Beauty Boss: How Deborah Lippmann Nailed the Luxury Polish Business
In our Beauty Boss series, we’re highlighting individuals who are owning the beauty space and turning it upside down in innovative ways. You’ll be able to get an exclusive look at their very personal journeys to success as well as hear their advice to anyone wanting to follow in their footsteps. Today, we’re chatting with nail guru and polish brand founder Deborah Lippmann.
You might not immediately associate music with nail polish, but Deborah Lippmann always has. “All my polishes are named after song titles,” she revealed to us over the phone. “My first sheer red was My Old Flame, and my first sheer pink was called Prelude to a Kiss.” Lippmann, who trained as a classical singer from age 4 and won her first music competition a year later, never thought she was going to get into nails—yet her journey to nail guru and beauty brand founder is an inspiring one, proving you can have a passion, discover a new one, turn the latter into a burgeoning business… and still manage to do the former. Nowadays, Lippmann holds hands (her way of referencing the surprisingly intimate act of polishing someone’s nails) with everyone from Cher to Sarah Jessica Parker to Anne Hathaway and creates runway polish looks for designers like Narciso Rodriguez and Donatella Versace (both of whom she counts as friends, as well as colleagues). Oh, and don’t forget the part about managing all the day-to-day operations for her eponymous line, which has risen to full-fledged leader status in the luxury nail care space. No easy feat, but Lippmann does it all with an effervescent attitude—one that makes you want to learn all of your business secrets but also just sit around and talk polish colours all day.
Ahead, you’ll find out Deborah Lippmann’s unconventional journey to nail polish brand founder, nail guru, and trend shaper. You may want to take notes.
Keep scrolling to learn all about Beauty Boss Deborah Lippmann!
Courtesy of Deborah Lippmann
Can you tell us a little about your background? Did you always know you wanted to do something nail or beauty-related?
Lippmann: No. Never in a million years would I have thought that I would be doing what I’m doing now. It’s great to keep your eyes open in the front and back of your head, because you never know where life is going to lead you. I started singing at 4 years old. I won my first contest as a musician when I was 5. That was my full passion. As a kid, I was a nail biter. I was a nail biter until college, when I got my first paid performing job. When we got to the dress rehearsal, I had these bitten to the bone nails—my director made me get a set of artificial nails put on. It changed the way I saw myself. I knew it was a problem my whole life, but I couldn’t get myself to stop, until that moment. I remember my doctor saying that your hands say so much about you. To this day, I feel better about myself when my nails are groomed. I look at someone’s hands before I look at the eye; I just can’t help it. I know a lot of people are embarrassed about their hands when they meet me. They shouldn’t be!
So how did this paradigm-shifting manicure lead to you doing nails?
Lippmann: So I finished college, got a degree in music, was making the circuit singing, and wasn’t making the money I wanted to. Like most of my musician and actor friends, I tried waitressing and found out I was the most untalented person to be holding a tray. I literally dropped a tray on someone’s head and dropped red sauce down her outfit once! My other love was beauty, and I wound up in cosmetology school. I had long nails that were artificial, but I had never done someone else’s nail. I had no idea what I was doing. When I sat down in cosmetology school, I was really bad. Really, really bad. I knew how to do mascara, foundation, lipstick, but had never done nails. It was surprising that this was what I loved doing. As much as I love the detail work, I also love the experience of holding hands with people and the intimacy of it. Really short story of why I was becoming a manicurist instead of hair or skin: At the time, I was singing and standing for hours at the time, so it just made sense to find a job where I could sit.
You were in Arizona at the time—what inspired you to move to New York?
Lippmann: I was singing in a show and acting, and something led me to want to audition for a show that was in New York. I got an audition for a show in New York I almost quite got but didn’t get. The casting director said, “I need you to move to New York and give me some time.” I had a great career doing nails and singing at Arizona. I actually got to work with Sondheim; I had a great life there. I auditioned for Les Mis in New York, and I was not smart enough or savvy enough to get the job, but the experience made me make a life choice. I talked to the casting director, and he said, “You need to make a choice now: Do you want to make a great career in Arizona, which there’s nothing wrong with, or do you want to try for something more?” That’s something I ask myself all the time. Do I want to be happy where I am? I’m always looking for something more. I still love to sing. So how do I fit in time for singing? I just do. I want more. There’s time to sleep when you’re dead. I think we all find time for the things we really, really love. And I’m really lucky that I love both of the things I do for a career. I don’t do as much singing as I do nails, but I’ve done more this year than I’ve done in a long time. The bigger my brand is, at this point in time, the more singing I’m actually able to do. It helps me be inspired and motivated and be happy.
Courtesy of Deborah Lippmann
So you moved to New York—what happened there?
