Friday, November 11, 2016

Essie Weingarten

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


If Essie Weingarten, the founder of the Essie nail polish empire, had a business philosophy, it would be probably be along the lines of something she said at the beginning of our interview: “We were giving nail polish a personality.” Of course that personality was hers. In the early 1980s, a determination that was driven by a belief in the celebratory fun of something as “frivolous” as nail polish had her criss-crossing the New York grid as she went from beauty parlor to beauty parlor giving away samples of her wet-look polish in gorgeous colors that lasted a full ten days.

She launched the business with $10,000 worth of her own savings and in 2010 sold it to L’Oréal for an undisclosed sum—although we can guess that it was probably quite a bit more than $10,000. Perhaps part of the satisfaction of making that money comes from the fact that when launching the business no bank would take her seriously. But in truth Essie was at her most animated when talking to us about the creative side of making a business work and ideas that sustain it,  such as matching your nail polish to your cell phone or handing over a bottle of nail polish along with the engagement ring (although apparently that one can backfire—they love the nail polish but …) Like any really good salesperson, she likes people—and she can … well, she can sell stuff. We did get the impression that she misses her empire but she’s got ideas for the next phase … “Gloves! I’ve always loved gloves!”


I love your story. And I know you’ve said all along you yourself loved working to make your business but it can’t have been easy, can it?

Oh there were plenty of times that we had to do a 180 degree turns … and well, I started by only giving samples [of nail polish to beauty parlors]. I would just say, “Here, it’s a gift, try it.” That was how is all started, right here in New York, basically I was very organized, you know 96th Street to 86th …
Essie's and her husband Max Sortino, enlisted Architect Russell Groves to expand and redesign their Park Avenue apartment. Here, the kitchen contains an expansive white marble countertop, Boffi cabinetry, and appliances by Miele and Gaggenau. The round oak custom kitchen table is by Groves & Co. and is paired with Armani Casa chairs. The pendant fixture above is also custom Groves & Co.
The dining room highlights the Groves & Co. custom rosewood and patina bronze table. The pendant lighting fixture is custom-made by Groves & Co.
So you had a kind of grid system?

Oh yeah … and I just went back and forth and dropped them off—they were only beauty parlors. There were no nail salons.

What do you make of the proliferation of nail salons in the city?

It was the best thing that ever happened. It became an affordable luxury.

Can you explain why it happened?

I think for a few different reasons. Only very affluent women used to get their nails done. They had manicurists who would go around and they did your nails while you were getting your hair done … that’s how I fell in love with nails. If I was good, my mother took me to the salon on Saturday. Anyway, [the proliferation of nail salons] started in ’82 or ’83. Basically it started on the west coast with the emergence of Asian workers—a manicure used to cost $40 or $50 then—and now you can get a manicure for $15 or $10 and all of sudden a lot of people who could never afford it, could. And of course the blending of the Europeans, who in my humble opinion are probably the finest nail techs you can find, oh yeah … the girls from Russia and Romania.
Upper East Side views can be seen from all rooms of Essie's Park Avenue duplex penthouse.
In the powder room, the stone slabs are silver travertine and all the plumbing fixtures are manufactured by Dornbracht; the toilet is by Duravit and the sink is by Lavaca.
The open downstairs floorplan gives the apartment an airy, loft-like feeling.
An open yet discrete staircase leads to the upstairs office and master bedroom.
In the living room a vintage square cork-top mahogany game table by Edward Wormley is paired with vintage Edward Wormley armchairs (c. 1963).
The photograph on the far wall "Sinatra at The Sands" is by Bob Willoughby.
Gosh, you’re like a nail polish historian. What were the big names in nail polish back then?

It was Revlon or L’Oréal.

I really want to go back to the beginning of how you got this off the ground—apart from the giveaways, what was your first plan of attack?
 
