Nailing It: CND’s Jan Arnold On Her Rad Runway Nails And Her Personal Style

by The Daily Front Row

(NEW YORK) Jan Arnold, co-founder of Creative Nail Design, is the woman responsible for polishing up the runways for almost two decades. Before Arnold’s visionary concept of manicured mods hit backstages everywhere, it was nothing but bare nails. Arnold started collaborating with designers to create nail art to accentuate runway looks. But Arnold, decked out in a platinum blond cropped cut and clad in Comme des Garçons, is a walking fashion statement in her own right. We sat down with the nail guru to find out how she got her start, where the nail business has taken her, and what’s in her fabulous closet.

CND has done nails for Fashion Week since the Nineties. How’d the pairing come about?
We’ve been at it for 17 years. I remember flipping through magazines before then, and all of the runway shots were adorned beautifully with gorgeous clothing, makeup, and hair—and the nails were glaringly missing. There were bare nails, paired with these incredible, very elegant looks. We just thought nails could complete the story! We were looking at this new up-and-coming designer by the name of Cynthia Rowley, who was hot on the New York scene. We liked her sense of humor and her sense of style. So, we literally just called her up and said, “We think you’re cool and that we can do something really great for you”.

How did your collab with Cythnia Rowley come to fruition?
We flew to New York and I sat with Cynthia and we went through her collection. I think it was her first runway show—her fabrics that season were very sheer, and she did a lot of layers with pastel tones, kind of like water colors. We were inspired to create a custom collection of colors for her with these pastel layers of water color polishes, we ended up putting them in little baby bottles, which we called the ‘Pinky Bottles’ and we put them in a little organza bag and everyone in the show got a collection of these colors. We loved the fact that not only did her clothing tell a story, but the mentality of the collection was fixed up on the nails and she loved it!

Which designer’s runway nails did you do next?
Nicole Miller was our second phone call. We did really magical, great colors for her. The next season we thought that since Cynthia was great and Nicole was so receptive, we’d go to the top of our game and see if Oscar de la Renta would talk to us. I got a meeting with him and his style team. He was the third show we did. That was really how the rocket was launched: We had a trendy designer, a new name, and a classic industry icon recognizing that nails had a place on the runway. They all understood that nails can complement a look and can complete the designer’s intention by maybe bringing out an alter ego of a collection. 

Were you doing just one show a season when you kicked things off?
Yes. The following year we added two or three designers and over the 17-year period, every season we added a handful of designers. Around four or five years ago we ended up doing 75 shows a season, in New York alone. It was nuts! One season, we did around 8,000 nails.

Wow! How did you manage that?
I had this huge team of designers that I’d fly into New York. They had a design lab where they would literally work 24/7. With nails, we’re dealing with wet polish, so it requires very fine art technique. Instead of doing it all backstage, we started pre-producing nail tips of whatever the look was, whether it was a long length or short sport length. We would show up with all of the nails completely done and backstage we would clean the models’ nails and size it to each nail, fit it, and apply it. We kept the nails and archived them. In some cases, models would talk us into keeping them. When we were doing that quantity of shows, our goal was really to elevate that look on the runway. We also wanted to elevate the nail professional behind stage alongside all of the iconic hair and makeup artists. It really changed the entire look. Once everyone knew who we were, we decided that we would select partners that were creative, interesting, and aligned to our contribution, instead of doing a huge volume of shows.

What are your favorite nails you’ve done for a show?
My all-time favorite was for The Blonds. They described to us that they wanted the girl, who was like a Fifties glamour queen in a beaded gown and big blonde hair, to have a big element of surprise when she landed at the end of the runway. So we did these big, beautiful pointed almond nails. On the index finger of the right hand, we did a trompe-l’oeil three-dimensional, life-sized set of lips made out of gel, fixed to the tip of the nail. In the middle of the lip was a little hole, where we put a cigarette. It was so amazing! As the model walked to the end of the runway and lifted her hand to her lip, there was an amazing handmade nail. In the picture, it looked like the model’s lips. The other notable nail that we did was for Baby Phat. Kimora [Lee] was very inspired by Russian military insignia. My team created about 15 real Russian military badges. We had to do research and sketches, and they were all created with liquid and powder acrylic gels. The hand-painted badges took weeks to complete.

