Essie Weingarten, Founder, Essie Cosmetics

Essie Weingarten
Essie Weingarten

'I loved getting my nails done as a little girl. It was my favorite treat. I was the ultimate tomboy—I loved to play outside, stickball, baseball, spud, jacks, you name it—but I also loved going to the beauty parlor after ballet class. That was my girly time. Every Saturday, if I was good in ballet, my mom would take me to the beauty parlor—because there was no such thing as a nail salon—and she would let me get my nails done. I still get a manicure once a week; I never do them myself. Back then, what they had in beauty parlors in terms of polishes was very limited and quite boring. So, my dad would take me to his cousin’s pharmacy, which was an old fashioned apothecary in New York near where the Apple store now is on Fifth Avenue, and he would buy me any polish I wanted. They would have, not a huge selection, but they might have twenty colors, compared to salons, which at that time would maybe have twelve colors. So, I always thought there was definitely a void, and an opportunity like no other. All the cosmetic companies were busy doing lotions and potions and eye shadow and mascaras and lipstick and creams and no one was doing nail polish. If I could come up with great colors and an unbelievable formula that would go on like silk and wear like iron and would look wet for a week to ten days, then I would have something. And that’s how it all started in 1981, with $10,000.

At first, I went looking for a chemist that would listen to me. When I found the right guy, it was like, ‘Wow’: the formula went on great, it looked wet, it was shiny, and the application was easy. Then, I had to start with colors. I had a satin pincushion that I fell in love with—this raspberry color—I gave him that. And as I traveled, I saved great-looking colors, I gave him everything, and he matched them all up. I always say, ‘If the color fits, wear it.’ Because, if it’s pleasing to the eye, it’s going to be pleasing to the soul. We have three original colors: Bordeaux, which is like a fine bottle of red wine, and which is the first burgundy that I did and is still alive and does very well; Blanc, which was a stark, chalk white; and Baby's Breath, a soft white, which I came out with so that women could have a French manicure with a natural looking tip instead of the white-white tip. Those colors are thirty-one years-old. The pincushion happened to be Fiesta, and that one has also been around for about thirty years. Lots of colors have had staying power. Ballet Slippers, which became as important as the name ‘Essie,’ we did the second year we were in business, so that one is twenty-nine-and-a-half years-old, almost thirty years.

Originally, I sold door-to-door, meaning I’d get in the car, see salons, stop, and I always had samples in the trunk. I launched in Las Vegas first, in ‘81. I lived in New York, and I flew out to Vegas with ten cartons of nail polish because I said, ‘Where am I going to find women who have disposable income?’ Vegas has dancers, cocktail waitresses, dealers, showgirls…Everyone has to be perfect. Hands and feet. There were less than a hundred salons there, but I got every hotel beauty salon. And it took off from there.

Inspiration could happen anywhere, really, and at anytime. You see something—like the color of your shirt is amazing—and from there, I can start a collection. Everything I do is a collection of six, so there’s got to be a common theme, either with names, or colors that work together. I mean, they don’t have to be in the same category, but if there’s a fabulous rust, then I can come back with a fabulous green, because green and rust works, or a wonderful brown, and so on, until it tells a complete fashion story. I never know when my creative juices run wild, and sometimes it’s thinking of the name and sometimes it’s the colors. We were in Warsaw [Poland] probably a month ago for the Euro Cup and I saw this purple, but I saw it everywhere. When I asked the people I was with about it, they said, ‘What are you talking about, purple? We don’t see purple anywhere.’ And it was the color of the backdrop for the Euro Cup, and people didn’t even realize it. It looked so fresh, and it’s a new spin on purple. So, I’ve been working in that color range—that’s a category that’s not overdone for us, so between lilac to purple, we can have so much fun. I guess because I’m a woman, I feel that I know what women want and if I get tired of colors, I’m feeling that other people do, as well. Of course, you have your timeless classics that you can wear from the bedroom to the boardroom to the ballroom and always be dressed perfectly. But right now, greens and blues have been huge. I can never do enough blues and greens. People go wild. Why? It makes us happy: it’s the sea and the sky. Greens can be nature, it can be grass, it can be beautiful flowers…

I’ll usually come out with eighteen colors when I’ll only need six, and then we do process of elimination with my team. I always listen to what people have to say, but the final decision is mine. For example, everyone says I’m the 'no-yellow girl' because everyone in the world was doing yellow this season and I wouldn’t do yellow. It really doesn’t sell. And they were like, ‘No, no, no, we have to do yellow!’ I said, ‘Well, let the other companies do yellow.’ At the end of the day, it’s a great accent color, but to wear yellow, it’s very difficult. So all these companies did yellow and if you go into the stores, you see yellow still sitting on the shelves.

