Mei Kawahiri, founder of Nails by Mei, is backstage with Travis Scott at a fashion shoot for “CR Fashion or Harper’s Bazaar or something” she says, and she has a question for him. It’s the kind of question that’s been asked at many a sleepover: “Do you want to do nail art?’” The shoot hasn’t begun yet, but Scott is prepping his outfit and hair, and like any fashion shoot worth its salt, nails are a vital component. “He was kind of surprised and asked like, ‘Oh, you mean nail art for me?’” says Kawajiri. After a bit of persuasion from Kawajiri, the two settled on old English lettering for each nail bed—it spelled out his name. And he liked it, she adds. In fact, so did JVN, Marc Jacobs and the ASAP crew, all of whom have received nail art recently from Kawajiri.
Nail art has long been an analog messaging system primarily used by women—a morse code for self-expression—and now celebrity men like Scott and Marc Jacobs, Jonathan Van Ness, Asap Rocky, and Harry Styles have caught on. The MANicure is on the rise. “It all started with Demna Gvasalia at the Balenciaga show a few years ago,” says Kawajiri, who was responsible for all the male nail art at the show and has been doing the designer’s personal nails for years.
And while men painting their nails is nothing new—thanks to folks like David Bowie and Kurt Cobain—the men of today seem to have taken it up a notch.
Take ASAP Ferg, who came directly to Kawajiri with a vision. He initially DMd her on Instagram as a fan who thought her work was beautiful and wanted his own custom manicure. The rapper had just dyed his hair green and had dreamt up a green Frankenstein and Dennis Rodman design, which Kawajiri happily completed backstage at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Kawajiri also credits ASAP Ferg with introducing nail art to his entire clique. Rappers, responsible for pretty much every good trend of the last four decades, are once again shepherding in a new style. “It came from punk rock culture like Sex Pistols,” says celebrity manicurist Britney Tokyo. “But, these days, it comes from rappers and trap artists.”
Tokyo’s most recognizable client isn’t a rapper, but a pop star. Harry Styles has been a pioneer in the nail-art world for some time now, ever since he put his hands up on a manicurist’s desk back in 2016. The timing, maybe not coincidentally, perfectly aligned with his departure from One Direction: if you want to break free from a contrived boy band, what better way than a bedazzled manicure? “I get creative keywords and color palettes from him [Harry Styles],” says Tokyo. “And he tells me to do whatever I want, like I could do Japanese Omakase style.”
And with this artistic freedom, Tokyo unleashes her own agenda aimed at the detonation of gender norms. “I think it’s also stylish to not to be caught up in red-for-girls, blue-for-boys concept and reverse those colors and gender to create more interesting art,” says Tokyo.
So could you soon be seeing bedazzled MANicures around the office or around the grocery store? “It’s really popular with celebrities, I think,” says Kawajiri. “But I don’t know about everyone else…”