Why Everyone is Obsessed with Nails By Mei

Mei Kawajiri's maximalist nail art has made her a sensation on and off the catwalk.
Reading time 6 minutes

If the age of Euphoria makeup hasn't convinced you already, it's time to forget “less is more.” Having fun with beauty is the biggest trend heading into 2020, and that goes for your nails, as well. Mei Kawajiri, better known by her Instagram username @nailsbymei, is bringing maximalism back with her eye-catching creations. For the young Japanese artist, the only limit is her imagination, and her innovative designs fit right into the current moment. 

After years of neglect, nail art is regaining its influence today. Extreme nails have become a symbol of power, commitment, and even feminism. However, nail decoration is not just a contemporary fashion concept. Women in ancient Egypt and Babylon used henna on their nails as a status symbol, Incas painted animals to honor the gods, and in aristocracies, the upper class typically wore their nails long because they did not have to work. In China, noblewomen distinguished themselves with luxurious nail decorations in rich colors like gold, silver, black, and red. Today, celebrities and ordinary people alike wear extravagant manicures, indulging in a tradition long reserved for the privileged. 

The 2000s saw a revival of the nail art craze, which originated in Japan and quickly took off in the United States before emerging in Europe some years later. Today, manicured, intricately decorated nails are celebrated thanks to the proliferation of nail artists like Kawajiri, both in the fashion world and on platforms like Instagram. Mei has worked with some of the biggest brands in the world, including Balenciaga, Marc Jacobs, and Alexander Wang, providing the perfect finishing touch to these brands' embrace of eccentric dressing.

Kawajiri's artsy spirit also brings her to rising labels, like Puppets and Puppets. “Mei is incredible," the brand said of collaborating with her. "We are appreciative of her ability to interpret what she sees in a simple manicure. She has no equal in the industry. In her work, anything is possible." 

Additionally, beyond the catwalk, Mei has begun to bring her vision of nail art to advertising and editorial campaigns. She started out with a shoot for CR Fashion Book, and now her work has spread to a range of publications and brands, including VogueBillboard, and Moschino—almost always paired with a cutting-edge look on top talent. “Carine [Roitfeld] always gives me the chance to imagine very creative nails,” Kawajiri says of where she got her editorial start. It's exciting that now, the nail artist's platform has risen to make her one of the most in-demand options to create a truly eye-catching look.

Kawajiri got her start at a Tokyo manicure salon at the age of 19, and after a few years, she set off for bigger dreams by opening her own business in New York. Nail art has been more than just a job for Mei: her passion even helped her learn English as she communicated with her first clients.

In 2013, Mei had her first celebrity client, supermodel Heidi Klum. “I was a little nervous!" she recalls. She had no idea that Klum would be the first in a long list of celebrity clients. Bella and Gigi Hadid, Ariana Grande, Dua Lipa, Rosalía, Karlie Kloss, Marc Jacobs, and stylist Lotta Volko all come to Mei for her manicure talents. Her signature nail style is long, pointed, and glittery, embellished with 3D diamonds and decorated with kitschy designs in colors that pop. Her talent has attracted some of the biggest names in fashion and pop culture, and there are no bounds to her creativity. “I am constantly looking for new designs," Kawajiri says of her process. "As soon as I get bored, I create new things. It was not for nothing that I moved to New York: I always wanted to become number one in my field.”

Kawajiri's nail art is fascinating because of her extreme precision, as well as her use of sculptural jewels. Unlike most manicurists, the young artist does not use stencils or stickers. Each illustration is hand-painted, no matter how complex or detailed. She paints ultra-realistic images and can execute any custom design. Clients typically bring images for inspiration and sometimes ask her to reproduce other artists' works, knowing Kawajiri can get it right every time.

Nails by Mei's success is not just thanks to her meticulous work, it is also because of her dedication to fulfilling customers' wildest requests. One of these particularly creative fans is handbag designer Olympia Le-Tan, who has become a fan of the nail artist. “The first time I went to see her, I wanted black Victorian nails, with 3D roses and lace edging," Le-Tan says of working with Kawajiri. "Then, I wanted drawings by John Willie. I brought my research to her, but I was sure that my request would be too complex, that the drawings would be too small to make on the single surface of the nail. However, two hours later, I had ten mini-charts on my nails. Mei will fulfill any of my wishes. I love watching her do it. She does everything freehand with a very small brush. She finds exactly the right colors, the line is incredibly perfect.”

Mei's work is extraordinarily detailed and shows a wide range of inspiration, from art, fashion, and film to characteristics of her home country. Her work embodies an intriguing mix of Japanese kawaii culture and bold American style, and with every eye-catching design, Kawajiri never stops surprising us.


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