Q&A: KIRSTEN WHITE
The founder and director of London Grace on New York nail bars, dry pedicures, and why her mum is a shade of orange
Words: Clare Finney
Where did the inspiration for your London Grace nail bars come from?
New York. I lived there for two years while studying graphic design at Parsons School of Design. It was amazing, but because it was a fast-track course, there wasn’t much time to go out and party. Instead my friends and I would go to these late-night nail bars, to get our nails done and have our weekly catch up. At the end of my course, I moved back to London—and was amazed to find there were no nail bars that worked along those lines. There was nothing late at night, and nothing really affordable that allowed all your friends to sit together. You’d end up at different nail stations and couldn’t really catch up. I come from an entrepreneurial family, and I’ve always been interested in business, so when I was thinking about ideas and concepts for my own venture this struck me as an obvious thing.
You started your first business aged just 15—which is pretty unusual, even in an entrepreneurial family! How did that happen?
Ha, yes! Funnily enough, I found my old accounts book just the other day. It was called Party Star, and I supplied local catering companies with waiters and waitresses. It started off with just me asking friends and friends of friends who were looking for temp jobs, but I ended up with 100 people on my books and 16 events a week!
So why did you choose to study graphic design?
Well, I did my undergraduate degree in economics at Southampton first—but when I graduated, the recession had just hit and jobs and training contracts were hard to come by. I’ve always had a bit of a passion for graphic design, so when Parsons accepted me I immediately packed up my bags. I learnt so much in those two years—and much of that I use now in the business. The shop design, the branding, the packaging design all come from me. Then, between finishing at Parsons and starting London Grace, I was lucky enough to get a job at Deloitte on their graduate scheme, and that was helpful too in terms of learning about websites and apps.
The London Grace name and look are quite distinctive. How did that develop?
My first step was to book myself onto a nail course. If I wanted to sell nail services I needed to know what treatments were involved, and how long they would take. As for the brand, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted, and what I didn’t want. I didn’t want it to be pink and flashy: I wanted the opposite of that, which is why our core colour is blue and our environment is not super-feminine. The simplest thing, but actually one of the hardest, was the name. I wanted something with personality, something cosmopolitan, something that reflected our opening late, serving coffee and cocktails. Having your nails done is graceful—and London is just its own brand. London Grace fitted with my vision.
Did you work as a nail technician yourself when you first opened in Putney?
Oh yes! For a good nine months, and then I worked behind the bar once we’d got off the ground. I continued working weekends and during busy periods, and it was only when we opened our third store, Leicester Square, that I ran out of time.
The most obvious point of differentiation at London Grace is the coffee and cocktails. What was the thinking behind that?
I love cocktails and coffee, basically! It just felt like a natural thing to bring in. People feel like they can kick back with a drink while waiting for their nails to dry, get their book out, or have some cocktails with friends. It allows them to stay for a while and relax, which benefits both us and them. Initially, the idea of coffee, cocktails and nails was unique, so it brought people in—but they’ve kept with us because we offer a good service, as well as good drinks.
What concoctions can customers expect at London Grace?
Our coffee is from Ozone, a small roastery in Shoreditch. They are great to work with because they are about the same age as us, and going through a similar process of gradual expansion. The cocktails are the classics, done well: a good quality martini or mojito, made with brands like Sipsmith gin.
You went to huge lengths to develop your own range of varnishes and creams, eschewing the many ranges which already exist on the market. Why submit yourself to the extra work and hassle?
From the start I wanted London Grace to be a real brand, which included having our own range. At one point, when we were really stretched at the start, I contemplated buying in products—but I stuck with it. I scoured trade shows with my mum and found someone who was willing to develop our own products, free from nasties and not tested on animals: for example, many polishes have formaldehyde in, which isn’t good for our technicians—or our clients. We started with 25 colours and now we’ve 45 and counting, and we’re developing our range of hand and foot creams. Because we’re a small team, if there is enough customer demand for a particular colour we can respond quickly and deliver on it. Our last customer questionnaire was in January, and we’re working on colours based on feedback from that already.
Tell us about the ‘dry’ pedicure. Does this mean no foot bath?
Beyond cleaning the feet, the footbath has no benefit at all in a pedicure. If anything, it hinders it. For one thing, nails expand in water—so if you paint the nails immediately after soaking, cracks will appear once you’ve got home and they’ve shrunk back to their original shape. For another, in order to clean a foot bath you need to use a hospital grade disinfectant which must stay on for at least 20 minutes, in order to avoid the risk of infection. Now if you think about most nail bars, you don’t see a station free for any time at all between clients—which means they probably aren’t using hospital disinfectant. Which is a bit gross. So rather than risk it, we wipe the feet to clean them and work with a product called Footlogix, a callous softener. Then we use a foot file. It’s more hygienic, more environmentally friendly than using those harsh disinfectant chemicals, and because the nail hasn’t soaked in water, you get a much better result. The varnish doesn’t crack, and it lasts longer. It also means the treatments are much quicker. We have seven different types of treatment, and they are all timed. The longest is 45 minutes, and the quickest is a manicure, which we can do in under 30 minutes—so it’s perfect for a lunch time treat.
It’s been a pretty tough economic climate over the past few years—yet manicures and pedicures are more popular than ever. Why is that?
In the last recession, people described something they called the ‘lipstick effect’—the economy was on a downturn, yet there was a spike in the sales of lipstick. This recession, it’s nail polish. People want to give themselves an affordable treatment, that lifts their mood. In London in particular we live such busy city lives, it is an empowering thing to say, “I’m just going to sit down, relax, and not do anything; I’m going to treat myself.” And if you can combine that with seeing your friends, even better.
How did you end up in Marylebone?
We wanted this site as soon as we visited, because it is such a London Grace spot—so beautiful, and everyone is so friendly. However, having nails and cocktails is a bit of an unusual concept still in this country, and the council didn’t know where to place us. The whole process took months—but The Portman Estate were so enthusiastic, and so good at supporting us through the process, so we hung on in there. Then, when we opened, Gail’s bakery brought us a loaf of bread to welcome us, and the Portman pub invited us in for some drinks!
You’ve spoken before about how important it is to you that your employees are able to advance their careers. How have you set about realising that goal?
The beauty industry is one that has really been forgotten about as having career potential, and having worked in a very male dominated industry at Deloitte I wanted to give women an opportunity to progress and have set paths up the career ladder. It’s been so nice to see people grow with the brand. Some of our best performing managers joined right at the bottom as baristas or technicians, and now they know the brand inside out and are as hugely supportive of us as we are of them. Most of the people in head office we recruited from within the company. We do a lot of training, and are changing the frequency of our appraisals to every three months, in order to look at ways we can help people gain extra skills.
It may be a weird thing to say, but London Grace doesn’t smell like most conventional nail bars.
That’s because we don’t do acrylic nails, or nail art. We want to do happy, healthy, no-nonsense nails, and acrylics aren’t good for the health of your nails—and they aren’t good for our staff. The chemicals associated with acrylics aren’t great. As for nail art—well, there’s nothing wrong with it per se, but we are about convenience, and convenience and nail art don’t go hand in hand.
Your nail varnishes have people’s names, rather than abstract concepts or places. Why is that?
When I finally launched my first collection I named it after the people who helped me create the business. My mum is an orange—she’s an orange kind of person—and my father, Graham, is a nice grey colour. My brother is a lighter grey. He worked in one of our bars during his gap year, as a barista and barman. It just grew like that really: I’ve varnishes for everyone from my accountant to my mother-in-law. It’s a way of remembering all they’ve done.