Fashion's most experimental nail artist lets us in on the future of manicures

Kim Kardashian just wore them but nail artist Mei Kawajiri has been pioneering pierced nails for some time [Photo: Instagram/ciaomanhattan2012]

When it comes to fashion shows, the only names usually known by the wider world are the designers. Yet an entire team featuring stylists, make-up artists and manicurists are all needed to execute a brand’s vision.

In the age of Instagram and ever-growing social media attention, once barely noticeable details are now sometimes more popular than the clothes themselves.

Mei Kawajiri is one name who has benefitted from our constant scrolling. Her painstakingly detailed work is probably on your feed right now, earning her over 50,000 Instagram followers and counting. It’s no surprise though for the Japanese creative is responsible for some of the fashion world’s most astounding nails.

Mei was responsible for Balenciaga’s Bernie Sanders manicures [Photo: Instagram/ciaomanhattan2012]

You may have noticed some of her most recent work floating around. At Balenciaga’s AW17 menswear show, male models adorned logoed nails that riffed on – or ripped off – the campaign slogan of hopeful presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. In fact, Mei has fast become an insider into the world of Demna Gvasalia: the creative director of Balenciaga and the man behind the somewhat contentious label, Vetements.

Her 80s-tastic work for Balenciaga’s SS17 womenswear show, for example, saw super long colourful talons embellished with huge diamantes, causing us all to wish for a return to the era’s excessive (read: tacky) nature.

Although Mei is a supporter of 3D nail additions – she cites charms, chains and hoops as the next big thing, she has more become known for her incredibly detailed combination of political and fashion designs.

Mei is well-known for her political designs [Photo: Instagram/ciaomanhattan2012]

Refusing to use stencils or stickers, each nail is hand-drawn by Mei herself. And there’s nothing she won’t try. A set featuring the entire Obama family? Check. Feminist patterns inspired by Dior? Done and dusted. Even a heavily politically-charged design featuring quotes from the Black Lives Matter campaign doesn’t faze her.

She’s not immune to a little fashion inspiration [Photo: Instagram/ciaomanhattan2012]

“People can create their own expressions and showcase their opinions through nail art,” she comments when asked about the growing trend for political nails. “Everyone can see your nails whether you’re on the street or at a store. It’s a great conversation starter.”

So how did such a talent get her break in the notoriously difficult fashion industry? “I always knew I wanted to do something with art,” she begins. “I thought maybe a tattoo artist, but my mum said no. I found a book about nail art in the bookstore and thought that would be perfect.”

At the age of 19, Mei embarked on a beauty school education in Osaka, commuting 90 minutes every day to learn the techniques behind a basic (yet all-important) manicure. “Everyone started asking me to do their nails so I worked in Kyoto and then moved to Tokyo.”

In 2006, Mei opened her first salon in Harajuku. Quite an impressive feat for a 23-year-old. After “working 24/7” for six years, she then decided to take the plunge and move to New York.

Teyana Taylor in a Marilyn Manson set created by Mei [Photo: Instagram/ciaomanhattan2012]

Her artistic talent was soon noticed by a whole host of celebrities including 2017 Oscar nominee Janelle Monae. A pop-up at Parisian department store, Colette, soon drew in the attention of fashion editors including one Carine Roitfeld who commissioned Mei to work on every major CR Fashion Book shoot.

Her mini sculptures have since adorned the hands of the likes of Bella Hadid and Teyana Taylor along with others who aren’t afraid of a little OTT manicure. In fact, they’re Mei’s favourite kind of people. “My favourite style of nail art is 3D,” she says. “Crazy styles with lots of detail that still look clean. Things that surprise people.”

“Very specific themes are popular at the moment. People really want to show what they’re interested in through their nails.” Mei’s Instagram certainly proves this with clients asking for everything from skate brand logos to Where’s Wally decal.

Logomania isn’t escaping the nail world [Photo: Instagram/ciaomanhattan2012]

Mei also loves to get her hands on the nails of men and actively encourages those of both genders to let their creativity fly: “[At the Balenciaga show,] male models were excited to have art on their nails. It’s not just fashion people that like it but musicians and artists too.”

Just as the catwalks are seeing a rise in unisex styles, Mei is witnessing an uptake in the amount of people willing to try new things. She sees gender fluidity as the next big thing in nail art and tells reluctant men “to try on one finger. It won’t last forever but could end up being your signature.”

Soon, you and your boyfriend could end up with matching nails. Wouldn’t that be a real step to equality?

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