Whether it be a bold, single-colored coat or a bedazzled optical illusion, fans of nail art know that the tiny canvases of our fingernails can contain a cosmos of possibilities. A beauty routine that is widely practiced by women in China, nail art is starting to gain popularity among young men as well.
A 2018 trend report, jointly published by Chinese ecommerce platforms VIP.com and JD.com, showed that the size of the male skincare and cosmetics market was almost doubling year-on-year, with 48% of consumers born post-1990s. This growing trend of young men investing in their appearance has helped normalize nail grooming and upkeep.
But the current popularity of nail art among young Chinese men has less to do with progressive gender roles or self-care. Rather, the focus is on self-expression and creative freedom.
In the US and Europe, male celebrities have been rocking brightly painted nails to complete a look or make a statement since the days of David Bowie. Painted nails — especially black ones — were used by punks, goths, and emo kids as a statement of rebellion.
The trend is more recent in China, and idol-rappers such as Zhou Zhennan and Kris Wu are leading the pack, often appearing in public with painted nails. Most recently, KnowKnow of trap group Higher Brothers has also been seen flaunting colorful manicures on social media.
More recent trends in men’s nail art come from streetwear’s “logomania” — think brands such as Nike, Supreme, and Off-White — as well as simple, graphic designs popularized by rappers and Kpop stars. Deviating somewhat from punk’s anti-establishment or goth and emo’s dark vibes, pop stars and rappers care more about channeling their “bad boy” attitude, and using nail art as a fashion statement.
This trend has trickled down to China’s young and fashion conscious — particularly those in its more progressive first- and second-tier cities. Kathy Kong, co-founder of Shanghai-based nail salon Tipsy Tips, estimates that over half of her salon’s clientele are young men.
Many have chalked this surge in men’s interest for nail art up to the increasingly blurred boundaries between genders in China. But Kong believes it’s because of broadening definitions of what’s considered cool or beautiful, regardless of gender. “People’s understanding of what is beautiful has become more limitless and embracing,” Kong observes, adding that it’s unfair to put everyone who subscribes to the trend in China in one box.
“You can’t say that men who do their nails are all ‘effeminate’ or being ‘gender ambiguous.’ It is really more about an expression of one’s inner and whole self, regardless of gender.”
Still, for a majority of people, anything but a natural nail on a man risks being seen as “unmanly.” Justin Hsu, a fashion stylist and avid nail art fan, recalls that a taxi driver once shot him a look of disdain upon seeing his long, manicured nails before commenting, “Why would you do this?”
“I do my nails to express myself, for special occasions, or sometimes just to complete a look,” says Hsu. “Manicured nails are also a great conversation starter.” Still, Hsu doesn’t recommend nail extensions for men due to their inconvenience and stigma.
While some men fell in love with nail art through social media and pop culture, others had their first encounter at the salon thanks to the encouragement of a girlfriend or partner. That happened to Alan Chao, a student at NYU Shanghai. “I was with my girlfriend at the mall one day, and she suddenly started encouraging me to try out nail polish, so we went into a makeup store,” Chao recalls. He recalls feeling hesitant but also drawn to the idea, as he always had a “hidden curiosity about activities that traditionally excluded straight, heterosexual men.”
Chao’s experience is not unusual; a search on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo for “men’s nail art” yields many results of girls who successfully convinced (or forced) their boyfriends to paint their nails. It’s so common that one user wryly observes, “The number of times men do their nails is either zero or infinity.”
With the upcoming Lunar New Year in China, the tradition of getting freshly manicured nails with auspicious meanings is spreading to men as well. Helijia, a mobile app that provides on-demand manicure services, released a special men’s set nail design for this year’s Spring Festival, using “safe” colors such as navy and brown to appeal to a mass market audience.
There are already brands such as Faculty internationally that cater to a new type of client: a “third wave” of men who are hardy, confident, but also sensitive and inclusive. At the heart of this “third wave” is the freedom of expression that lets one craft his own ideals of manhood. The appetite of the Chinese market is bound to also produce niche local brands catering to this demographic in the future.
No matter the type of masculinity or personality one wishes to take on, the blank canvases of nail art are ready for it.
“With nail art, a cool guy becomes even cooler!” remarks Tipsy Tips’ Kong. “All the tiny elements and details of his look work together, forming a more complete sense of his style and his personality.”
Header image: Justin Hsu with DIY chrome nail art (courtesy Justin Hsu)
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