Some of Angel My Linh’s earliest memories are of her mum’s nail salon in Bromley, South London: wheelie chairs sliding across the laminated floor, the LED light from UV lamps drying off punters’ nails, the smell of polish wafting through the air, a revolving door of clients coming in and out.
“It’s the main reason why I do what I do today,” the 23-year-old says, now an accomplished nail artist in her own right. “I was always there – after school, before school. When I was about 11, my older cousin opened up a salon in Wanstead [East London] and I’d help her whenever I could. It was actually named after me: Angel’s Hair and Nails.”
Over the past seven years, Linh, who’s still based in South London, has carved out a reputation for whipping up super-detailed nail art that runs the gamut from airbrushed kawaii sets and croc print tips, to gothic embellishments and 3D chrome claws. But she’s sacked off the traditional business format. “The hours were too long, and by the time I was 16, I’d stopped enjoying that environment,” she says of her salon days. Linh’s now doing everything from the comfort of her own home. “It’s my favourite thing ever. It’s such an intimate process – I am holding your hand for over two hours. I know people’s deepest, darkest secrets. You come into my home, it smells like the noodles I’ve just cooked. It’s a very special thing.”
Linh’s not the only nail artist to take business into her hands. The pandemic saw plenty of DIY nail techs crop up on Instagram, whether they were forced to leave salons due to lockdown or simply decided to sharpen up a hobby they didn’t have enough time to dedicate themselves to properly before. As soon as lockdown lifted, there was an onslaught of custom manis to choose from, courtesy of Insta nail artists. Many of them are now so popular you need to set up mobile alerts just to secure an appointment.
South London-based artist Zoey Li, 27, has been doing nails at home for the last two years. She specialises in using non-toxic gel to create 3D, bejewelled manis featuring geometric shapes and free-flowing designs. “When I was working in a salon, I was self-employed, which gave me the freedom to build my own audience that was separate from what I was posting on Instagram,” she says. “It was a fast track to learning the fundamental basics of what makes a good manicure.”
Now, Zoey takes bookings exclusively via her Instagram page, which doubles up as a virtual shop window for her to display her best work. The autonomy that comes with running a business in the palm of her hand feels invaluable. “The transition was pretty seamless and I haven’t looked back,” she continues. “Working by myself has allowed me to evolve my style, and my clients really trust me.”
That’s the thing about doing DIY nails: the relationships artists develop with their clients helps to foster a thriving community, despite the fact they’re working independently. “Being home-based, you definitely do develop such a strong connection with your customers,” Zoey continues. “They feel more comfortable talking because no one is listening!”
That’s not to say nail salons aren’t a great way to meet new people. As Linh says, “salons are a whole other experience – you end up getting friendly with people you’d never otherwise encounter.” These days, she notices that her clientele typically comes from a similar crowd of “creative people”, whereas “in a salon, you get walk-ins, dozens of different personalities a day. But you might never see that person again.”
For Carolina Ibrahim, 25, who works from home in Angel, North London, the bond she creates with her dedicated repeat customers is one of the biggest perks of helming her own DIY nail business. “My regulars have been coming to me for almost three or four years, and many of them have become my close friends,” she says. “I was nervous at first, having ‘strangers’ come into my home, but it’s actually very comfortable and relaxed.”
Now for the million dollar question: are independent nail artists the future? Maybe. “I think salons and DIY artists can coexist,” Zoey says. After all, there will always be a convenience-focused subset of customers who are more likely to hit up their local salon for a fresh manicure.
“People will always want that place to go to, and I also think it would be really hard to go independent without having worked in a salon first,” she continues. “What I’d love to see in the future is a hybrid of both, with salons operating at the same level of artwork as indie nail techs.”
Linh agrees: the efficiency of nail salons is unlikely to ever lose its appeal, plus you can go get your nails done with a couple of pals. “Everyone loves us for all the crazy nail art, but the experience you get in a salon and the one you get with an independent nail artist are completely different beasts,” Linh says. “Ultimately, independent artists are on the rise because you just have more time to be creative. There’s space for everyone.” At the end of the day, salons and DIY nail work cater to a different set of needs – but where both foster community, the latter allows artists like Linh, Zoey and Ibrahim to work more freely, on their own terms. You can’t put a price on that, can you?