Lippmann: When I moved to New York, I was really working with the who’s who of women. And realized as I held hands with these women that they really didn’t understand nail care. From ’93 to ’98, I really started realizing that these luxury women who shop at Bergdorf’s or Barneys didn’t understand nail care but couldn’t go buy a polish remover or a cuticle remover. They couldn’t get a polish that wore really well. Those were all things that were circling around in my brain for a long time. There was a need in the luxury space that would make their lives easier. They could buy a polish at Bergdorf’s but then have to go to Sally or Rite -Aid to get a nail file or cuticle stick. How do we make this woman’s life easier? How does she take care of her own nails when she can’t get in a salon to see somebody?
There were some other polishes dominating the market at the time. How did you want your line to be different?
Lippmann: Ingredients was a big goal. And so was being able to offer a much more luxurious formula. When I launched in 1999 in Barneys or Sephora or wherever, there wasn’t a full nail brand that was available. You could go to Chanel and buy their fabulous colors, or Dior or YSL, but you couldn’t buy a base coat, topcoat, cuticle remover, buffer, file, polish remover. It was about making an entire line. You can wear my polishes without my base topcoat, but they work better together. I had this opportunity to create a formula that was really as close to nontoxic as it can be. And things have come a really, really long way in the 15 years that I’ve been in business. It was important to remove ingredients that were potentially harmful ingredients to someone’s body; it was also important for the formula to be long wearing. It was one of the challenge and still one of the challenges today.
How do you stay ahead of the curve when it comes to ingredients and formulas?
Lippmann: I’m part of this group called ICAMD—Independent Cosmetic Manufacturers and Distributors. It’s full of people who are in the cosmetic industry and entrepreneurs who have their own brands, and regulatory guys, I’m constantly learning from that group, which is a great group for small cosmetic brands to be a part of. They help me keep ahead of the curve and know what is potentially harmful. Ingredients are considered harmful now that weren’t considered harmful 20 years ago. I work with chemists to improve the wear and gloss and dry time. Those are the things that are the most important: shine and dry time. We’re continuing to try to remove harmful ingredients. If I’m taking formaldehyde and camphor out, what are we going to put in? Well, biotin and green tea for one.
Kate Spade S/S 15
Starting a business from the ground up is no easy feat—can you describe what that process was like? What were some lessons you learned?
Lippmann: When I started the brand, I didn’t have my own home computer—this was in 1997, when I started really researching it. My brother was my roommate. He did have my home computer, but he couldn’t google nail polish manufacturers or anything. And I remember Sue Debitt (she was a makeup artist who worked on a lot of photo shoots with me) giving me the first manufacturer of bottles, called Arrowpack in Queens or somewhere. She was the first person to give me a name, and they were a glass manufacturer. They gave me the name of some people who made caps. I didn’t realize you got your bottle from somewhere and the cap from somewhere else. Then, those people gave me the name of five or 10 people who made boxes, so I called those 10 people, and those people gave me other names, and my Rolodex started growing from there. You couldn’t look them up online, because they didn’t have websites! Then, I found out there were trade shows, like CosmoProf, available in a bunch of different cities; there, you can find a zillion different people. It took some talking to get my nail polish manufacturers to take me as a client.
What was the best piece of business advice you got?
Lippmann: I have so many mentors. I got a lot of business advice. Martha Stewart gave me a really good piece of business advice, actually. My name is spelled “Deborah Lippmann”—it’s hard to remember there’s an h and two p’s and two n’s. When we bought the domain name online, we bought it with the correct spelling of my name. Martha was like, you need to buy more. So we bought as many variations as possible, which is something that you didn’t know at the time. That was a beneficial piece of information.
What about funding?
Lippmann: I had a bunch of close friends who trusted me and believed in me and gave me money out of their pockets—and that’s how they got started. It’s funny—I’ll meet people and be like, “Oh, you started your company. When are you going to sell?” And I’m like, why would you start something just to sell? I started a brand because I like creating things, and the process. The first girl on my team just got pregnant; we call her a Deborah Lippmann baby. We are a family business. My husband and brother are my partners. They’re both running restaurants. None of us had any business skills. We had no knowledge. Which was probably a good thing, because if we knew, we may not have had the guts to go ahead. I think our naiveté was a blessing.
Where do you find inspiration for your shades and finishes?
Lippmann: I find the color inspiration everywhere, but a lot of it comes from the runway and my relationship with designers. I consider my nail polish a fashion brand. My collections are inspired so much by the designers I work with.
Nail art—nay or yay?
