‘We wanted more than nails. We wanted to have the craic agus ruaille buaille too. So we went out of our way to find some outrageously talented nail artists and threw in as many pineapples, flamingos, parrots, palm trees, neon signs and anything gold that we could find into the mix.”
Such is the manifesto and call to arms of Tropical Popical, the nail salon in Dublin's trendy South William Street that hit international headlines last month when Saoirse Ronan got news of her Golden Globe nomination.
A regular customer of the salon, the star of Brooklyn and now Oscar nominee was having Christmas trees, baubles and gold painted on her fingernails and took the calls to a soundtrack of Justin Bieber blaring out in the background. Her subsequent appearance on Ellen DeGeneres's TV show in the US mentioning the salon three times went viral, as did another few mentions on the red carpet at the Golden Globes last week.
According to salon owner Andrea Horan, "we have been basking in the glow ever since. The effects were immediate on social media, particularly on Twitter. For a small business it was the sort of endorsement money can't buy."
Known mischievously for the “best hand jobs in town”, Tropical Popical was launched three years ago by Andrea and her sister Michelle, “and we had no nail varnish when we opened. I had to tell customers and our friends that deliveries would be here any minute – that’s how professional we were,” Andrea recalls. Michelle, a hairdresser, had run salons in Lucan, Maynooth and Naas while Andrea worked in PR for 15 years, latterly with Thinkhouse.
What changed everything for the Tallaght sisters was a long trip abroad together, travelling mostly around the US and Mexico, where they would get their nails done for fun every three days. That set them thinking about nailing the trend in Dublin and, having identified a gap in the market, they opened Tropical Popical in November 2012. Its bright and zany interior and colourful decor offered something very different from the traditional "whale music and beige walls" of conventional salons. "I wanted it to be an experience", says Andrea.
“We are a small team of seven nail technicians, but we don’t want to get any bigger. I like the small, intimate feel and I prefer to have a magical vibe here – it’s more about creating a lifestyle for me and the girls rather than making money,” she says.
There is a wide offer of manis (manicures) and pedis (pedicures) starting at €7 for a polish change up to €100 for a “midi gelish combo”, a gelish being a cross between a nail varnish and a gel with more than 700 different-coloured varnishes on offer. One wall in the salon, a “nail inspiration board” is plastered with photos of different nail designs that the technicians have created for clients.
"We try to push the art forward and every Wednesday we pay girls to come in and create something inspirational – and pick an artist like Jeff Koons, for instance, and get them to research the work and do themed nails on the artist. The girls are learning about stuff they would not have been interested in or known about so they get more ideas and become more creative," says Andrea.
Most of the customers are women, “but we get men as well. Women bring their partners to get a feet fix – we have a treatment called Man Feet Fix. Guys don’t do nail art and a man getting extensions is unusual, but we would never be judgmental. We have drag queens, hen parties and people in their 50s and 60s coming here.”
Well-known clients include Vogue Williams, Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh, Joanne McNally of Republic of Telly and Louise O'Neill and others working in Today FM and Newstalk, whose offices are nearby.
Female enthusiasm for using nails as a canvas for all sorts of designs has made this the fastest-growing segment of the beauty trade even surpassing lipstick as a recession-proof cosmetic enhancer, according to the New York Times. Adventurous colours and long-lasting gels contributed to a 67 per cent increase in department store brands in one year in 2011. The trend is set to continue.
In the meantime, Andrea has ambitious plans in the pipeline to extend Tropical Popical in other directions. She is a writing a book on how to live the tropical lifestyle, is planning to open a stylish b&b in Dublin 8 based on the the Urban Cowboy b&b in New York (“that kind of vibe with a tropical theme”) and develop a clothing line.
She has partnered with a Japanese graphic designer called Yokopium to produce her own fabric with her signature 1980s aesthetic which she describes as “tacky and Miami” with patterns of palm trees and pineapples which can be used for clothing and homewares. She is also starting a six-week Trop Pop training course.
As sisters they have a good working relationship. “I love brand-building whereas Michelle is obsessed with beauty stuff. Michelle is very logistical and maps everything out,” says Andrea. According to Michelle, “Andrea goes with the flow and we meet halfway.” Andrea’s obsession is with hotels, “and all I do is book holidays. I go on holidays to hotels. And I think the best are the San Giorgio in Mykonos, the Ahau and Sanara in Tulum, Mexico.”
Another favourite is Francis Ford Coppola's Palazzo Margarita in Bernalda, and last week she was heading to Tokyo on her first visit to Japan.
On the day of my visit, the salon was packed. Kate Hickey, who lives in the UK, comes every time she's home. "Because there is nothing like this where I live. I got this manicure – rose gold with a pink heart on the thumb for my wedding. I have been getting my nails done for five years in many different places and this is the nicest and they do the best job," she says.
Beside her Aoibhe McCarthy, a customer for two years, is getting pink and grey gel nails. “They are the spring colours. I love it because looking at my nails – when they’re painted – makes me feel a bit happy.”