Dec 24, 2011 12:00AM

Oyster #96: Deborah Lippmann

You're Gaga, you can bust a ghetto nail any day of the week.

Clockwise from top left: Glamorous Life, Brick House, Single Ladies, Billionaire, Stormy Weather, Good Girl Gone Bad

For Oyster Issue #96, we interviewed cosmetics extraordinaire and disco dancing champion, Deborah Lippmann, about her two great loves: nail polish and music:
Nineties New York gave birth to some of the world’s most celebrated cosmetic talents. It was the era in which Bobbi Brown, François Nars and Laura Mercier built their fortunes, and it was also the decade that Deborah Lippmann, a little-known jazz singer from Arizona, arrived, looking for a couch to crash on. Twenty years later, the one-time drifter is sitting atop an influential nail polish empire, flanked by Lady Gaga, Dree Hemingway and the Rodarte sisters. So, what’s her secret? Disco.
Renee Warne: I heard you once held the title of Arizona State Disco Dancing Champion. Is this true? 
Deborah Lippmann: Very, very true. My best friend was a dancer when we were both in high school. He had this partner who was in college, she was really hot — she had long hair down to her thighs like Crystal Gale; she was super cute. She was supposed to enter a competition with him, but the night of the contest she got a date with some dreamboat guy, so of course my best friend called me up and said, “I’m coming over, you’re going to dance with me,” and I was like, “Have you lost your mind?” At that stage we weren’t even old enough to get into some of the discos, but it became this whole thing, and we started winning and winning and eventually we were crowned Arizona’s Disco Dancing Champions.
Are you still dancing?
Absolutely. I still take dance lessons. I get voice lessons too. I love the creative arts; I think they’re such a great medium of self-expression.
How does your relationship with music inspire your work?
Music is a huge part of my everyday life. Every product in my range is named after a song that’s close to my heart. I actually studied a degree in music before I went to cosmetology school, and never could have guessed that through this product range I’d be able to bring together my two great loves.
The first Deborah Lippmann shade was created in 1998 with Mariah Carey [Satin Doll]. How did you start mixing in Mariah’s circle?
When I first moved to New York from Arizona I had my heart set on a career as a jazz singer, but the only jobs I was booking were weddings and bat mitzvahs, which weren’t paying the rent. So, I took a job in the Frédéric Fekkai salon and began freelancing as a manicurist on photo shoots. I remember being on set one day with legendary stylist Polly Mellen, and she wanted yellow nails. In my kit I had five or six different versions of yellow, yet I distinctly remember her saying, “Oh, dearie — you just don’t have the right shade of yellow!” [Laughs] So, there I was, sweating my guts out, mixing my first custom shade for Polly Mellen — which is not the easiest thing to do on set — but it somehow worked. I started appearing in a few magazines, and wound up in a Vogue article alongside François Nars. It all sort of started there.
You came full circle this year, creating the yellow nails Lady Gaga wore to claw out of her ‘vessel’ at the Grammys.
Yeah. I’d been watching other artists rehearsing in the days leading up to the performance, and every girl hitting that stage was wearing what we affectionately term ‘ghetto nails’ — which means crazy nail-art, with over-the-top sculpting and colour — and I said to her, “You’re Gaga, you can bust a ghetto nail any day of the week, but tonight you’re giving birth to a new nation of non-judgement. Do you really want to be reborn with acrylic nails?” I felt we needed something very different, so I fished around in my kit for the new colour I’d been working on called Yellow Brick Road, and she and Nicola [Formichetti] loved it — they thought it looked like a condom — so that’s what we used.
You paid homage to Gaga with a varnish named Bad Romance, and the two of you collaborated on her nail looks for the ‘Born This Way’ clip. What is it about her that you’re drawn to?
There are no boundaries with Gaga; I mean, nothing is off-limits — she’s open to every idea. She’s very, very creative, and extremely challenging to work with; she continually challenges your creativity. It’s amazing for someone to have that many ideas just flowing out of them.
How is working with Gaga different to your collaborations with designers like Rodarte?
It happens differently every time. With designers, sometimes I go to their studio in advance, other times it’s the day before the show — like the shade I designed with Narciso Rodriguez this Fall [Stormy Weather]. I created Marquee Moon with Rodarte in the early days, when I’d first started doing interesting things with glitter. It’s a concrete silver with really large sequins that sort of scatter randomly on every finger. You might find five on your thumb and only one on your index finger – that was the idea for the season; the range was very deconstructed and uneven.
I love Boom Boom Pow, the glittery shade created with 24-carat gold dust. What’s your favourite from the range?
Oh God, they’re all my children! That’s like asking somebody who their favourite child is! I’ve been wearing Naked a lot lately, which is a beautiful beige, and I’m wearing Don’t Tell Mama on my toes, which is a teal-green colour. I love wearing really dark colours in the summertime.
What’s your colour forecast for the holiday season?
I think we’re definitely going to see a lot of green — my new shade Billionaire has been getting a lot of play. Green was a really tricky colour to get right. This isn’t a rich emerald green — it’s a little bit sick, it’s a little bit khaki. Also, the colour I used for Rodarte last season [Do Ya Think I’m Sexy] ... It has these huge chunks of red glitter — we really went crazy for the holidays!
Words: Renee Warne
Photography: Ben Pogue
Creative Direction: Sam Addington