In Europe, as far as color is concerned, women are a little more sophisticated. They like a lot of green, and they do a lot of accent fingers—having the ring or index finger a different color than all the others. It's a lot of fun and it's a conversation piece, which is what this is all about. People say, ‘Why nails?’ and I say, ‘Number one, it’s an affordable luxury. Number two, it takes any old outfit and makes it new, and three, you can talk about it for days.’ For women, it’s better than any psychiatrist. We really relax. We put down the baby, we put down the iPhone. It’s our time to zone out. Now, of course, it’s a phenomenon. Everyone’s talking about nails. And I am laughing because number one, everyone thinks that they’re going to make a gazillion dollars, and number two, they don’t realize if the color doesn’t sell, they’re stuck with it. There’s nothing you can do with a dead color. It’s like now with all this shatter and crackles and whatever, you can’t give it away. But last year, you couldn’t get enough of it. We did not do it; it was a big miss.

When I was in the ladies hosiery business before starting my company, all the pantyhose had great names. I learned that if you give things names that women appreciate and adore, they’re going to remember it. If you give them numbers, no one remembers numbers. I mean, what’s your passcode, what’s your password, what’s your this or that? We’re numbered to death. And while every color has a number, women don’t remember the number, they remember the name. And if they don’t remember the whole name, they remember part of it... I like to have fun with names. I would love for them to be descriptive, but sometimes they’re not. Sometimes, I just let my personality influence the color names and just have with it. And the naughtier the better, I have found. The number-one-selling red last holiday season was Size Matters. Come on! I told the team, ‘I don’t know what you’re thinking about, I was thinking about diamonds!’

Wicked, our black red, was world famous. It was like, how bad can you be? When I came out with it—it was 1986—everyone was like, ‘Are you crazy? No one’s going to wear black nail polish.’ And I said to our distributor in London, ‘Just try it. If it doesn’t sell, I’ll take it back.’ She went to London and she called me right away and said, ‘Sold out immediately. You have to get me five thousand more bottles.’ Mademoiselle, which we did with Mademoiselle magazine, way before Chanel came out with Coco Mademoiselle, became a best-selling color worldwide, as well as Ballet Slippers. In The Devil Wears Prada, she says the girls at Vogue wear one coat of Marshmallow and one coat of Ballet Slippers. These colors take on life of their own. Of course, I've had misses. A few yellows—four different ones. Mellow Yellow, Mini Shorts. I also had Grammy Crackers—I thought it was genius—and Oscar Please, a greenish-greyish color... I’m a very good winner, and I’m a very bad loser. But I always say that I know I can do six colors that will sell, so why chance it [with a risky color], but sometimes I just have to get it out of my system.

I’m wearing Who’s She Red. I used to always wear sheers—everyone knows me to wear one coat of either Ballet Slippers with Mademoiselle, or Blushing Bride with Sugar Daddy, or Vanity Fairest with Aurora. But recently, I’ve been doing lots of reds. Before this, I was doing A-List and then before that, it was Lollipop. I just have fun with colors: it makes me happy and why not?

Let me say, your nails, number one, are like jewels—don’t use them like tools. When you need to open a can of pop, get a can opener or a spoon, don’t use your nails. There are so many times a woman needs to tighten a screw, even on their little Cartier bracelet—get the screw driver, don’t use your nails. If you think about the fact that your nails are special, that they are an extension of your jewelry, you’ll be good to your nails. Always push back the cuticles, don’t cut—the more you cut, the more it grows. Cuticle oil, you should have on your nightstand or by your desk. Always use a basecoat because it protects your nails and helps the polish stay clear. We like you to wait two minutes between each coat so you have time for it to set. I always like to do two coats. However, for men, one coat of Mademoiselle is brilliant. My husband, Max, wears one coat of Mademoiselle and no one can tell. Anyway, then you must seal the deal with a top coat.

I love nails that are fingertip length; I’m not one who loves claws. Yeah, it’s great for business, you know, women who have nails like this take a bottle of polish. But I think an elegant hand is a great look. There’s nothing wrong with it, though, if it makes you feel good. However, chipped nails make me crazy. If my nails are chipped, I’m like, ‘I’ve got to get to the salon and I’ve got have them fixed now.’'

—as told to ITG

Essie Weingarten photographed by Emily Weiss in New York on July 31st, 2012.