I started in 1981 and I had to go to a vendor and the first thing they would say was, “It’s cash in advance.” No banks would even consider [me]. I had saved—I mean today if you have a good business plan there isn’t anyone who won’t talk to you.
In the living room seating area sofa and lounge chairs are custom Groves & Co. with silk pillows by Cowtan and Tout. They surround a custom bamboo coffee table from Wyeth. The armless sofa is also custom Groves and Co. in collaboration with Lost City Arts. The chrome drum side table by the armless sofa is vintage 1960s. The shelf table is a Kerry Joyce side table.
Looking towards the Park Avenue facing windows of the living room. "Magali, Paris" shot for Italian Vogue in 1992 by Pamela Hanson hangs on the far wall.
Fresh flowers perk up a burlwood waterfall sofa table.
On the west wall, a photograph by Pamela Hanson, "Uli, French Vogue, 1989" hangs above a vellum-and-walnut credenza by Mattaliano, and table lamps by Hinson Hanson. The photograph on the far wall leading to guest bedroom hallway is "Famke, Paris 1998" by Pamela Hanson.
Essie, ever the perfect host, serves us a platter of cheeses, dried fruits and baked potato thins from William Poll.
Do you think it’s partly because you were a woman—and also because it was nail polish?

Of course! It was a joke! No one was watching.

That was probably to your advantage.

Yes, I was lucky that way. There was nothing happening [in that market].

So what was your formula?

What you want my formula?!! Does Coca Cola tell Pepsi?!! Especially now I’m under contract to L’Oréal!! I mean it’s shiny, it goes on like silk, it wears like iron and it was drip resistant. I can’t talk to the formula today, that I don’t know [because the product now belongs to L’Oréal] but what we had was amazing.
A view across and down Park Avenue from the upper terrace.
Essie's impressive vegetable garden fills her upper terrace.
How did you find the chemist?

That was the most difficult part. I knew what I wanted. I wanted something that needed to look wet; it had to be wearable; it had to be shiny. Those were the properties that were most important to me. It had to look wet all the time. I went to a lot of places and it took me about six months to find the right guy.

Did you do it by word of mouth?

Yellow Pages!

[We all laugh]

When I go to colleges, I say to these kids, “You have the world at your fingertips!” They have no idea!
In one of two guest bedrooms a bed with a suede headboard is custom-made and designed by Groves & Co. The table lamps are vintage. The artwork above the bed, titled "Poolside Gossip", is by Slim Aarons.
Looking past colorful potted orchids to the elegant pre-war buildings of Park Avenue.
In a second guest bedroom the bed is again custom-made and designed by Groves & Co. The table lamps are by Hinson Hanson. The artwork above the bed is titled "Sea Drive" and is by Slim Aarons.
Looking north up Park Avenue.
And you have to get FDA approval and all that?

Do see the grey hair? And we told L’Oréal that we were in 109 countries but after due diligence they came back and told us that we were actually in 114 countries and every country has their own ingredient listings … shipping pallets …  you’ve no idea … you can only use plastic to the Middle East, you can’t use wood … it goes on and on …

When you started were you already thinking about these colors like blues and yellows rather than just the standard reds and pinks?

There was nothing like that anywhere. I was going to have colors that appealed to me because I was a girly girl.

But these colors were sort of rebellious.

Well, it’s taking fashion to the edge but not really dropping them in. I did “Wicked” which was the black-red and I did it right before the Chanel launched with “Vamp” and thank God they did because we had distributors and they said, “No one’s ever going to wear it, it’s like a witch.” I said, “Try it.” And …[She waves her beautifully-manicured hand …]
A zebra wood partition hides a discreet staircase with walnut treads.
Heading upstairs to the office and lounge.
Essie's husband and business partner, Max Sortino giving Jeff a big smile from behind his computer in the upstairs office and lounge. The office furniture is custom-made by Groves & Co. including the three-drawer desk, the leather desk chair, the guest chairs, as well as the daybed in zebra wood. The desk lamp is by Nessen Lighting.
In the comfortable seating area of the upstairs lounge a Groves & Co. custom waterfall table in croc print leather stands in front of a custom day bed. The bronze-backed swivel chair is vintage Milo Baughman.
So how many colors did you launch initially?

