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'Indie' Nail Polish Brands Take Off in New York City

 Founders have taken their brands from a kitchen-sink hobby to full-time career within months.
New York City-based 'Indie' Nail Polish Brands Take Off
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NEW YORK CITY — In the midst of a "Game of Thrones" marathon, Natasha Coulson and Leigh Buckridge had an idea.

The best friends, both living in Astoria, were attempting to paint their nails with colors inspired by the cult TV show — the white and grays of House Stark to be specific — but conventional nail polish brands weren't cutting it.

So, in early 2013 they began making nail polish under the name Fandom Cosmetics.

"We were talking about how great it would be to [represent] your favorite fandom on your nails," said Coulson, now 24.

In a few short months, the accidental business went from a few orders a day to more than 100, with an expanded inventory of dozens of nail polish lines inspired by TV shows and movies from "Downton Abbey" to "Star Trek" to "Harry Potter."

Nail-related products enjoyed a boom in 2012 with sales of $768 million, according to industry reports. But toward the end of 2013, big name brands such as Revlon, L'Oreal and Coty, which owns O.P.I and Sally Hansen, began reporting declines.

Fandom Cosmetics is one of a handful of New York City-based "indie" nail polish brands that are bucking the trend by carving out a niche market with unique color combinations, radical glitter looks and by providing homespun service.

"I really wanted to create colors that the big brands were not creating," said Annie Pham, 33, the founder and owner of Cirque Colors, which she makes by hand in a Bed-Stuy studio. "I wanted to show people they didn't have to wear those conservative colors."

Cirque just turned 2, and Pham works on it full-time along with another staff member. Like other indie brands, the majority of Cirque's sales come through online stores and its own website, propped up by savvy social media strategies and a huge online community of nail bloggers. 

Recently several brick-and-mortar boutiques such as International Playground on the Lower East Side began stocking Cirque's products.

Mawish Ali, 23, began Starrily in her parents' Coney Island home in July 2012.

 This look from Fandom Cosmetics has decal stick-ons inspired by the Deathly Hallows from the Harry Potter movies.
This look from Fandom Cosmetics has decal stick-ons inspired by the Deathly Hallows from the Harry Potter movies.
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Mishka from AccioLacquer.com

"It was a huge risk to take and I didn't start making a profit until several months in," she wrote in an email. At the time, Ali was studying to be an optometrist and "had many days without sleep," she wrote.

Less than two years later, she is working full-time on her business. Starrily has 80 colors for sale online and is stocked in a handful of stores in France.

The company recently received an order of 25,000 bottles, causing Ali to temporally move to a bigger space. She also launched a service that allows customers to design their own glitter polish, name it and choose the bottle it comes in.

Like other indie nail polish founders, Ali said finding a supplier who would sell her ingredients in small batches proved the biggest hurdle.

"Most manufacturers require an expensive minimum order quantity," she wrote. It forced Ali to use savings and borrow money from friends and family to get started.

After seeing her friend Coulson's frustration over supplies at Fandom Cosmetics, Annie Kelly, 24, from Astoria, founded a new business that would act as a go-between for indie nail polish brands and the big suppliers.

Kelly took much of 2013 to negotiate a deal with the manufacturers. She launched Glitter Honey at the end of 2013. The company, which is based in Astoria, sells glitters and pigments starting at half-ounce orders.

"The [indie nail polish brands] can create test runs, and if it doesn’t work then the losses are not as much," Kelly said.

Despite creating her non-toxic and vegan nail polish line Priti in 2005, founder and owner Kim D'Amato, 46, is still the one who deals with customers. However, she no longer mixes the polish herself in a kitchen bowl.

The brand took off in 2010 and is now stocked in Whole Foods stores in Britain and many boutiques across Europe. Roughly 50 percent of sales come from online, according to D'Amato, who splits her time between Paris and an East Village apartment.

If customers have an issue with their order, D'Amato is the one they speak and email with.

"I don't know what I would do if I wasn't doing this," she said, "because I love it."

 Mawish Ali, the founder of Starrily, puts nail polish into bottles.
Mawish Ali, the founder of Starrily, puts nail polish into bottles.
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Mawish Ali