Is that the longest most intricate project you’ve had?
It’s the second most intricate! Abaeté was a dancer before she became a designer, and she was very inspired by Russian ballerinas. For the first show that we ever did for her, she wanted Faberge egg nails. It took a team of four people working around eight weeks on them, but here is the trick: every model that walked down the runway had a full set of Faberge egg inspired nails, but on the ring finger of every model there was a nail where there was a hinge on the side of the nail and it actually opened up like a Faberge egg would open up and had the logo of Abaeté. It was honestly so incredible—the nails were really like hand-crafted jewelry!

How often do you get your nails done?
I love long intricate jewelry for my nails as well. I’m not the kind of girl that just polishes my own nails with a single color of polish. I get longer nails, and I use clear gels because I love a glass clear tip, elongated by a metallic nail bed with buried stones in the clear tip. I invest about three hours for my nail appointment. I get them done every two to three weeks. My nails are a production!

Are they acrylic?
Yes! They are generally a combination of acrylic or gel over my natural nails. They’re always very different, from one appointment to the next.

Do you match them to your outfits?
No, I usually figure out where my mood is and figure out what’s going on with my schedule or what I’m in the mood to wear. I like to treat my nails literally like jewelry, so it’s usually more about what is my mood and how can my nails support my schedule, as opposed to matching it to what I am wearing.

What do your nails look like right now?
They’re a pointed almond shape, medium-length, maybe a little less than half an inch. I actually did what I call an elongated nail bed technique where we did CND Shellac in Coco and Romantique. Then we took a black tool and we did really sleek arched French. It’s really curvy, like liquid liner on your eyes, but also very sleek with a dramatic curve. There’s no adornment, just super-high shine! I have short boy hair, so I think to contrast that short hair I like to have dramatic nails and long lashes.

What are your thoughts on fake lashes?
I’m wearing lash extensions. I’m kind of hooked!

You’re known for your personal style. Which designers have the most real estate in your closet right now?
Thank you for the compliment! I’m a Japanese lover, so anything Japanese. Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe are at the top of my list, and Issey Miyake periodically comes out with something interesting. I also love Carven, who’s been coming out with some really cool things. Dries Van Noten’s patterns and textures ended up in my closet this season. I also own some classic Boudicca. I find Japanese designers to be so directional, they’re seasonless.

Do you ever go to Tokyo Fashion Week?
I don’t! But I go to Japan quite a lot. In fact, we just did a really great collaboration with Kenzo at Isetan. We took the best clients of Isetan, and did customized nail styles for their new Kenzo purchases. It’s on my dream list to do a show with Comme des Garçons. That would be the ultimate!

Who are your favorite jewelry designers?
I have some very vintage Tom Binns pieces. The very first season that he ever came out I purchased a few pieces; it was before he was really discovered.

How did you find him?
At Maxfield in L.A. They’re always ahead of the curve. I love his stuff! I find a lot of offbeat designers. I don’t know if I could even quote their names. I’d have to look them up. I really love bold pieces that are artistic, I own a couple of Lanvin pieces that I love and are pretty timeless. Actually I own a couple of specialty pieces, like big cuff bracelets that Tiffany’s produced. I like bold!

What’s the inspiration for your personal style?
I think this whole notion of masculine/feminine really drives my style. I like the interplay between a masculine Pee-Wee Herman shrunken boy suit with ankle socks and heels—then my nails have to compliment that. I’m really inspired by volume, whether that’s a lot of volume at the shoulder with something like a feather or just very voluminous in shape like voluminous skirts. So my style is uber feminine with big volume in the skirts paired with a highly structured military jacket. I love suits, military, volume, and structure.

You must have a pretty nice closet! Has anyone ever come to photograph your clothing collection?
I try to keep it under control, but it’s a little difficult. A closet is such a personal thing…that would be scary! I have a really great jacket collection with a lot of highly structured jackets and then speaking to the voluminous skirts I think I have nice pieces that I will never let go of. No matter what year or what the style is, they are pieces that I will always love!

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