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Frédérique Olthuis
Nails by Frédérique Olthuis courtesy of Instagram/@almamathijsen

Nail artist Frédérique Olthuis is not taking things too seriously

We chat to the Dutch creative about why she's learning to embrace the ugly

From digital artists to photographers, body sculptors and hair stylists to make-up and nail artists, in our Spotlight series, we profile the creatives tearing up the rulebook in their respective industries.

“There is a certain ‘ease’ to beauty. By beauty I mean, pretty and pink and perfect,” says nail artist Frédérique Olthuis on the role of beauty in her work. “It’s important for me to stay away from the pretty. It’s too safe. Nothing happens. The ugly is interesting and can become beautiful through the eyes of the beholder. But the ugly did not come naturally to me. I had to unlearn to aim for perfect.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find nails by Olthuis that aren’t impeccable, but if they aren’t quite perfect, that just makes them all the more interesting. The Dutch nail artist’s style runs the gamut, equally at ease with the freaky and the delicate, from the super-sized talons to the slogan statements – think political messages like “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” or “Vote or Die”. Then there’s the intricate designs, the delicate charms, the neon swirls, the phosphorescent oil spill patterns and, my personal favourites, the 3D vagina nails complete with a tampon string. 

Growing up in the east of The Netherlands, Olthuis moved to Amsterdam to study at the Gerrit Rietveld art academy before falling into nail art by chance and discovering a passion for it. Since then, her work has been featured on the covers of magazines including Lizzo for LOVE, Numéro, and Vogue Czechoslovakia, and on the runways for upcoming designers like Bodil Ouedraogo, MAISON the FAUX and this year’s Dazed 100-er Duran Lantink, as well as assisting Jenny Longworth at Gucci.

We caught up with the nail artist to talk depression, inspirations and not taking it all too seriously. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up?

Frédérique Olthuis: I grew up in a small city in the east of The Netherlands. I moved out as soon as I finished high school and have been living in Amsterdam for the past 15 years. I had a very strict and even a bit conservative upbringing. I had to unlearn a lot when I went to the art academy and when figuring out who I was outside of the structure of the family of six I grew up in. Even though my parents don’t really get what it is that I’m doing now, they fully support me. 

As a young adult, I struggled with depression. I was functioning but I had never been happy. Until a few summers ago when I had a feeling of enlightenment. It lasted a couple of months. I was happy, felt light as a feather and I loved everyone. It was magical. The moment passed, but it didn’t disappear. I still experience moments of happiness and I think life is just one big prank and I’m definitely laughing.   

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually? 

Frédérique Olthuis: I remember there was a magazine in the house when I was about six years old. On the cover was a tall skinny blonde white woman – come to think of it, could easily have been Claudia Schiffer – on the runway wearing a black and pink long dramatic silk dress. She was wearing lots of make-up and her boobs were pressed up to her neck. My parents never bought any fashion magazines so this was the only fashion image I had at my disposal for a year or so (I don’t remember ever opening the magazine). I always think of that cover when I hear the statistics about how many images we see per day in today’s world. Blows my mind. For a whole year, the established beauty image in my life was tall, blond, skinny and white. Would’ve loved to had seen some variety.

Later on, there were music videos on TV that also formed my aesthetic. Prince. Madonna was a forever mood. Naomi in Michael Jackson’s “In The Closet” video still blows my mind. In the 00s I wanted to be like the nasty girls in Destiny Child’s “Nasty Girl” video. Loved everything Aaliyah did, unfortunately, I never managed to pull that off. Skunk Anansie’s Skin was the coolest. Missy Elliott too. I remember when I was about 15 I went through a phase where Fred Durst was my fashion icon!

What's the first memory you have of finding someone beautiful? 

Frédérique Olthuis: When I was four we moved to a new neighbourhood. All of my siblings were attending school, but not me. I remember waiting every morning at the window for this lady to pass by. Every morning she did and she’d wave. She had silver shoulder-length hair and she always wore lots of blue eye make-up and probably a light pink shimmer lip. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I became friends with her and I’d hang out in her backyard all of the time. I was always welcome. She was the sweetest. Her name is Marita.

