MDC Spotlights manicurist Naomi Yasuda
Stylist Solange Franklin
Makeup Laura Stiassni (New York: ArtList)
Hair Matthew Tuozzoli (Atelier Management)
Set Design Marie Yan Morvan
Producer Jazmin Alvarez
Casting Jonathan Shia
Retouching Silhouette Studio
Interview and text by Irene Ojo-Felix
I wanted to start off and just get a feeling how you began. How did you first start even being interested in nails?
Nails? I’m from Japan and nails have been so popular there for 20 years. When I was maybe 11 or 12, I started doing my own nails and I always liked painting my own. It was just one color but I always had fun colors on my nails. Even my mom always said, you have to take it off before you go to school.
Then my friend and my sisters asked me to do their nails because I was already starting to do some nail art. It was just a flower or one stone, very simple. I always made press on tips for my friends but I didn’t think that it could be a job. I didn’t think that I could make money doing nails but after I graduated high school, I decided to go to beauty school. I tried hair, makeup, and esthetics, but it wasn’t for me. I just loved the nails.
So you said you were always into beauty, were you always into being artistic? I look at nails as it is such a small canvas. What you do is artistic, so detailed, but you have to do it very small. Were you always drawing and sketching? Or did you just evolve into it?
I didn’t do that much sketching or drawing but I always loved origami when I was little. I always loved making stuff. My dad, he had a small construction company. When I was 9 or 10 years old, my dad and I made all of my furniture together. So, I always loved making stuff.
And it just kind of evolved into you going to beauty school and you coming across the beauty of nail art?
And did you work out there for a little bit? I know you came to the US?
Yeah. When I graduated high school I was going to beauty school but at the same time I was working for a salon. It was maybe 1999? Or 2000.
I don’t know how Japan was, but is it anywhere like clients you might have in America? Did people used to bring you pictures and say I want to do this? Or did you freestyle? Were you able to be artistic then?
Yeah. Also we made a bunch of nail art samples and then the clients chose designs from the samples. I started as a nail tech as a professional when I was 18.
I found here in the US if you give references beforehand most manicurists are not willing to go outside of their comfort zone. Maybe they don’t want to mess anything up. Did you find that working in the salon in Japan was a little bit restrictive artistically? Or was it just a stepping stone?
Mmm…I didn’t think that. But, Japan has a really great education system to be a nail tech. It’s so hard, you have to get licensed to do nails just like here. In order to do the license in Japan you have to study and practice so much to pass the exam so the quality of a manicurists is so high. When I moved to New York I thought I could learn very cutting edge technique but it was actually the opposite. I was kind of disappointed because the level of everyone was so bad.
And no one was really doing nail art. I remember that was one of the first things when I first came to New York that I was really into. All of these new nail art salons that were kind of blossoming. Still to this day, there’s a few cities maybe LA or Miami, but it’s something that’s early confined to a few major cities in America. I don’t know, I feel like there’s so many… including yourself… there are so many artistic viewpoints of how to do something with your nails that are unique and people are willing to pay a premium for.
Yeah, sure. When I moved to New York 9 years ago it was so uncommon still. As I told you I was kind of disappointed but I didn’t plan to stay here for a long time I planned to stay here for 3 months.
And then 3 months became 8 years!
Yeah! But I wanted to learn as much as I could. I was like, I know everything already.
So when you came to that discovery, what was the inclination for you to stay? Your initial reason for coming was to learn more. When you realized you knew everything, did you find that you could do something in New York?
I always had a crazy nails and people’s reaction to my nails was so amazing because they had never seen anything like that. So, I took it as my chance. I actually started working at this salon a week after I moved to New York, I got so lucky. I didn’t even know anyone and I didn’t speak any English when I moved here.
Yeah. I didn’t know anything! [laughs] So, I had some struggles when I moved here because I couldn’t even order food at the restaurants.
That’s so crazy. How would you communicate?
I couldn’t! So I would have a pen and a notebook and I would just draw stuff. Anyway, I started working in a salon in Williamsburg. I met this girl, she was a hairstylist working there, randomly at a Japanese bar and that’s how I started working in New York City. I didn’t have any clients back then, so I made a poster with phone numbers. You know where people can just take the phone number?
That’s a very guerrilla tactic!
Back then there was no Instagram, no Tumblr, no anything to promote yourself.
Yeah we take for granted how Instagram is such a great platform for visual inspiration. So, how did that eventually evolve into you working in editorial for runways and celebrity clients? Who was your first celebrity client?
It was Keri Hilson, and then I met Lady Gaga.
And did that lead you down the path to runway?
