The great artists always find their medium. Michelangelo had his marble. Hendrix had his guitar. For Blanche MacDonald graduate Steph Urmeneta, her mini-masterpieces come to life on clients’ fingers on a daily basis. She is, by any definition, a true nail art genius.
“People often say that my work is different to the nail art they’ve seen before,” she smiles. “I’m constantly thinking of something that’s different or hasn’t been done yet. That’s important to me. Women who get what I’m doing come looking for me. I get women from London, New York and all over asking where I’m located because they want to get their nails done.”
Granted, not many of history’s great artists promised ‘Boss Bitch Nails’ on their business cards. Steph is a true original. Her cutting edge artistry is matched by an easy-going personality and her dedication to the very highest standards of cleanliness and professionalism. It’s that combination that goes some way to explaining why she caught the eye and is now represented by top Artists Management Company, Nobasura. The career potential for one of Vancouver’s leading high fashion nail artists is limitless.
“There are people like Sophy Robson and Jenny Longworth in London who have their own lines and are working with celebrities,” she explains. “That’s the dream for me. Perhaps I’m more nervous when I’m doing nails for a fashion shoot but I still approach them like I approach every client. I want to make sure I do a good job whoever it is.”
When Steph isn’t on a shoot she works out of the incredible Queens Boutique in Vancouver’s Gastown, a lifestyle shop inspired by urban culture. It’s the perfect space for Steph to bring her amazing ideas into existence.
“Queens is basically a barbershop for girls, minus the hair cutting,” she explains. “You get your clothing, accessories and your nails done. It’s the perfect place to go before a Friday night. And it’s all for women. It’s a hangout for girls.”
Steph’s professional life has taken off since she graduated Nail School. Looking back, the decision to follow her heart was one of the best she ever made.
“I originally wanted to go to Makeup School at Blanche Macdonald straight out of high school, but life got in the way. I got married and had kids. I was a stay at home mum for almost five years. That’s when I thought it was time to do something for me.
“My Mum and I would always play around with nail polish. She was pretty good at doing her own nail art, so it was something I picked up when I was young. I used to get my nails done all the time, and it would cost $125 a go, before tax and tip. And they could never quite do what I wanted. I thought, maybe it’s time I do this for myself.
“I spoke to other schools but I knew right off the bat that Blanche Macdonald was the place for me. Everyone seemed to be smiling and happy, it had the Nail Program that I wanted and it had the reputation. That’s what I researched first – what were spa directors looking for. A lot of them were saying, if you go to Blanche Macdonald, that’s an immediate in.”
To me, the best thing is the reward of seeing my work on someone else.
From the moment she started Nail School, Steph knew she was in the right place.
“After five years at home with my kids the first thing I had to remember was to not talk to everyone like they were babies,” she laughs. “It was great. Everyone was really welcoming and the teachers were really supportive. We were lucky enough to get a lot of nail art classes. Our nail art teacher, Chika Nagai, was amazing. There was so much to learn from her. She was so calm and cool. She made me want to be like her.
“Simona Gozner is amazing too. Even now, she’s so supportive. That’s one of the great things about Blanche Macdonald. She taught the Biz Whiz part of the program. That was one class I didn’t want to miss. I’m an artist, so knowing about the ins and outs of the business is so important – how to keep clients and how to get more clients. We learnt how to talk to people and make relationships. When Simona was teaching us about standards, I really took that to heart.”
Steph was planning on eventually going into business for herself. She started her Haus of Lacquer web site and was learning the finer points of the nail business at Socialite Nails (not incidentally, owned by another Blanche Macdonald graduate) when she met Rose Raflores, who was putting the finishing touches to her idea for a boutique inspired by urban culture.
“I was doing red toes and French manicures all day long, which was great,” she smiles. “But I was doing nail art on myself and knew that I needed to be doing it on other people.
Once Rose explained her concept to me, I thought, this is it! And it’s worked out really well.
“I think of myself as a bartender, minus the drinks. People sit down and chat with me and I get to listen to them and the problems in their lives. It’s about building relationships. Most of my clients will drop in to say hi or stop to chat if we see each other on the street.”
Of course, at the heart of Steph’s popularity is her incredible talent. As her reputation has grown, so have the inevitable requests from clients looking for a burst of inspiration straight from this artist’s mind; ‘do whatever you like’.
“When that happens I always say, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to even pick out a colour? You have to look at them at the end of the day. I can put what I want on there, but I don’t have to look at them every day.’ People want to know what the latest thing is. There’s always something fresh in my head. It’s basically about getting out there and seeing how far you can go. My Dad’s an artist. We used to sit and watch The Joy of Painting. If I see a fabric or a print that I really like, even if it’s on a sweater, I’ll take a picture so I can go home and do a set of nails based on that. That’s what I’m about.
I’m constantly thinking of something that’s different or hasn’t been done yet. That’s important to me.
“Even then, I’ll try to match the client’s nails to who they are and what they’ll be wearing if they’re going out. I’d say 90% of what I do is psychology and 10% is the actual artwork. A lot of this business isn’t about what’s on your hands. It’s about getting out and having a moment for yourself. I can understand that. I have a three and a six-year-old at home.”
Is Steph Urmeneta the most exciting nail artist currently working in Vancouver? Could be. The experts at Nobasura definitely think so. Her legend has even reached across the Atlantic to London, England. If you spot the nails in Canadian fashion shoots getting wilder over the coming months, you’ll know who’s probably to blame. The recognition is nice, of course, but the work’s the most important thing to Steph. She is an artist after all.
“To me, the best thing is the reward of seeing my work on someone else. Spotting someone walking down the street with the nails you gave them is amazing. Seeing something reposted on tumblr gets me every time.”