Why are you a nail artist? What made you want to become one? 

Frédérique Olthuis: For my graduation project at the art academy, I built a small nail salon, serving as an exhibition space. After graduating I started doing my nails more often. And my friends’ nails. And in some sort of a fluent move, I became a nail artist. After I did my first shoot I was sure that this was what I wanted to do.

How did you actually get into it? Is it something you learnt or is it more instinctual?

Frédérique Olthuis: Most of my work is very precise and time-consuming. When I started doing nails, I already had built up the patience and steady hand so I was able to create the things I came up with. I’ve been my own hand model so many times that I’m now ambidextrous. 

How would you describe your aesthetic? Would you say you have a signature look or technique that people come to you for?

Frédérique Olthuis: My work is too diverse to say that I have a signature look. However, I think a common factor for quite some projects is that I don’t shy away from a conceptual look. There’s always the idea first, then the execution. The outcome can be considered secondary. The effect of this method is that my work is not too calculated. I love that.

What should nails bring to a fashion editorial or catwalk show?

Frédérique Olthuis: That depends. It can either be an extension of the fashion or a piece on itself. And sometimes it’s just a plain manicure. A short, round red nail can be exactly what the style needs. Only overdo it when you do it well. I mean, I think there should be more room for mistakes. So I guess I’d have to change that to: overdo it as often as they will let you.

Do you get a lot of male clients? Have you noticed a change in the years you’ve been working?

Frédérique Olthuis: I don’t think there are more boys doing their nails now, than six years ago. Perhaps the acceptance from the public has shifted.

I don’t think I’ve ever made a distinction between male and female on shows regarding the nail looks. Young fashion designers largely design unisex collections, without that being their unique selling point. The beauty world, on the other hand, is a very binary-focused one. Lipstick is for women. Shaving foam is for men. Unless overpriced and packed in pink. I think it is up to us as artists to make changes. It takes forever for the commercial world to pick up on that though. But eventually, I think they will. 

What are the projects that you’re most proud of?

Frédérique Olthuis: For the Duran Lantink show last September, I cut up my entire archive of nails I made for shoots and shows and glued the pieces back together creating a whole new look. It perfectly fit Duran’s sustainable collection of cut-up designer wear and the end result was very yummy. 

Earlier this year I did Fong Leng’s nails, the iconic fashion designer now in her mid-80s and looking like a movie star. She came to the set with nail polish on which I left untouched and I added her own signature on each nail. The shoot was for Mirror Mirror Magazine, shot by Jasper Abels.

A year ago, my life-size classic red long talons made it on the cover of the very first Vogue Czechoslovakia. Very happy with that one. Shot by Michal Pudelka.

What is your dream person to work with?

Frédérique Olthuis: Erykah Badu, because she is so cool.

How do you think our understanding of beauty has shifted with the evolution of technology?

Frédérique Olthuis: First, there was Photoshop. This made the already insane beauty standards even harder to reach. Then came the filters and we could only bear to look at ourselves through one of those filters. Now, we have computer-made beauty models and today’s kids are much more aware. They grow up in the midst of technology and they can make a much bigger distinction between fake and real. 

What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry?

Frédérique Olthuis: At times, don’t take this shit too seriously. It’s just nails. Sometimes I freak out over a deadline or an underwhelming end result or that my nails didn’t make the cover. It helps to have a crazy passion for what you do. But I taught myself to also snap out of it. It’s. Just. Nails. (Also: expect prepping nails around the clock and going straight to a shoot with no sleep.)

What is the future of beauty?

Frédérique Olthuis: More extreme! ‘Natural’ is not a beat Nivea face, but actually natural. Fat, wrinkles, saggy boobs, it’s all going to be part of ‘beauty’. If it isn’t already. Also more plastic faces and bodies. The term ‘beauty standard’ will fade. 

Who would you like to shine a spotlight on next?

Frédérique Olthuis: Check out my hair girl Hester Beek.