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Steps To Success: Deborah Lippmann
July 24th 2015
Photo credit: Mark Schafer
What does it take to become one of the most sought after manicurists in the world? We spoke to nail expert Deborah Lippmann to find out
Trend-setter, entrepreneur and beauty expert, Deborah Lippmann is the go-to name in nails for celebrities, fashion houses and magazines the world over.
An innovator in her field, her range of formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl-free nail polishes and luxury nail care products have garnered a loyal fan base, with her incredible talents providing the golden touch in more ways than one on red carpets and runways alike, (Kate Winslet, Reese Witherspoon, Renee Zellweger and Penelope Cruz all had their nails manicured by Deborah before accepting their Oscars).
We caught up with Deborah to ask her about her career so far: from start-up to the spotlight, singer to photoshoots, Martha Stewart to Cher, her journey to the top makes for an extremely inspiring read for anyone looking to make their mark in the beauty industry.
GTG: What inspired you to get into the nails industry and start the Deborah Lippmann brand?
DL: Originally I went to college and got a degree in Music. As a singer, I wasn’t making the kind of money I wanted to make initially and so I tried waiting tables like most of my other artist friends did. I was probably the worst waitress ever to hold a plate of pasta - I even once dropped one on someone’s head! I realised I was completely untalented in that and so I had to really look deep and think what my second love was if I had to do a day job. I loved the beauty industry and so I enrolled in cosmetology school and while I was there I found it made sense for me to sit down during the day, rather than stand up in my high heels for four hours a night singing - it was really how I chose manicuring. It’s not that I didn’t love doing hair, makeup and skin - I love doing it all, but it really was a quality of life choice.
My whole history with nails is so funny because I was a nail biter for many years. It was during my first professional singing job that I had to get artificial nails put on because I was such a big nail biter - they’d put me in a glamorous outfit, I’d be holding my microphone and I’d have these terrible nails and so the next day my director took me to a salon and I had a set of long acrylic nails put on - I thought I was so fierce! I had never had the experience of having nails I was proud of. I had so much shame attached them.
When I moved to New York, I had a lot of clients who didn’t really understand nail care and when I would go to buy things on the luxury floor of a department store, there was no one who really catered for it at the time - there were hardly any base or top coats available and nobody had treatment in their products.
At the time I was doing people’s nails, starting to work on photoshoots as well as singing in clubs at night. I was friends with Bobbi Brown and Laura Mercier back in the early days of their brands and they would say to me, ‘You need to do a brand.’ I would be on shoots and would create something the editor was thinking of, but it wasn’t ever something that I had envisaged for myself. I remember a specific moment when I was shopping with a girlfriend of mine and looking at someone’s polish. I remember saying, ‘You know, if I ever did nail polish, I would do this and that’ and she looked at me and said, ‘Either do it or stop talking about it.’ I didn’t realise I was talking about it that much! That was the turning point where I either had to ‘shit or get off the pot,’ you know?
GTG: What would you say has been the toughest part of your career to date?
DL: Working with my husband and my brother is the biggest blessing, but it can sometimes be challenging. To work with your family is awesome, but also difficult.
It’s also very challenging for me as my brand has grown, to continue to be on every shoot that I’m asked to do. I used to never say no however now, I might be working in different cities around the world and I have to think about how many days I have to be in the office and in the lab - that’s really challenging to do without getting a case of FOMO, (I just learned that term from my niece three months ago!) Every single day there’s a challenge that seems insurmountable.
Miraval Spa where my nail salon is, has a spiritual side to it. They run a Challenge Course and they have this one challenge that I did called Quantum Leap. It involves a structure that looks like a telephone pole, with rungs in it that you climb up and at the top is a plank which you’re meant to stand up on and then drop off of it (while wearing a harness). I finally did it but beforehand, I came up with all of these reasons for why I couldn’t do it.
The higher you get up it, the more it starts to shake and you just have to breathe through it. They say to leave something behind you before you climb the pole. When you fall off of it, it’s the most extraordinary feeling ever. You drop a couple of body lengths, the harness catches you and then you float in the air. It was the best feeling I’ve ever had and now three years later, whenever I’m approaching something that I think there’s no way I can do, I picture myself climbing up that pole and then stepping off of it. It lives with me and that helps me walk through challenges.
GTG: Do you have any mentors and how have they helped you?
DL: I have a bunch of mentors and I feel really blessed. Martha Stewart is one of my mentors and Cher is one too. Last year, she was on tour and I went to do her nails. A group of her friends came in right before her concert and she said, “This is my friend Deb, I picked her bottle.” That’s her sentence. I sat on a bed with her with all of my final bottle and cap options and she helped me decide on them. As big as her world is, she doesn’t forget that moment. Every now and then I get a little note from her saying something and then, ‘P.S. I picked your bottle!’
If I email Martha Stewart with a question about business, she’ll always write me back. I’ve met many people throughout my life who have really opened up their hearts.
GTG: What would you say has been the biggest learning curve of your career?
DL: When I moved to New York, I worked in a salon but I was also singing at night and working on photoshoots on a freelance basis - if I was to do a job, I wouldn’t get paid for around three months. When I started to do more and more photoshoots and working during Fashion Week, working in the salon became a problem because I was needed every day. I had this incredible opportunity though that was just opening up.
