Black Nail Artists on the Chokehold of Press-Ons

Black women are always at the forefront of nail trends, and pandemic or not, we’re saying yes to pressies. 

Photo: Photo: GRACIE J; Illustration: Kaitlyn Collins, Design: Jenna Brillhart

If you would have told 15-year-old me — a Black girl who had finally been deemed old enough to start getting acrylic tips added to my manicure at the neighborhood salon — that I would one day abandon full sets, I wouldn't haven't believed you. And if you went so far as to suggest press-on nails as a reason to abandon those coveted manicures, I would've been downright offended.

Custom nails were (and for many of us still are) one of the most important accessories for Black girls; one of many ways we creatively express ourselves. It's not uncommon to get your nails done with one specific outfit in mind, or to get your lover's name painted across the tips, or cut an additional twenty-dollar bill into tiny pieces to have them glued into the nail art. It's an art.

But I was constantly breaking my nails and having to walk around with the unsightly evidence until I could make it back to a salon for a repair. Sometimes my real nails would also break, leaving my fingers in pain. But it was worth it to me. Back then, press-ons had a bad rap, like getting your shoes from Payless or wearing something from the U.S. Polo Assn instead of Polo Ralph Lauren. They were looked at as tacky, cheap alternatives for people who didn't have the access or sense enough to get their nails done at the shop.

Some of this disdain was warranted.

In those days, you could only find press-on nails at select pharmacies or beauty supply stores in limited color and sizing options, and often made of thin, flimsy material. It was red-oval this or pink-oval that; they stuck on sloppily, would constantly pop off, and brought none of the creativity we were getting handcrafted at the salon. But it's 2022 now, and self-care doesn't have to be as expensive, inconvenient, or tacky as it once was. There's a whole press-on revolution happening in beauty right now, and one thing that has remained consistent is the fact that Black women are continuing to set the standard when it comes to nail trends.

Black Nail Artists Are Applying the Pressure With Press-Ons
Photo: The Editorial Nail

Jordan Williams has always hated "walking around with bare nails" but never has time to sit in a salon. While she had taken a nail technician course, she knew she didn't want to work as a traditional nail artist because she didn't like the idea of breathing in toxic chemicals and dust all day. "Press-on nails gave me an outlet to design nails without the hazards," she explained to me via email.

So, inspired by her "intense love for manicured nails and all things luxury," Williams launched High Voltage Nails in 2019. She offers dozens of designs in several length and shape options that can be sized to fit every nail and delivered straight to your door. HVN's options range from classic ombré'd French tips, to a handpainted cow print in both white and "Chocolate Milk," to a blinged out set called "Spoil Me." The brand has become my go-to for press-ons, but Williams is now one of dozens of Black nail entrepreneurs that are bringing stylish, convenient manicures to the masses.

Giants in the nail industry are starting to highlight press-ons as part of their offerings, as well. Chicago-based Tacarra 'Spifter' Sutton has made a name for herself as a multi-disciplinary artist, but her claim to national fame is her nail artistry. Her use of bold colors, freestyled lines, and abstract techniques borrowed from her skills as a graphic designer have made her a creative force in the nail art world since 2008, with clients including TV host Adrienne Bailon and singer Chrisette Michele. It can take months to get an appointment to sit across the table from Spifster for a classic manicure, though, so she says she would often encourage her out-of-town clients to use press-ons as an accessible alternative to her "Spiffed" look. Now, she has slowly started to roll out exclusive, limited edition press-ons of her own.

Black Nail Artists Are Applying the Pressure With Press-Ons
Courtesy of Spifster

For Gracie J. of The Editorial Nail (and former lead nail stylist on TNT's Claws) press-ons were just part of her everyday work. Using different adhesive techniques, press-ons were "a more efficient way to alternate between looks on set and keep the pace going," she says. Like lace-front wigs, press-ons have transitioned from being a best kept secret for actors and other performance artists and are now a normalized part of DIY beauty routines. Gracie recently launched her own press-on brand called TENX.

The most obvious reason for this shift toward pressies is the impact of the ongoing global pandemic. We have all been forced to reconsider the activities that put us in close proximity with strangers. When COVID-19 first hit the States and lockdown mandates were enforced, non-essential businesses were impacted the most; and these included our beloved nail salons. Nail connoisseurs were forced to consider other options for our manicures and press-on nails were a natural go-to — beauty entrepreneurs were happy to address this need, with brands like Chillhouse and Olive and June quickly pivoting to press-ons, and copycat companies swarming our Instagram feeds seemingly overnight. But this also became a moment to shine for Black-owned brands that were already around before 2020, like Williams' HVN, EthereallyTouchedNails, and The Sassy Nails Studio, just to name a few.

"During the pandemic many people who were accustomed to frequenting the salon started realizing that their nail routine was very much a part of their self care practices," says Gracie J. "People want to keep a sense of normalcy through a time that is often isolating." I count myself as one of those people, and press-ons are a welcome part of my at-home routine now. For me, it's less about the process of putting them on, which is pretty quick but I wouldn't call relaxing. It's more about the familiar comfort I get to savor from simply having my nails done. I find myself more motivated to get dressed and interact with others (albeit via Facetime) when my nails are done. I also no longer have to spend $90 (plus tip) for custom designs. While there is certainly a luxury press-on sector, where sets can set you back at least a hundred bucks, I rarely pay more than $50 for good pressies.

Black Nail Artists Are Applying the Pressure With Press-Ons
Courtesy of High Voltage Nails Co.

Looking back on my former disdain for press-ons, I know now that part of the negative experience had to do with the fact that I wasn't applying them correctly. You have to prep your natural nails by cleaning up your cuticles, and buffing the nail. It's also worth trying different kinds of nail glue — I recommend this brand. Thankfully, the learning curve for press-ons isn't too steep. It turns out that Black women are not only top tier nail artists, but nail art content creators as well. "Through reels and articles on press-on application, your everyday girl is now equipped with the knowledge to actually make those press-ons stay," Sutton says. The ability to not only buy, but also self-apply press-ons have only added to their allure.

In the words of Gracie J.: "People want fun and easy. They don't want to over complicate their lives." Unlike other pandemic fads that are already showing signs of slowing down (sorry, Peloton) I doubt that pressies are going away anytime soon. The market is ripe for new artists wanting in on the action, but Williams has some advice. "It is really important to have a plan to scale. You cannot complete thousands of orders by hand so start thinking of your long term growth plan." Spifster predicts that more existing brands will begin adding press-ons to their product lineups, covering more customers' needs in the drugstore-to-luxury continuum. This will make it even easier to get nail content up on the 'gram, and thankfully we don't have to sacrifice convenience, style, or the opportunity to #BuyBlack.

Sesali Bowen is a culture reporter, podcast host, and author of Bad Fat Black Girl: Notes from a Trap Feminist, out now from HarperCollins.

The State of the Arts is InStyle's biannual celebration of the Black creativity and excellence driving fashion, beauty, self-care, and the culture at large.

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