In May 2021, 23-year-old rapper Lil Yachty released his first nail polish line, Crete. The gender-neutral paint brand launched with three subtle shades —black, white and gray — all of which, sold out in a day.
Around that time, the rapper detailed his own nail history, telling GQ he was inspired by ASAP Rocky and started to get his nails professionally buffed with clear polish a few years ago. “I got compliments instantly. I felt clean. My nails weren’t dirty and nasty. I felt more mature,” he said. But during the pandemic, the rapper went beyond the barely-there translucent polish and began sporting nails with intricate designs and bold colors. Lil Yachty told the publication he would’ve launched the brand with more eye-catching shades if it was up to him, but the initial release was meant to welcome first-timers to the world of nail polish.
“Let’s just say, I felt as if a lot of men may have wanted to do it — but it felt too feminine,” said the rapper.
Since then, Crete has released more colorful shades but has parted ways with Lil Yachty, who revealed in November he was no longer associated with the nail polish company. While the rapper is out of the polish game (for now), an influx of other male celebrities have begun to explore the market.
This past November saw the release of Pleasing, the beauty brand of former boyband member and current cultural and style juggernaut Harry Styles, which sells a set of four nail polishes housed in uniquely shaped glass bottles for $65. Soon thereafter, Colson Baker, better known by his stage name Machine Gun Kelly or as Megan Fox’s boyfriend, launched UN/DN LAQR — a 10-shade genderless nail polish line that ranges from soft pastels to bright statement hues. And just three weeks ago, rapper Tyler, the Creator’s GOLF le Fleur* brand debuted a nail polish series composed of three understated colors. It’s fair to say that a trend has fully emerged.
While male celebrity-owned nail polish brands are in their infancy, men have been painting their nails since 3,200 B.C. Next to men wearing crop tops, the late-’70s and early-’80s punk rock scene saw dudes donning chipped black nails, as did the early 2000s spurred by pop-punk/emo bands. Even in the 2010s, nearly every hot male celebrity from Zac Efron to Brad Pitt was pictured on the red carpet or at an awards show with colorfully painted nails. So why are male celebrities getting into the nail space now?
Frequenting a nail salon or brushing a coat of paint on your fingers has long been considered a feminine act, and despite the lengthy list of famous men who’ve made it their signature, if you’re a man, colored nails still tended to raise questions about your sexuality and masculinity. But in very recent years, conversations around gender expression have evolved, and consumers are looking for more androgynous beauty and fashion products.
“Led by Gen Z, people are moving away from traditional gender norms in fashion, grooming and beauty. The market simply has to follow suit,” says Brock McGoff, founding editor of The Modest Man. “There are more gender non-conforming fashion influencers, men’s cosmetic products and un-gendered apparel brands than ever before, and that’s not changing anytime soon.”
Melissa Rosenfield, founder of IFP communications, a New York-based agency focused on creative brand strategy, recalls when a 2011 J.Crew catalog stirred up some absurd controversy for featuring a little boy with pink nail polish on his toes. “People were in an uproar. Now it’s totally acceptable and any parent can tell you it’s so fun when you and your children get to do it together,” says Rosenfield. “Part of my covid Christmas activities was having my 2-year-old pick colors from my vast nail polish collection and choosing what he and I got. He’s a big fan of this bright blue shade from Nails Inc and Number 62 from Cote.”
“People are less concerned with labels and fitting into boxes. It’s a reason why networks like TikTok have become so popular. Consumers want to experience content that is less filtered, less polished, and less aligned to previously held standards of beauty, femininity, and masculinity,” adds Ali Fazal, VP of Marketing at GRIN, a leading influencer marketing platform that’s worked with a range of companies including Kim Kardashian’s shapewear line SKIMS. “What we’re seeing now is that people who want to wear nail polish, regardless of their gender identity, or gender expression, will wear nail polish. If there’s a market for it, it makes sense to launch a product like this.”
It also makes sense that Styles, MGK and co. are the purveyors of this emerging market, since they’re known to experiment with fashion, have a more androgynous style and a splash of color on their fingertips. It’s something that Fazal believes makes their brands appear more genuine to consumers, who during these pandemic times, he says, are looking for more authenticity from brands.
“People can spot inauthenticity in celebrity endorsements. That’s why the ones that work are when it’s clear that the celebrity, who is either a creator of the brand or is a spokesperson for a brand, is a genuine fan of the products,” he says. “It also stands to reason that the men who are launching these products are coming off as more genuine because they have been wearing nail polish for a couple of years now. These celebrities and influencers were fans of the product and wanted to put something out themselves.”
Of course, any product peddled by an A-lister is going to raise some eyebrows and roll a few eyeballs (J.Lo we all know the secret ingredient to your ageless skin isn’t olive oil.) Plus, most consumers are likely aware they’re paying an inflated price due to the name attached to the product, and these recent nail polish lines are no different. As mentioned above, a four-pack of pearlescent polishes from Styles will set you back $65, while MGK and Tyler, the Creator are charging $18-$20 per bottle. It’s why nail polish wearers, of all genders, might just stick to their $9 bottle of Essie. After all, if nail polish truly has no gender, do we really need men’s nail polish?
Still, the influence these male celebs wield cannot be understated, and if their overpriced nail polish lines encourage more men to experiment and feel comfortable in how they express themselves, then so be it.
“The good news is the more we see these celebs kind of change and grow into their own it makes it super accessible and acceptable for regular people to experiment in this way,” offers Rosenfield. On top of that, these new brands will likely help usher in even more genderless beauty brands or products aimed more towards men’s cosmetic needs.
“I think these celebrities are actually helping to lead the charge to bring more male-centric beauty products to market,” says McGoff. “After all, people like Harry Styles and Tyler, the Creator have an enormous amount of influence over what’s cool, especially with their amplified reach on social media. Imagine if Mick Jagger or Prince had TikTok? Men’s nail polish might have been mainstream decades ago.”
As for whether these male celebrity beauty brands can sustain their success, McGoff believes so, but only if they expand beyond nail polish — moves Styles and Tyler, the Creator have already executed, releasing skincare products and fragrances in conjunction with their polish lines.
So expect to see more male celebrities start to build their beauty empires in 2022, and in general, more brands beginning to focus on gender-neutral and male-centric beauty products.
“We’ll see hundreds of new brands emerge, and we’ll see the Unilevers and L’Oréals of the world scramble to launch their own products and/or scoop up these new companies,” adds McGoff. “Don’t be surprised if your local Target or Nordstrom quietly installs a small section in their coastal stores dedicated to men’s beauty and cosmetics, likely stocked with many of these celebrities’ brands.”
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