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Bjork Homogenic
Bjork, Homogenic

Meet the artist behind Bjork’s nails

TextSapphi Littleton

We caught up with legendary nail artist Marian Newman to find out all about her new book Nailed It

Her work has appeared on over 50 British Vogue covers, spanned ten years of Dior campaigns, been featured on the catwalks of Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Margiela and on the cover of Bjork’s Homogenic album. Suffice to say, Marian Newman is the queen of nails. A humble one at that. “I’m not saving lives or changing the world,” she says, “but I do, on occasion make people happy and feel better about themselves. I am a small part of amazing teams that create very beautiful things.”

Entering the industry “by accident,” Marian’s first nail encounter was at a trade show. At the time she was researching the nail industry for the owner of a small chain of beauty salons who was planning on opening a nail treatment centre. It was there she became fascinated and consequently opened one of the first nails-only salons in the UK. Her thirty-year career began in the 80s, when nails were just those things on the end of your fingers. Now, partly in thanks to influence, nails are an essential part of an overall look. It’s been quite a journey, one that has been lovingly compiled into a new book, Nailed It, which launches later this month. In it Marian tells the behind the scenes stories of her life’s work, featuring everyone from Kate Moss to Lady Gaga. We talked with Marian Newman about how she got to where she is.

Tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up.
Marian Newman: I was born and grew up in London. My family have lived there for many generations, mostly Clerkenwell, Islington, Shoreditch. All my schools were convents so I was taught by nuns. I think this encouraged a bit of atheism on my part! My parents were hard workers and instilled that in me along with the message “if you want something enough, work hard, do your best and you’ll have a good chance of getting it.” I enjoyed both art and science at school. I was always doing little art projects at home but was never very good at it. I always wanted to go down the science route as a job, as I did for a time. That ‘science head’ has definitely helped in my nail career.

What’s your earliest beauty related memory?
Marian Newman: I think, like all little girls, my Mum’s make up bag. But I had an extra advantage as I had a sister 16 years older than me. She was very glamorous and beautiful with lots of boyfriends (who bought me presents!) This was late 50’s and early 60’s so fashion was very ‘grown up’ with chignons and lipstick and high heels. I think I’ve stayed there as my pleasing aesthetic. I just can’t wear it.

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?
Marian Newman: I went through many stages. Fashion was a focus of mine only in as much as there were trends that all teenagers had to keep up with. I definitely had a phase of being a ‘Mod’ and wore a lot of the early Mary Quant style with mini skirts and white PVC boots with cut-outs and painted on eyelashes. I spent a long time as a hippy with the whole ‘flower power’ gig. I developed a ‘look’ in the 80’s that was very much Adam Ant’s Dandy Highwayman. I wore a long black frock coat to death always with stone coloured jodhpurs and a white Stock. (Someone did say I looked like Max Wall though!)

How did you first get into nails?
Marian Newman: It was by accident. I was asked to investigate the nail industry for the owner of a small chain of beauty salons as he wanted to open a ‘nail treatment centre.’ I went to a trade show where there were a few nail product stands. This was in the ’80s so it was nothing like as popular as it is now. I ‘discovered’ the industry such as it was back then but no one had answers to the questions I had on the chemistry and nail anatomy. That was what drew me in. Then I found Creative Nail Design (CND now) and my questions were answered. I got hooked and opened one of the first nails-only salons in the UK.

Do you remember your first fashion shoot?
Marian Newman: Yes! It was all so new, I had no idea! I was active in the professional industry and a photographer’s producer was looking for someone to do long nails for a shoe campaign with colours that matched the shoes. They found me. I went along not knowing what I was getting into. I had a lovely day with wonderful people who turned out to be Nick Knight and Lucinda Chambers and that was it! I haven’t looked back.

You started working in fashion in the mid-90s. What was the industry like back then?
Marian Newman: Well, it certainly didn’t recognise nails as being relevant to fashion. To a certain extent, it still doesn’t. Nick Knight made them relevant because he is the ‘high priest’ of the detail. Lucinda Chambers made them relevant because she had some letters of complaint that the model on the cover of a Vogue issue had grubby nails. My first fashion show was with Alexander McQueen as he had seen what can be created with nails on a Nick Knight shoot so wanted me to create some EXTREME nails. It was a long road of the ‘fashion crowd’ not understanding why I was even there.  

How has it changed in the years since?
Marian Newman: It has changed a lot for the most part. Now it is perfectly acceptable and usual for a manicurist to be working on a show, editorial, campaign etc. There are many parts of fashion that see manicuring as a detail of good grooming. I completely get that. There are others that see nails as an accessory and want a complimentary colour to complete the look and the character of the ‘woman’ (or man) wearing the collection. Then there are others that love a nail design to be as much of a statement as the fashion (obviously they are one of my favourites).

What should nail art bring to a shoot or runway show?
Marian Newman: Well, it should never overshadow the fashion. As explained above, it may just be good grooming (all in the detail). It may beautifully accessorise an outfit. It may give the model a bit more poise and encourage more interesting hand expressions. For a show, it can often bring more media coverage. Nails are very popular and a good nail on the models at a show can attract attention to the designer just like the hair and makeup looks. Nails can also finish off the story the designer or stylist is wanting to share. Of course, I love a whole nail story in a beauty editorial. I’ve been lucky enough to have a free reign on some of these and they have to be some of my best times.

How do you use nails to tell a story or convey emotion?
Marian Newman: There is always a ‘story’ behind my nails even if I don’t get the opportunity to tell it. I believe I am known by some of the beauty press to always provide them with a ’story’ or a soundbite backstage even if the nails are yet another nude! For fashion, I will look at who the woman wearing the clothes really is and these descriptions can go on forever. Is she chic, disdainful, a rebel, childlike, not trying too hard, a goth, a punk, a 50’s starlet and on and on. Every nail, however simple or extreme is always considered and I have the story if anyone wants to hear it.

How did the book come about?
Marian Newman: I was invited! I was very honoured and humbled to be asked as I didn’t believe I was interesting enough. I was assured that I was. I really do believe in my saying “I’m Marian and I do nails.” I’m not saving lives or changing the world. But I do, on occasion, make people happy and feel better about themselves. I am also a small part of amazing teams that create very beautiful things.

How do you think our understanding of beauty has shifted with the evolution of technology?
Marian Newman: I think there is a bit too much ’spin’ where so many are influenced by the wrong facts. There is also a bit too much of ’selling a dream,’ promises that cannot be realised. But, there is also a lot of technology that has made many things possible that will help to enhance beauty. For me, I do nails so if you don’t like them they will come off! In saying that I have always had true belief in improving the quality of nails which is easily done. When working, I go to great lengths to preserve the condition of models’ nails. On a shoot or show, I may not be able to improve the quality but I will do everything I can not to cause any damage and every one of my team will do the same. Unfortunately, there are a lot in this industry that do not hold the same professional ethos and I see far too many models with shocking and unnecessary damage.

What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry?
Marian Newman: Work hard, learn something new every day, be humble, be nice, be respectful. It is never all about ‘you.’ It is about you working as part of a team (even if there are others that don’t conform to this belief).

What is the future of beauty?
Marian Newman: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I do nails and the ‘beholder’ is YOU. You look at your nails every day, all day. They need to make you happy and no one else. I would like to believe that this is true for all aspects of beauty. Social media has changed things and so many aspire to what others are doing and how they are changing their bodies. It isn’t a good direction. I hope it will stop and the future is about being happy and healthy and using technology to enhance wellbeing. (Cloud cuckoo land? Probably).

Nailed it will be available from April 22 and can be pre-ordered here.

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