Yeah it was so funny so I met this makeup artist at Dunkin Donuts on 2nd avenue. [laughs] It’s such a New York story. I had saved up some money to move here but I didn’t have that many clients early on so I was living off my savings and was so broke. Actually, I was complaining about money to my friends at the Dunkin Donuts and thinking maybe I should move back to Japan this lady came in. It turned out she was my friend’s friend. She saw my nails and asked, “where did you get that?” I said, “Oh I’m a nail technician this is what I do for a living.” She told me, I need to introduce you to one of my clients and told me to come to the photo shoot tomorrow. I went and it was Keri Hilson. She was working with Lady Gaga too, the makeup artist, and introduced me to her.
But, they weren’t that famous yet because it was the very beginning of their career. I didn’t know who they were. Keri’s hair stylist also did hair for Alicia Keys and then introduced me to her and Alicia Keys’ choreographer knew a bunch of people and she introduced me to so many people too.
So you basically worked with so many big influential people. What would you say were the big moments that took your career to that next level?
I think Alicia helped me a lot. I did the nails for the Sex and the City movie. One of my clients at the salon, she was a hair stylist and her co-worker was Kim Cattrall’s hair stylist for the show and they called me. It was an amazing experience.
After doing that did it lead you to do editorial? Or runway? I’m curious when was your first editorial or fashion job.
When I first started doing photo shoots and stuff I was doing more commercial, I wasn’t doing high fashion shoots. I did a bunch for Covergirl.
I guess maybe this would be like 2010 or 2011 would be when your transition for when your career started… I saw that you worked with Madonna a couple of times?
Yeah she is my client. I just saw her last week for the Met Gala.
Oh amazing! How was it working with her as far as her being so influential in music?
It’s amazing. I get inspired by artists so much because they work so hard to be where they are. Madonna, she works so hard. She is a perfectionist and she’s funny and she’s beautiful. Every time I do her nails I get so much energy.
Are you more drawn to working with a celebrity vs working in editorial? Are they more reserved or more outgoing with what you can do with their nails?
When it comes to nail art, working with a celebrity is amazing because they love it and I get to be creative too.
I imagine the more outlandish the better.
Yeah, with editorial photo shoots crazy nails can be very distracting for the pictures. I have to think about how the nails will look in the picture. But, I enjoy doing everything.
I wanted to talk to you about your relationship with Kenzo’s Carol Lim and Humberto Leon and how that kind of came about and developed. I know you do the nails for them backstage?
The first ad I did with them was my favorite job I’ve ever done. Such a genius advertisement! I met them because my friend works for Opening Ceremony. For the Kenzo job, Humberto called me 3 or 4 days before the photoshoot. He was like, “oh I need you.” But I was in Japan when he called me. He was like, “we need you in Paris, can you come?” So I just booked my flight and I ran! It was such an amazing project with Kenzo and Toilet Paper Magazine. And then working with them is so amazing because they’re always open to my ideas. Most of the time when I work with a high fashion company they are kind of conservative and don’t want something too provocative.
This seems almost contradictory but I can imagine for sure.
Yeah, so they usually say simple clean nails. But Humberto and Carol were like, yeah do something! Do something fun. They are always into fun and new stuff.
So they’re more open to collaboration. Do you guys discuss concepts? How do you come up with what you’re going to do with nails? I would assume before a runway show you have you plan it out a little bit so it’s not total chaos?
I usually make nail tips before their show because I usually do nail art but can’t do it on the spot. I go to the studio or show room because I have to see the clothes in person to get inspired. I go there, see the clothes that they made and I make samples and then we discuss what should we change or what color should we use. That’s how we decide the design.
Amazing. So is it you just kind of take little bits and pieces of the prints or colors? Or is it an overall color inspiration that you take from the clothes?
They usually tell me where the inspiration is from or what kind of vibes they’re trying to give. Like, one time the collection was inspired by David Lynch, so I did a blue velvet nail based off one of his most famous movies. I feel like it’s just a nail, but if I do nail art it has to have a story behind it.
That’s funny that you draw that connection between that reference because I was going to ask you next, where do you normally get your inspiration? Now that we’re living in a digital world there are so many visuals that you come across, how do you find fresh and exciting inspiration to suggest to clients? Whether they’re personal clients or big ads?
I get inspiration from everywhere. Of course on the digital social media platforms, but I also go out a lot and get inspired by people in New York City. Also, I get to meet so many creative people to do my work. That’s why I love doing editorial too because those people who are on set are so unique and focused on their work.
Do you tend to try to stay away from online media as far as getting inspiration? Sometimes I talk to creatives and it’s a 50/50 split between people who are into Instagram and people who aren’t.
I definitely would say 50/50. I just don’t look at other nail tech’s Instagram pages because I don’t want to copy their designs. I love Instagram and social media, there are so many amazing pages. Art pages and fashion pages.
It’s a way for you as an artist to stay true to yourself?
Yeah I want to be original. I don’t want to be a copycat.
