Luxury at your fingertips
Why local entrepreneurs are transforming the nail salon experience
I’m seated high on a black velvet throne with a hot herbal wrap around my neck and a glass of wine in my hand. A menu is handed to me. Am I in the mood for rose petals or lemon slices floating in my foot bath? Perhaps a Champagne rinse for my legs? A foot scrub made of crushed candy canes?
These are the difficult decisions you will face at the new wave of luxe nail salons rolling onto Orange County’s shores.
The one where I am having trouble choosing my indulgence is called GLO Nail Bar, which opened this past spring in Corona del Mar Plaza. It’s owned by Tomson Nguyen, who just might be the poster boy for the evolution of the nail salon in Orange County.
As a kid, Nguyen spent his summers in salons all over the county with his mom, Dzung Thi Hoang. The mother of three fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and, after settling in Westminster, began working as a manicurist (calling herself Linda) six days a week to feed her family.
After Nguyen grew up, he went on to earn a doctorate in criminology at UCI. Then it was on to Texas to take a job as an assistant professor at the University of Houston.
It was there that love came into the picture: Nguyen met Tracy Tran, who had her own nail salon stories.
Tran was once a teenage nail technician in the back of a small-town Texas laundromat that is now boarded up. She used to keep a notebook of all the things she would change if she ever owned her own salon.
As Nguyen and Tran fell in love, they also got to wondering: What if they could fix everything they hated about the nail industry?
The couple packed up and moved back to Orange County in 2014 to give it a shot.
Later that year they opened GLO, which might be described as a “slumber party spa” with sequin pillows, mimosas, giant jars of candy, chandeliers and a pop ballad playlist. Customers choose from a menu of farm-to-foot-bath scrubs ($48 to $78), which Tran hand-blends with essential oils and natural products like oatmeal, pumpkin and applesauce.
“Would customers pay more for our experience?” Nguyen nervously wondered when he opened the doors that first day.
Yes, it turns out, they would. The salon was so popular, the couple have since opened another. And Nguyen, now 40, makes enough money to give his mom a monthly "stipend" so she doesn’t have to work anymore.
“It’s a game changer,” Tran says.
And not just for them. GLO is among a small but growing cadre of mani-pedi emporiums that are taking it up a notch – transforming Orange County’s nail salon landscape. But like many new fashions, this latest incarnation harks back to the past.
* * *
It was 1932 when women went mad for the first drugstore nail polish launched by Revlon. Professional manicures, though, were for celebrities or the most elite of socialites. Most women, no matter how well-heeled, painted their nails at home.
In 1969, a Romanian beauty named Jessica Vartoughian actually made headlines for opening the first nails-only salon on Sunset Boulevard. Stars like Barbra Streisand and Lucille Ball filled her seats.
Five years later, The New York Times crowned Vartoughian the First Lady of Nails, partly for spreading her gospel that “every woman can have long, strong, beautiful, natural nails” – right in their own living rooms. Manicurists were by now setting up shop in beauty salons. But it was still a special treat, a splurge.
Then, in 1975, “The Birds” star Tippi Hedren was doing some charity work in a Vietnamese refugee camp east of Sacramento when some women there became enthralled with her long, glossy nails. Hedren flew her personal manicurist to Hope Village to teach 20 of them how to do it themselves, thinking it might give them a way to support themselves in their new country.
This little twist of fate is credited with revolutionizing the nail industry. A 2014 documentary, “Nailed It,” shows how the refugees whom Hedren trained went on to teach their friends. Those friends taught their friends. One by one, immigrants like Tomson Nguyen’s mother settled in California and invested in nail kits.
It wasn’t until the ’90s, though, that the industry exploded, with salons opening faster than Starbucks. All that competition brought affordable manicures to the masses, shifting what was once an indulgence to a to-do-list item, as routine as washing the car or hitting up Lowe’s.
But while hands and feet across Orange County look better than ever, lower prices begat lower standards.
“The market here is so saturated,” Nguyen says. “Nail salons are like liquor stores. And everybody is trying to destroy each other by lowering prices.”
A 2015 New York Times series on the dark side of the $8 billion nail industry triggered a New York state investigation that is still underway (even as some in the industry decry the exposé as unfair) and started a conversation. It shined a light on some shadows: Namely, how immigrant nail technicians are treated and paid.
Tony Nguyen, general manager of Images Luxury Nail Lounge, says the Times series announced to him that the tipping point had come; it was time for the pendulum to swing back the other way.
