Keiko Matsui Brings the Bling to Vancouver’s Nail Art Scene

Keiko Matsui Brings the Bling to Vancouver’s Nail Art Scene

In the cozy, clean and crisp white space of Glam Nail Studio, the morning sun glints on the golden array of Nail Art trophies jostling for space along countertops and shelves, intersticed with the framed sets of the winning artwork. The nail technicians have only just settled from the bustle of their opening preparations, and the stations are already babbling with the first customers of the day; that is, with exception to our chair and the one opposite where sits the owner of this Award-Winning space, Blanche Macdonald Nail Parlour graduate-turned-instructor Keiko Matsui.

“At first I wasn’t aware of competitions,” chirps Keiko, swiveling to look at the impressive collection of glass and gold with a humble shrug. “Some of our staff that came in from Tokyo to work with us were wanting to go to Las Vegas; the competitions there are world renowned. I decided to give it a shot and I won third place the first time – I was very, very happy. Now, since we’ve begun winning these awards, there are nail technicians that want to come to work in this salon so that they too can win awards at the competitions. They know we know what we need to do!”

They certainly do. Just over six years into business, the Richmond-based Glam Nail team boasts an astounding 21 International Awards for their highly acclaimed Japanese nail art, including Keiko’s 3D Nail Art First Place win at IBS Las Vegas. And people have been noticing.

“Customers are actually coming in from different areas, crossing the border; sometimes they’re even flying in, coming by as they pass through the Vancouver International Airport!

“We try to get the most experienced nail technicians; they are so dedicated to the salon and we have won many competition awards. Even now, Glam Nail is still one-of-a-kind in the Lower Mainland.”

The teachers were not just teachers; they were nail technicians with experience.

Since first tossing open the doors in the summer of 2008, Glam Nail’s client base – which began only with a small group of loyal customers from Keiko’s freelancing days – has grown exponentially, keeping the salon in constant flux and on their toes. This, in part due to the fact that Keiko and her girls are creating a new niche by educating Vancouverites about Japanese nail art technique and design.

“When I was still in Japan, about 18 years ago nobody was talking about nails. Japanese nail art really happened in the past 15 years or so; the nail technicians began to win awards in the international competitions, and the prominent ones were all of a sudden always in the magazines. Historically in Japan, the craftsman and craftsmanship is very appreciated. It was because of this that they were able to gradually establish so many nail art styles.”

Keiko brought this diversity of style to Canada when a long list of national regulations and restrictions on immigrants forced her and her Canadian husband to relocate from Kyoto to Canada, leaving her position as an English instructor behind. Excited about the prospect of a fresh start, Keiko kept her eyes peeled and ears open for the next career to call her own. The moment of clarity was released – pun intended – during a back rub.

“I was helping out a friend with her massage practicum and as I was speaking with her she told me about another of her friends that was taking a nail artistry course. I thought, ‘Oh, I might like that!’ I began looking for a nail school right away. One of my friends had gone to Blanche Macdonald for the Esthetics course and the schedule really matched mine. It was all very opportune – all from only that one conversation!

“The classes at Blanche Macdonald were very sophisticated. The teachers were not just teachers; they were nail technicians with experience. I loved how they emphasized on cleaning, on manners, ethics – it’s all very important. It was great learning about all of the extra treatments as well, like henna and aromatherapy. The materials that we used at the school were very good; they were all top notch products!”

Keiko pulls open a few drawers and points to her collection of polish and gels – most of these products are now stocking her shelves at Glam Nail. The high-standard hygenics that she learned over a decade ago are another Blanche Macdonald legacy that she has carried through to her salon – and they’re not the only things.

“I even still follow the finger painting order,” she laughs. “Those kinds of fundamental lessons I cannot ever forget.”

I really want to inspire these young artists, but I am inspired by them also; by their energy and their passion.

After graduation, Keiko began work as a nail artist with Holt Renfrew’s prestige spa, but a very special circumstance pushed her into a more independent pursuit.

“I found out soon after that I was pregnant. I wanted to be more flexible in my hours, and I was adamant that I wanted to pursue nail art specifically, so I began doing friends’ nails. They loved it! That’s when I established K’s Mobile Nail Bar. My client list began growing bigger, and bigger – once you have 60 customers you cannot increase more than that. You’re fully booked all of the time. And so, I opened Glam Nail!”

Even now with her larger space and ever-growing team, Keiko can barely keep the appointment books from overflowing. Glam Nail’s unparalleled passion for creativity, quality, and the attention they devote to their clients keeps their salon buzzing.

“A lot of our customers have been here for a long time, but some will move back to Asia, and some may have children and stop doing their nails for some time. Even when they don’t come for awhile, I still see them as very long term customers when they do. I always try to remember each customer and the stories we shared.

“I keep this salon very small. The reason is that I can still oversee and make sure that the quality of service is at the level I want. We guarantee our work for up to one week even if it’s their fault. We’ll fix it without any questions asked. I don’t want to argue about who’s fault it is; they paid, and so they should enjoy.”

The Glam Nail aesthetic ranges from toothsome pastel florals to exorbitant, no holds barred bling. Though many travel miles for one of their signature 3D looks, some come for a more classic look made brilliant through the unparalleled quality and service on offer at the studio. Ensuring that her team are never short of ideas for her diverse client base means that Keiko is constantly on the lookout, pulling inspiration from some unlikely sources.

“When I see her clothes,” says Keiko, gesturing towards a customer’s heathered shawl cardigan, “I think of how there’s a really great combination of black and white there, and wonder how to utilize it. Materials are everywhere and make for great inspiration. I try to pay attention. Even with my kids’ stuff – I’ve gone to the toy store just to look and think about 3D things to make. It’s crazy!

“My crafty, artistic side has been really fulfilled with this job.”

Glam Nail’s spectacular, inventive designs have even won over the adoration of superstar ‘Gothic Lolita’ blogger, journalist, and TV host La Carmina, who pops by Glam Nail to treat herself when she’s in town. Yet the passion that Keiko enthuses for her career has less to do with star visitors, and more to do with the everyday enjoyments that come with owning your own business.

“It’s so difficult to refine it to just one thing! One of the greatest parts about this job is that you see the results, the feedback right away, which is difficult to find in some other careers. Then, as I have two kids I am too busy to go downtown all the time, but my staff and customers will bring me back lots of ideas and information. I love my conversations with my team and my customers.

“I’m supported by so many people. I feel incredibly grateful. I have to play all sorts of roles in my daily life but it’s a good thing, as a mother, to have your own business; you can be more flexible.”

Keiko has now added an extra role to her list that she is endlessly thrilled about, coming back to Blanche Macdonald as an instructor to the next generation of potential nail technicians, award-winning artists and studio owners.

“The classrooms at Blanche Macdonald are full of curiosity – I love it! At the time that I was in the program, there wasn’t much information about Japanese nail art, but a lot of these students today are very interested in it. I want to answer all of their questions! I really want to inspire these young artists, but I am inspired by them also; by their energy and their passion.”

Having won the hearts of the Lower Mainland over to the wondrous world of Japanese nail art, she hopes that the next generation will keep the tradition going. For now, her advice to the her students is to keep eyes open and on the horizon for their own calling in the bright and booming industry of Nail Art.

“Be curious! I’m full of curiosity! And be patient. Keep going. Your time will come, but to be patient is the most important thing to know.”

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