Lippmann: Things are going more minimal, definitely, but I think it’s different here. I just got back from the U.K., and nail art is HUGE. I did a couple of fashion shows, and that’s also a place where I’m blessed to be ahead of the curve of what’s really happening in fashion. I’ve never really bought into the trends, I’m friends with Narcisco Rodriguez and Donatella Versace, and I’m with them in the show room and hear from their perspective what they’re able to create. I worked this season with designers who are known for minimalism and being very modern and on trend. I got to work with Public School, and we did a kind of negative-space feathered nail. I hadn’t met them before, so I was trying to wrap my mind around what they might like and had been forewarned they didn’t like nail color. The feather was inspired by a piece of the fabric that was in several of the pieces. We did all these complicated techniques to create the feather, but [they weren’t totally right]. Eventually I did what everyone did at home and just swept a half-dry polish brush across the nail. Less is more. Sometimes you work yourself into a crazy space, and have to take a step back and go, wait a minute.
Courtesy of Deborah Lippmann
Do you have any nail muses?
Lippmann: The clients that I work with are my nail muses. These A-list clients that I work with have access to everything, and when I hear them say, “I wish I could find a color that had this that or the other,” then I look around and say, let’s try to make that. I met Sarah Jessica Parker in the days of SATC, and she wore Prelude to a Kiss ($18). She thought it was the best sheer pink ever; it used to be Carrie’s bathroom in Sex and the City! After a few years, she said to me, “My life has changed, I have more kids, I wish you had a color that was a little more forgiving, more beige.” So we created a color together called Sarah Smile ($18) that came out of her talking about her personal needs. If she had those needs, then so do a lot of other people. We had a color in a collection called Believe that was inspired by Cher. She was in New York on tour and she had me come do her nails. And she had an idea in her head of the color she wanted, and she was wearing four coats of different nail polishes, and it took me forever to get it off. So that was my inspiration to create Believe, which was silver and gold in the same bottle, so it would go with anything on stage and not look garish walking down the street.
Speaking of Cher, you’ve said before that she helped your pick the final design for your polish bottle—can you elaborate?
Lippmann: In my mind, I wanted something that looked as much like a perfume bottle as much as possible. I feel like one of the reasons women don’t take care of their nails is because they throw their polish in their drawers. I wanted something that was really pretty. When I found this particular bottle, it was one of three or four bottles. And I sat on Cher’s bed. She was in NY and super supportive of me creating products. I had a bunch of different caps and brushes, and in my head I had an idea of what was going to be the best. We sat on the bed and played with the formulas I had narrowed it down to. And I gave her a few that I didn’t necessarily feel were fabulous, but because I wanted a real person’s take on how the brush was going to be used. Nowadays, she will literally go, “This my friend Deborah Lippmann, and I picked her bottle.” Which is a pretty big thing, as big as her world is, that she remembers that.
Hardest question—which three Deborah Lippmann polishes do you think every woman should own?
Lippmann: That is hard! I would say My Old Flame ($18), because it’s a classic red that will take you year round and looks good on every skin tone. Fashion ($18), which is not your typical taupe. I created that out of doing so many fashion shoots where the editors and photographers were looking for a color that extended your skin tone and had a bit of coverage but made your fingers look like they continued and had full coverage. And finally, Happy Birthday ($20)— because it was the glitter that revolutionized glitter nail polish. There, now I feel so guilty for picking favorites!
A woman’s polish collection says a lot about her. What does your own look like, and what do you think it says about you?
Lippmann: My own collection is all Deborah Lippmann, and it says that I love color! It depends on the day; since I’ve been sitting the office, I’ve changed my nail polish three times. A funny thing about me is that I can sit in an office where I’m looking at 70 colors, and it’s super easy for me to polish my nails (I can do it in the cab, which I don’t recommend you do), but it’s still is a big decision for me when I put a color on. It’s almost like making a decision for a new haircut. I think it’s one of the things about nail polish as an accessory. If I’m in a dark mood or it’s dark in NYC, then I might put on a color like Mermaid's Dream ($20), because it might make me happier. I will wear any texture. I’ll most likely wearing something in a gray or taupe or a red—actually, I can’t choose. I am a very colorful personality!
Lastly, do you have any advice to young beauty entrepreneurs?
Lippmann: I would say that if you have it in your gut and you want to try it, you have to go ahead. Go with your gut, and get as many mentors as you can. There’s not one road to success. Estée Lauder didn’t get to where she was the same way as Bobbi Brown. I’m not getting there the same way anyone else before me. Be true to yourself, be willing to listen. I think about myself when I started, and I wish I could go back and tape-record people who mentored me in the beginning. Because I’m pretty sure they told me how hard it would be, and I didn’t believe it. It’s not an easy road, but it’s very fulfilling. There are very few times when I’m like, “Wow, look what at what we’ve done.” It’s more like, what’s happening next?
Shop three of our favorite Deborah Lippmann nail products and tell us—were you inspired by her career path? Who should we feature next? Sound off below!