Originally we launched with twelve. I did a very dark red, “Bordeaux”, of course “Blanc” and “Baby’s Breath”, which is the soft pink. I’m just giving you the ones that are still in the line. It was the quality—they lasted at least ten days.

We have to ask you about the names. I have always wanted to meet someone who names either lipsticks or nail polishes—I’ve always been fascinated by how they come up with the names. They’re always so much fun.

That’s exactly it. They have to be engaging and they have to have a personality. Now I don’t know if you’re watching the names and if you still think they have the same spirit—I don’t—but maybe I’m biased. [For Essie] there was always a theme, which I tried to always tie to my life, places that I had been, place that I had wanted to go, places that I knew I would never go, like Seychelles, Fiji or playful names.

I loved No Prenup.

I think they still have it. It’s beautiful. It’s translucent, between a pink and a peach. It’s a beautiful wedding color.
The upstairs powder room.
Essie and Max's enormous master spa-like bathroom and dressing area has walnut cabinetry and wall panels that are paired with silver travertine floor tiles and countertops. The bathroom vanity and vanity mirror are custom-made by Groves & Co. The vanity chair is vintage. All the fixtures are by Dornbracht and the tub is by Wetstyle.
I also love Bikini With a Martini—incidentally I never wear nail polish—I just love the names. 

And there’s Bikini So Teeny, which is the color of the Mediterranean. There’s the Caribbean collection, so there’s Barbuda Banana, which is the yellow and so on. And then there’s different themes, you know Mink Muff and Sable Collar … I had a drawer full.

Did you used to jump up in the middle of the night with a theme or a name?

Oh yes! I’m scatterbrained.

What did you think of that New York Times exposé of the nail salon business?

Terrible. I really was not aware of how terrible it was. It was really embarrassing for the industry and that they were able to get away with it for so long. You know I don’t deal with those salons.
The master bedroom furniture is all custom by Groves & Co. including the rosewood platform bed with built-in bedside tables, the media cabinet and walnut dressers. The hardware including the pulls and the polished nickel sconces are also custom-made by Groves & Co. The artwork on the north wall,"Ring Image A 2010 (Yellow)", "Ring Image B 2010 (Orange)", "Ring Image C 2010 (Green)"is by Robert Mangold. The art on the west wall, "Untitled 199", is also by Robert Mangold.
The expansive upstairs hallway.
So often in our interviews we find that the apple doesn’t fall all that far from the tree. What sort of things did your parents do?

I come from an entrepreneurial family. My father died the week before my 16th birthday and my mother who had never worked a day in her life had to go into my father’s business—and she still is in that business: Party Time Academy Chair Renting Company. And my uncle owned a pharmacy.

You’re always talking about how you personally went into the salons or answered the phones yourself, so you obviously don’t mind being with people a lot of the time …

Max [Essie’s husband] will tell you  … He would say, “You’re crazy, you’re sitting there answering telephones in the front of the office and you’ve got people to do it.” But you have to hear what the people love and what they don’t love. If you’re in an ivory tower, you don’t know what they really think.

So you’ll talk to anybody.

Yeah! I’ll talk to a stone!
Looking across Park Avenue towards the neighbor's impressive penthouse.
Another uptown Park Avenue view.
Western views towards Fifth Avenue and Central Park.
The stunning towers of 770 and 778 Park Avenue.
We love the Queen of England story. [For the past forty years the Queen has only ever worn one shade of nail polish: Essie’s Ballet Slippers]

Oh, when you get a letter with the royal crest! I did have it framed until we had a fire and we lost it. She loves the color. And then Kate wore [Essie’s polish] to her wedding. I got a call at four o’clock in the morning from our distributor in Germany and she said, “Congratulations. Kate wore Allure to her wedding.”

Okay, so one of your names for one of your nail polishes (I told you I loved the names) is Eternal Optimist …

Yes, because I was—everything always turns out—and I am still that way—I’m a little bit more cautious…