Leaving my family and moving from Phoenix to New York back in 1993 was really scary. I was a big singer in Phoenix, I sang at all the fancy events and I was in all the big plays - it was great, but at a certain point, I thought I either had to stay there and be completely happy with that (and there was nothing wrong with that), or see what else was was out there and I always had a burning desire to live in New York. I moved with barely enough money - I actually had to go back to Arizona and make a chunk of money and then come back to build a clientele. I started to make a nice living and then I had to think about dropping everything and going freelance where who knew how many days a week I’d be working and when I’d be paid. Sometimes though, you’ve just got to jump and take a chance.
GTG: What would you say is the best advice you’ve been given and why?
DL: To stay true to your own vision. Even though my vision has changed as my brand has grown, it’s been in little steps. You grow a company and people work with you and everyone has value. We see it as family business and everyone who joins it is our family. There are times that your family makes incredible suggestions to you that are fantastically great for your brand and there are times when they aren’t. My husband runs the company now and sometimes has a vison for things that we disagree on. It’s my name on the bottle though and it’s a lot of pressure because I have to believe in every product I put out and its formula. Sixteen years on, we’re still an entrepreneurial brand - I don’t get trend reports but I work in fashion and I see the trends happening in real life. I sometimes get to create the nail trends. I don’t think I’m the smartest person in the room, I know people have a lot to bring to the table and so I’ve learned how important it is to listen, take in all the information, weigh it up and think about it and then really go with your gut. People can gear your brand in a way that is positive but can also guide your brand in a way that isn’t you.
Whenever I hear anyone from Estée Lauder speak, they always refer to the respect that they have for her vision as the brand’s grown. They really try to stay true to what the DNA was of Mrs Lauder.
GTG: What would you say is the worst job you ever did?
DL: When I lived in Scottsdale, there was a lady who owned a little teeny tiny gym and she hired me to give body wraps to people. It was in a back room where she had a big crock pot and all kinds of smelly, disgusting coloured herbs. I would soak bandages in them - her ‘secret potion’ she called it; I never knew what was in it but it stunk like there was no tomorrow.
Women would come in and strip down and then I would sit on my knees, measure all of their body parts and then wrap their bodies in the bandages starting at the ankle working upwards so their whole body was covered all the way to the neck. There was a deck chair made of plastic which was really low to the floor. Wrapped like mummies and unable to bend, I would have to help them onto the chair and they would lay there, sweating for an hour after which I would come back to help them back up and take these putrid bandages that they’d been sweating in off and make sure they’d lost weight. I don’t like to lie and as a result so they’d get angry if they hadn’t lost any. So yes, I’d say that was my worst - the world of low-rent body wraps.
GTG: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?
DL: Talk to everyone that you can and don’t be afraid to approach anybody.
You also have to be willing to do a lot of the things you don’t want to do and no one wants to hear that. It’s fun making up the colours for example, but sometimes it’s a nightmare because you can’t get the exact colour you want. Once I make a colour, it has to be exactly the same every time I put it out which means I have to match it every single time - the formula, the viscosity etc. Hopefully your lab is monitoring the viscosity, but sometimes they can screw it up. Making and matching a sheer polish for instance is one of the hardest things to do because nail polish yellows and changes colour.
Be really careful with your money too. We made lots of mistakes at the beginning because we just didn’t know any better. 10 gallons is usually the minimum amount of nail lacquer you can buy which is about 1300 bottles. When a store like Nordstrom takes your product for instance, they will test it in 2, 3 or 5 stores at most and they’ll buy only 6 bottles to see if it sells, even though you’ve had to make a lot more - which doesn’t last forever in the drum either. I remember I bought far too many boxes because it seemed like good value at the time. The thing was that it took 5 years to sell 100,000 bottles of polish and when it came to using those boxes, we realised there were some errors in the copy and some of our translations were incorrect too!
Also, don’t put pressure on yourself to know everything, but take your time to learn. Starting today is a lot easier than it was when I started because of the internet - there’s so much information around to learn from. However, the biggest mistake that people make is thinking that having your own brand means that you can have your own schedule when in fact having your own brand means it’s 24/7. There’s rarely a time that you’re not thinking about it. It’s incredible, but it’s more than you would ever imagine in terms of the workload. No matter how well planned you are, there are those unforeseen circumstances that you would never have known about. One time that comes to mind is the typhoon that wiped out nearly a whole collection!
GTG: If you could tell your 17-year-old self one thing, what would it be?
DL: You’re smarter than you thought you were.
GTG: What does the future hold?
DL: We have so many dreams for colour and so many dreams for formulas. I hope that one day we’re able to create a really long-lasting nail lacquer that comes off easily but that doesn’t require including something damaging to your body. I know in the 16 years that I’ve been working in the industry, the formulas have improved so dramatically. When people first took formaldehyde out of nail polishes though, they were horrible. It took a really long time for other ingredients to be sourced.
All of my colour polishes contain biotin, green tea and aucoumea. We were the first brand I think to do that and we tried to follow a skincare model to create products that took out the bad ingredients and replaced them with ones that were good. When toluene was removed, initially it didn’t dry as fast, but now our formula is great. I think 16 years from now, it’s going to be a whole different story. The state of our skin is also really important to me - I work on a lot of products for feet, for hands and for younger skin. Ultimately, I want our products to be about products that do, not just say.