* * *
“Newport Beach, Irvine – all of these houses are worth millions of dollars,” Tony Nguyen says. “We want to raise the standard, so the homeowners can be proud of their salon.”
Farrah Rizzo is beyond proud. The 23-year-old Newport Beach mortgage banker is a devotee of GLO.
“I’m OCD about my nails,” she confesses. “And I like to change my color. Tracy is always up to date on the latest trends.” Chrome mirror nails. Negative spaces. Marbling. Rock star glitter. “I’ll see something on Instagram and say ‘Can you do this?’ ” They always can.
Recently she was at an urgent care clinic with a broken finger. “The nurse said, ‘But, your nails look great!’ I get complimented on my nails on a daily basis.”
But it’s the overall experience – the Perrier and the green tea mud squishing through her toes like Jell-o – that makes the $68 bill plus tip worth it.
“I would rather pay a little extra money for that experience than dread going to a salon where I feel miserable and not relaxed,” she says. “The girls at GLO know how to carry themselves. And you feel welcomed. So many times I’ve gone into other salons and I feel awkward.”
The new luxe salons pride themselves on paying higher wages. Amanda Johnson is the assistant vice president at Polished Perfect. Better pay is essential to raising the bar, she says, not to mention humane. “Stylists” at Polished Perfect are on the payroll with benefits.
“We value our employees,” says Johnson. “Nail salons are perceived as downmarket trade jobs. We’re elevating that and making it a career, just like the hair industry.”
Tam Nguyen is the son of a refugee who learned to do nails from one of Hedren’s original 20 at Hope Village. He’s also the founder of Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove and Laguna Hills, which has one of the largest nail programs in the country, graduating up to 1,000 students a year. And he is thrilled with the new kids on the block.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” he says. “My graduates now have choices, higher pay and just a better experience … than any time since Tippi.”
As standards rise, so do qualifications. At Images, speaking English must be on a manicurist’s résumé. “Treat clients as you would a guest in your house,” Tony Nguyen instructs employees.
“Customers should be able to communicate with their technicians,” says Tran.
If there is another creed these upmarket salons share, it is cleanliness. GLO employs a full-time “housekeeper” to clean throughout the day. And tools are run through an autoclave, a machine that sterilizes with heat. Polished Perfect autoclaves at each of its six salons. Foot tubs are fitted with liners that can be replaced or sanitized. “You’re not being soaked in someone else’s pedicure,” says Johnson.
Quality products also set the upmarket salons apart. Besides designer polishes like Louboutin and the Japanese gel Presto, GLO’s products are mostly homemade and natural. “It’s like a kitchen in here,” Tran says.
Polished Perfect has a signature volcanic sand scrub and a plum lotion infused with Swiss glacier water and snow algae. The line is named for the owner, True Sioux Hope philanthropist Twila True, and all are for purchase.
At Images, you can purchase a diamond. Or 10.
For $10,000 to $25,000, Images’ Newport Beach location will shut down just for you, and a jeweler that the salon partners with will set diamonds on your nails. Or if you don’t want to go that big, you could settle for the $2,500-to-$10,000 Gold Rush manicure, with 24-karat gold polish.
“It’s extravagant,” Tony Nguyen acknowledges, but believes that “we’re contributing to the economy.”
Images opened its fourth salon in Irvine last month, and Nguyen is betting the trend will continue.
“The race to the cheapest price I believe is a thing of the past,” agrees Tam Nguyen. “What we’re forecasting is the race to the highest performer. Diamonds. Coffee and tea. Champagne and wine. That’s the new model.”
He applauds local lawmakers recognizing the shift. Orange County Assemblyman Tom Daly sponsored a bill this past summer that allows beauty salons to offer a complimentary glass of wine, bubbly or beer. The law goes into effect this month.
In Tony Nguyen’s eyes, the nail salon should be a refuge, “an escape from your family, from taking care of your kids.” The theme at Images is relaxation. He sets the stereo dial to lounge music. Other salon themes slide from Vegas nightclub to Napa Valley.
The chains are noticing. Happy Nails, which has 60 locations in Southern California, has launched a spinoff it’s calling the Holly and Hudson Nail Lounge. Its vision: “a New York meets Newport vibe,” says VP Kimberly Huynh. The first salon opened near Fashion Island this summer.
Tomson Nguyen will open his third salon this year. He’s still pinching himself. And then I spot an item on the menu, and so am I. It’s called The Steam Pedi and it promises to detox my feet with aromatherapy vapors in a Hem-Fir barrel sauna. I’m not even sure what a Hem-Fir barrel sauna is. But it sounds wonderful.