I used to have regular manicures. Then I had children. Then, just as I was settling nicely into the inevitable British descent towards sensible shoes and chin hair, I moved to Japan. In Tokyo, where the world’s beauty trends are forged, being kawaii (cute) is a moral duty. Heels are high, hair is glossy and curled just so, eyelashes are calligraphic sweeps of black silk and nails are absolutely always long, glittery and studded with 3D accessories. On the school run.
It’s hard to hold out against the mainstream in a country where conformity is a cardinal virtue. So I took my scruffy bare digits to the Tokyo Nail Forum, held each May by the Japan Nailist Association (JNA), to see if I could unlock the secrets of oriental nail art and translate them for my benighted countrywomen back home in Blighty.
I can report from the front line of beauty that the hot trend for A/W 2014 is an aggressive, embellished palette of blacks, loosely translated as ‘grown-up punk’. Inspiration was taken from the Paris catwalks, where monochrome hues dominated, according to the JNA. The key looks include ‘Hybrid’: mixed-texture blacks weaponised with studs and spikes, ‘New Classic’: based on traditional ‘urushi’ red and black lacquer work, and the marvellous ‘Grunge Boy’: black with white tips and optional black dye on the fingers, which apparently adds ‘a hint of mannish kawaii’.
Inspired by the sheer variety of designs at the forum – the longest queues were for Disney and Barbie designs, which left me wondering if the goth trend had legs – I proceeded to Nail Quick, Tokyo’s biggest chain of nail bars, to ask for a directional gel manicure.
“Japanese women are very finicky about details and they care about fashion”, said Karina Koyama, a Nail Quick spokeswoman, when asked to explain the preference for highly embellished (some would say tacky) designs. The current hot favourite is “inverted French gel manicures with pink tips and white bases, embellished with pointed diamante crystals”, though she confirmed that black is indeed a key trend for next season.
More than 80% of her Tokyo customers choose soft gel nails, which last for up to three weeks and are instantly rock hard (no drying time) and glossy. Across Japan’s 20,000 nail bars, gels now account for more than 55% of treatments. They have to be applied and removed in a salon, and are killing off nail varnish retail sales, which peaked at $285.8 million in 2011 and have been declining ever since. In contrast, in the UK, nail polish sales to consumers were $381.6 million in 2013, and forecast to grow, according to Euromonitor data. Gels are available in British salons, but have not acquired Japanese-style craze status - yet.
So what are they like? Having chosen my design (black with studs and holograms), a base coat and a clear layer of gel was applied, then colour washes were added on top, followed by accessories, before the whole lot was encased in a final gluey layer and set under LED light. The technician pronounced the results to be kawaii and “very Tokyo”, which is about as big a compliment as you can get.
At a cost of £70 it’s well above the average British woman’s nail salon spend (£30, according to Belinda Price of the UK’s Nail Industry Association). But my gels survived a weekend’s rock-climbing and sandcastle-building with two children under six, and the Japanese mums in my daughter’s class consider that I have paid a personal tribute to their national culture. Who wants classy when you can have kawaii?