Nailing It: New York’s Latest Non-Toxic Nail Salon, Van Court, Gives Hardworking Hands a Guilt-Free High-Five

The Setting's Amanda Shine, whose ceramics are handmade in Brooklyn, chooses a manicure with classic lines in bright colors. @thesettingnyc
The Setting's Amanda Shine, whose ceramics are handmade in Brooklyn, chooses a manicure with classic lines in bright colors. @thesettingnyc
David Urbanke

Ruth Kallens knew she was "on to something" after a New York Times investigation last year exposed the dirty underbelly of Manhattan nail salons — namely, the rampant exploitation of their manicurists.

"The first problem I wanted to solve was the pedicure stations," explains the 33-year-old former model, who opened her eco-friendly salon, Van Court, in the financial district earlier this month. "We raised the stools and made the stations adjustable so our nail technicians don't have to be slumped over. That and the fact that our custom-made manicure tables are the proper height and width for comfort."

Kallens enlisted the help of nail art expert Jessica Washick to curate a selection of non-toxic (five- and nine-free) polishes from niche female-owned brands. She then hired a team of skilled technicians who pride themselves on using "proper" manicure techniques, like avoiding water because it causes "chip susceptibility" (yes, that's a term).

Nail technician Teresa King, who spent six years working with celebrities on film and photo shoots before joining the team at Van Court, says that using water during a manicure "might be soothing and nice" but can damage newly applied polish. Instead, Van Court offers dry manicures with organic, homemade oils and moisturizers that "won't compromise" the nail plate.

Flour Shop baker Amirah Kassem translates her well-documented love of rainbows directly onto her fingers. @flourshop
Flour Shop baker Amirah Kassem translates her well-documented love of rainbows directly onto her fingers. @flourshop
David Urbanke

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"Your nails absorb water, expanding while sitting in that little soapy bowl," King says. "After you walk out, your nails dry and return to their original shape, but the lacquer can't expand and contract in the same way, so you immediately start to get chips."

The salon also refuses to cut cuticles, a technique that leaves microfractures in the skin and is illegal in many states (including Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, and Wisconsin). "Cutting cuticles can lead to serious infections like staph, hepatitis, and even HIV if tools aren't sterilized properly," King explains. "Most corner-store nail salons cut cuticles because people like the way it looks. But they don't realize how unsanitary most nail salons are."

Metalsmith Karen Karch, known for her edgy heirloom jewelry designs, gravitates toward a dusting of gold over varying shades of green. @karenarchjewelry
Metalsmith Karen Karch, known for her edgy heirloom jewelry designs, gravitates toward a dusting of gold over varying shades of green. @karenarchjewelry
David Urbanke

Van Court also boasts American-made, biodegradable nail files and cuticle pushers, plus a medical-grade sterilizer that cleans metal tools and larger equipment. And Kallens gets really excited by the salon's high-tech ventilation system, which includes a fixture at each manicure station to continuously circulate clean air. "Plus," she says, "we have a reflexologist on staff to teach us how to massage, so that we're not straining ourselves.

"We're trying to make our footprint as minimal as possible and empower our nail technicians at the same time," Kallens continues, noting that she has "very open" conversations about compensation with staff. "People will say, 'Whoa, your prices are expensive.' I say, 'Well, my technicians are expensive!' They're the girls doing the big editorial and advertising shoots. They're backstage at Fashion Week. They're the best in the industry."

[This is part of the spring 2016 edition of Sheer, a quarterly style supplement by the Village Voice devoted to exploring and sharing the most dynamic elements of New York City’s fashion and design worlds, from the iconic to the as yet undiscovered. Check out the rest of Sheer's featured stories here.]


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