I wanted to go back and ask you, what was the biggest job that you’ve ever worked on as far as the scale of the project? I don’t know if it was an editorial that had a lot of models and you needed a lot of assistants. Maybe something backstage? I imagine runway would be more stressful because there are so many people that you have to do.
Yeah. That Kenzo show was crazy.
Really? Which one was it? You’ve worked with them so many times, how many times?
8 or 9 shows?
Does it get bigger and bigger with each show?
[laughs] Yeah. The last show I did this flower print nail and a zebra stripe nail. But I only had like, a day to make 900 nail tips. So, it was so crazy.
And to make sure that they’re all uniform and perfect.
Yeah! I did Madonna’s nail for her album cover shoot. It was such a great experience for me. Mert & Marcus shot that picture and then one of the, because she had multiple album covers, and one of them was just her hands grabbing this heart. It was an extensive day I was so excited just to be on set with them. With Madonna and Mert & Marcus. All of the top creative people.
Omar wears: Stylist’s own sunglasses, Annelise Michelson Necklace, Turnbull & Asser scarf, Longjourney jacket, Jil Sander suit, Underground & Devon Halfnight Leflufy shoes.
Logan wears: Stylist’s own glasses, Annelise Michelson necklace with Louis Vuitton scarf, Versace suit, Ariat boots
I was going to ask, if you could work with anybody who would it be? Who is still on your radar?
I would like to do Michelle Obama’s nails. That would be so nice.
She’s not so conservative either!
She’s not! She’s super into fashion.
She’s super into fashion. I’m sure if she wasn’t in the spotlight that she’s in now I’m sure she’d be super cool and wear whatever she wants. She seems like a rebel, but classy though. What would you do to her nails?
I don’t know, something to match with her outfit. I want to do a bright color like yellow or pink. Something like that.
As a nail artist, are you more drawn to bright sparkly things? Or does everything just have a mood as far as colors?
You know, I’ve done everything so now I’m so into simple stuff. I don’t even do nail art to my nails.
You’re into one color? Are you serious?
One color, yeah. Now I have red. Just red. And I don’t wear color that often… just red, black, silver, gold. Because I do nails every day all day so the last thing I want to do is my own nails so I usually just do nothing.
Do you have any tips speaking to our readers when it comes to beauty? Always we bring it from a perspective of the industry like how you work but also try to bring it down to the level like our consumers and our audience who is just reading it. Do you have any tips about what they should do as far as like … healthy nail shape and also if they’re wanting to work with someone who is a nail artist what should they do to prep so it’s easy and they can get what they want/a positive experience? Just any tips that you might have.
Moisturizing your hands is really important to have a nice nail. So many people use nail clippers to cut off their nails but it’s really bad for your nails so it’s always better to use a nail file.
Oh I didn’t know that! So use a nail file compared to a nail clipper. What makes the clippers bad?
Because the nail is made from 3 different layers. When you use a clipper it separates the layers so the edge of your nails get double or start peeling off.
Do you source talent from Instagram? How do you even find a talent that you want to bring onto your team.
I have one, my first assistant she’s amazing. I don’t know that many other nail techs because I don’t work with them. So…
Exactly. So is it just through recommendations?
My assistant works with other assistants for the shows and stuff so they know other nail technicians. My first assistant introduced me to so many other assistants.
And can kind of help you through word of mouth. It seems like your story is really just like, a circumstantial word of mouth and connections. Network through network through network. You’ve built your team around that, you’ve started out that way. It seems like very much like a, you know… something that you always wanted to do…
Also when I moved to New York I was out a lot. If somebody invited me to an event or asked me to go somewhere I would say yes. Because I didn’t know how much longer I would stay in New York so I didn’t want to waste any minute. So, I was always out and meeting so many people. My friends are so diverse. For example this week I was hanging out with Amanda Lepore.
I love Amanda!
She’s one of my best friends. I’ve been doing her nails for like 7 years. So like, we know everything about each other. One day I’m hanging out with Amanda Lepore and the next day I’m hanging out with I don’t know, hip hop artists, and the next day I’m hanging out with high fashion people. So like, those things help me a lot too.
It seems like a diverse range.
Yeah. Because you have to be flexible too. You have to understand many different styles or cultures. I’m kind of exposed to so many different in the scene that need to be creative and inspired too.
It seems like a very New York state of mind.
[laughs] It is. I just fell in love with the people and the culture. I’m absorbing so many things.
Awesome, so what’s next for you? Is there anything you haven’t accomplished that you want to? Do you want to open up a line of products? A shop? Anything?
It would be awesome to have a salon. I’m kind of sad that I don’t work at a salon now but ideally I’d love to open my own. I also want to make a book showcasing everything I can do! Also I would love to collaborate with other artists too. It could be a photographer or fashion designer, anyone. Collaboration is always fun.