Nails - a real talon contest

Want to know how you can stay at the sharp end of style? The answer is at your fingertips, where street meets chic, says Harriet Walker

It won't come as a surprise to hear that the fashion pack have got their claws out this season. But this time at least, it's no metaphor: extreme nails and tailored talons were key looks on the spring catwalks, whether glitzy and glam for evening or eye-catching and edgy as part of a daytime ensemble.

"Our most popular design is leopard print, which is available in almost every colour," says Sharmadean Reid, founder of hip new salon WAH Nails, which opened last August in London's Dalston. "There's a crossover now of outlandish nails from the street to the fashion set. We weren't used to that but the response has been huge."

Once a subcultural dancehall trend among ragga girls, nail art – including oversized acrylics painted with intricate designs, transfer stickers, neon brights and quirky sculpting – has been taken up by the highest luxury brands, from Chanel, whose pale green jade enamel varnish was a sell-out earlier this year, to Alexander McQueen, whose spring/summer 2010 show featured models with metallic etchings of octopuses lacquered onto their fingertips. Sounds confusing? It's known as Minxing (after the company who creates the designs) and is achieved with a new "decal" technology, where a layer of patterned or digitally printed film is applied to the nail using infrared light. Take your pick from houndstooth, animal print, silver, gold – or bring along your own esoteric imagery, just as international nail impresario Marian Newman did for McQueen.

Fashion forward make-up brands, such as Alex Box's Illamasqua range, have paved the way for adventure at the nail bars; other manicure brands like Essie and OPI, whose focus has traditionally been classic, chic rouge noirs and natural pinks, are now developing increasingly directional tones of grey, mauve, neon and, this season's hottest shade, mink.

"Nail technology has been has been steadily improving to make adventurous nails easier than ever before," says manicurist Sophy Robson, who has decorated the digits of Kate Moss in her time. "With designers like McQueen and Gareth Pugh embracing fantasy nails as part of their overall catwalk look, this can only continue."

Other trends spotted at the shows included gothic reverse French manicures, as seen at Thakoon for autumn, where white tips and half-moons were broken up with blocks of black, and matte nudes matched to individual skin tones at Louis Vuitton, where the aim was to make models look like shop dummies.

"Whereas nail art was once seen as a tacky fashion faux pas, it's now all about an edgier take on nail designs," explains Jenny Holdsworth, another backstage manicure maven. "Rather than anything too heavily embellished, keep the design bold and not too fussy. Women have been experimenting since the Twenties, so think Dior and Dita Von Teese for a classier example."

It's true that the current vogue is not quite for the most extreme ghetto-fabulous look, and nail artists have noticed a tailing off in the application of gigantic acrylics, piercings or diamante designs. "It's more about the colour combinations," adds Sharmadean Reid. "Long, pointy nails are quite last year; this season you want them short and square, not extending beyond your fingertip. If you do like yours longer, keep them rounded rather than witchy."

Customers and catwalk artists alike have also been experimenting with texture, with this month's issue of Vogue suggesting applying lace to nails with a clear varnish, in anticipation of one of spring's biggest fashion trends. Similarly, cracked and oxidised metallics were seen at 3.1 Phillip Lim, while matte is also big news.

"It's hard to do it all yourself," continues Reid. "Drawing designs is difficult, but you can buy transfers online that you stick on, or try using glitter: it's a bit blurry anyway so lines don't need to be as defined." Jenny Holdsworth suggests using an old eyeliner brush to blob on some homemade nail art.

Transfers can range from abstract shapes, to cartoon cupcakes, to ironic renderings of designer logos, like the interlinked Chanel Cs, for example, or the Yves Saint Laurent and Vuitton monograms. Singer Katy Perry has recently sported transfers of Oompa Loompa faces – if you squint, they look a bit like her current boyfriend Russell Brand. Indeed, potential for such personal experimentation and customisation is boundless. "We get a lot of requests around special occasions," adds Reid. "We've done a lot of reindeer, and there were people in until 11pm over Hallowe'en."

Novelty nails might not be classically chic, but they are fun and they're an instant update to a look. With most acrylic designs lasting for around a month, they offer more value for money than buying a new top every time you go out. If you want people to take your extreme look seriously, just make sure you can still go about your everyday business; watching someone with 6in luminescent yellow talons trying to use a touch-screen ticket machine has become the great modern spectator sport.

And don't rein in your imagination for patterns and colours for fear of looking too outré. "I'm inspired by vintage looks and sci-fi glamour," says Sophy Robson. "We have such quality products nowadays that I try to make nails look extreme but glamorous and beautiful at the same time."

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