Essie Weingarten steps off the elevator on the penthouse level of New York’s Mondrian SoHo hotel and is greeted by a wall covered floor to ceiling with framed photos of the most iconic nail polish shades she’s created over the past 30 years. “Oh my God, this is amazing!” she says, marvelling at the tributes to colours like “Mademoiselle,” “Wicked” and “Chinchilly” that her team has surprised her with as part of a dinner in her honour. As the founder of one of the most well-known brands in the category—seriously, walk into any nail bar, particularly in Manhattan, and you’ll see that her bottles dominate the shelves—Weingarten, originally from Queens, has much to celebrate. Not only did L’Oréal acquire her company in 2010, providing distribution of Essie to even more countries, but her colours are worn by everyone from the Queen (Her Majesty is fond of “Ballet Slippers”) to Lady Gaga (she paired “Merino Cool” with her infamous meat dress).
Weingarten’s love affair with polish began at an early age. “I always had ants in my pants,” she says. To get her to sit still and as a reward for good behaviour, her mother would take her to the beauty parlour—as they were called back in the day—and treat her to a manicure. She recalls that the colour selections were “not great.” In 1981, she decided to create her own polishes and told a chemist what she was after. “I said I was looking for something that would go on like silk, wear like iron and be shiny for a week—always look wet.” She developed 12 shades—three of which exist to this day: “Bordeaux,” “Blanc” and “Baby’s Breath”—and lugged hundreds of bottles to Las Vegas, leaving samples at all the hotel salons. “Within two weeks, every single hotel beauty salon called and placed an order,” she says. Soon the calls started coming in from all over the country; women who had visited Vegas and had their nails done wanted to know where they could get the lacquer that had been applied.
Today, Weingarten considers her brand ahead of the curve in terms of colour trends, claiming that both “Wicked,” a blackened red, and “Mink Muffs,” a mushroom taupe, paved the way for subsequent versions, such as Chanel’s “Vamp” and “Particulière.” Among the hits, though, there have been some troublemakers. In the ’80s, Weingarten named a purple-brown polish “Prune Face,” then discontinued it after Californians took it personally. “They thought we were talking about them,” she says. “It was way before Botox.” A firestorm of complaints rolled in again in 2004 over a pearlescent burgundy dubbed “After Sex.” It seemed Texans were none too pleased with the saucy appellation, so to appease them Weingarten sent them bottles with the shade renamed “After Six,” though the original name is still used. (On the flip side, those who took delight in the name pointed out that there should also be one called “Before Sex.”) Now she can call a polish “Size Matters” and no one will object. Spring 2012’s collection has a financial theme, but a positive one: “We just want you to get rid of all that recessionary caca,” she says. The names include “A Crewed Interest” and “To Buy or Not to Buy.”
As if there were any doubt, Weingarten has strong opinions about the maintenance of hands and feet. She gets a manicure every week (Fridays in the winter, Thursdays in the summer before she departs for the beach) and a pedicure every two weeks, which is non-negotiable no matter the season. “If I hear one more woman say, ‘Oh, it’s the winter, I don’t have to get a pedicure’! I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’” For Weingarten, not having colour on your fingers or toes is tantamount to public nudity. “If your nails are not done, you are not dressed, as far as I’m concerned.”