, and cartoon characters like SpongeBob SquarePants and Bugs Bunny. (She started doing nail art about eight years ago when she realised “it just made me smile”.)
Such wildly-colourful nails used to be the preserve of musicians like Billie Eilish and Cardi B, with lower-key iterations spotted at Zimmermann, Simone Rocha and Schiaparelli. Now, they’ve become a welcome graduation for those looking to freshen up their regular mani.
“One of my favourite clients is a retired, 71-year-old very flamboyant older woman who lives on [Sydney’s] North Shore,” says LaRouge, whose customers spend anywhere between $100 and $350 to get everything from ombre hearts to cow prints and spot-on portraits of 90s cartoons such as The Powerpuff Girls painted on their fingertips.
When did our nails become canvases for miniature works of art? And when did it become OK for us to sport these creations in banks?
“People are wanting to feel happy and have something different… to treat themselves rather than it just being about maintenance,” says Chelsea Bagan, who opened Melbourne salon Trophy Wife after word of mouth spread of her gel nail services seven years ago.
More recently clients are being more adventurous with their design requests, says Bagan, who noticed an influx of customers after the city’s second lockdown, last year. Popular styles include smiley faces inspired by Watermelon Sugar singer Harry Styles, who has sported them on occasion, and coloured wavy lines over a nude-coloured base.
Those with a penchant for decorated nails also have far greater access to inspiration. In addition to the more than 91 million #nailart posts on Instagram, and the aforementioned celebrities, there is an Instagram account devoted to Dua Lipa’s nails, the artist who paints Dua Lipa’s nails (Mei Kawajiri) in addition to Lizzo’s go-to nail artist (Eri Ishizu). And let’s not forget Serena Williams, who had one nail painted with a koala with a red bow while playing at last year’s Australian Open.
For Williams, sporting a koala on her nail was a means to draw attention to Australia’s bushfires, which had threatened much of our wildlife. (She later donated US$43,000 to relief efforts.)
Sydney-based Aimee looks to American nail artist Devin Strebler, whose work is inspired by cartoons like Hey Arnold! and Rugrats.
She’s not the only nail art fan who’s found it can add a surprising amount of meaning to their lives.
“It’s a talking point, and it does kind of release a bit of tension by bringing a bit of lightness to sometimes more serious roles or discussions,” says LaRouge, referring to clients who work in universities and in counselling roles who have noticed such positive side-effects of their statement nails.
Aimee, a Sydney-based non-clinical nurse, who has asked that her last name not be included for privacy reasons, has experienced a similar phenomenon. “It has definitely brought positivity into my life, brightens my mood and leaves me feeling more confident.”
Before the latest lockdown in Sydney, Aimee had new designs painted on her nails every four to five weeks at a salon, with everything from characters from Lady and the Tramp to penguins. When she can’t get to the salon, she buys salon quality stickers and wraps from Personail. (Other options: Flowerbed Nails and Oje Australia.)
While the thought of cartoon characters on your nails may leave you scratching your head, Bagan says subtler iterations are possible and achievable at home. She recommends starting with minimal and abstract art, like matching a nude coloured base with pops of colour on the tips. And many designs, says LaRouge, work particularly well on short nails. “Say you’re doing a pink and red giant love heart, these things will work on any nail shape and size.”
Nicole Economos is an online producer for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Samantha Selinger-Morris is a lifestyle writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.