Sharmadean Reid, founder and chief executive officer of Wah Nails, which helped spearhead the nail art trend when it launched with a single east London salon in 2009, sees herself more as cult leader than retailer.
What began as a feminist fan ‘zine for women in hip-hop in 2006 turned into Wah Nails, with outposts in several Topshop stores and a stand-alone store in London’s Soho. For Reid, however, it’s never been about the nails, but about creating community and culture, with a higher purpose.
“I’ve always been obsessed with cults, religious cults, fanatical cults, artists’ cults. I’m like, ‘How on earth do you create a movement and make anyone do exactly what you want to do?’ So that’s pretty much the way that I worked while building Wah,” she said.
When she decided to open her first salon, she realized nail art wasn’t exactly the acme of feminist concepts, and so asked herself, “What’s the higher purpose?”
“I went around telling everyone that I’m going to create a space to connect creative women and give them a safe space,” she said. “We often talk about what is the end feeling of our customer, and it’s about the safe space to discuss ideas, which actually is the true origin of the word salon anyway.”
The second step in creating a cult, she said, was to write a manifesto. Reid wrote a 60-page “bible” outlining everything about her business, including the mission and culture of Wah Nails in order to recruit and share her vision with staff.
WAH’s manifesto is, “For Downtown Girls Worldwide.” A statement that refers to Reid’s desire to serve her customers, a global tribe of girls with a “downtown” attitude.
She said another step is to build the congregation. “You can’t grow a cult without new recruits, so you have to train them all how to spot them,” she said, adding that in training sessions, all staff members are taught how to recognize girls that fall into the five Wah Nails archetypal personas. She said they could be aged from 13 years to 35 years old and up.
“I gave my team members the opportunity to do whatever they wanted to build our community, and now these girls are hot. They’re going to be featured in i-D.”
She said it was important to alleviate new recruits’ anxieties. “We are listening always.” After shooting a poster campaign with models cast from Instagram, Reid realized three of the eight models had self-harming scars, so Wah hosted an evening at its Soho store to discuss self-love.
“We didn’t sell them anything, we didn’t ask them to get their nails done, we just allowed this space to exist for them,” she said.
Reid has also set up Futuregirlcorp.com, which teaches girls how to succeed in business, imparting skills including planning and road mapping.
“We don’t ask them for anything, it’s nothing to do with WAH, brand-wise, but now I have several hundred e-mails of girls who are obsessed with running their own business,” she said.
Reid said that building a “church,” a physical or online space, was crucial. “You can’t have a cult if you don’t have a church right? A lot of people make a pilgrimage to our church, we have a lot of girls from abroad, global girls, as you saw, who make their whole families wait in reception while they get the most intricate nails done,” Reid told. “The physical space is super-important.”
Networking is also key: At the new Wah store in London’s Soho, there’s a ground-floor shop and a basement nail bar with a cocktail bar. Every Thursday, Wah opens the doors to anyone from its community who has an idea for an interesting event and potentially to bring in new recruits. They are given an events manager and access to the space for free.
Nail polish does enter into the equation in many ways, including Reid’s manifesto — and values. “We have our manifesto all the way down to our nail polishes, which have the phrase ‘Downtown Girls Worldwide’ on the back. Even if you don’t know what that means, a 13-year-old girl knows” what it stands for.
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