‘I wanted to do something meta.’

Nail visionary Mei Kawajiri’s creative journey is based on never following the rules.

By Tish Weinstock
Photograph by Robin Broadbent

Nail Files. Mei Kawajiri. - © System Magazine

Nail visionary Mei Kawajiri’s creative journey is based on never following the rules.

Mei Kawajiri is wearing flesh-coloured nails with two-inch black tips, scored with menacing chrome markings. ‘I wanted to do something meta, so it looks like there are nails coming out from other nails,’ she explains. ‘I usually have crazy nails, but when I’m working, I like to keep it simple.’ This is said without irony. Indeed, a quick scroll down her Instagram feed – @nailsbymei – reveals a rich tableau of talon art: six-inch tips encrusted with jewels and lace; blush-pink bubble sculptures; miniaturized Hunter wellies; and even, an embedded iPhone charging cord. The world is her playground.

Born in Kyoto, Japan, Kawajiri has never been one to follow rules. She dyed her hair red at school when it was explicitly forbidden; practiced professional nail art while still a student (again discouraged); and rebelled against standard practice of painting only one side of the nail (‘Why can’t we paint on the back, too?’ she shrugs).

In 2012, after honing her craft at nail school in Osaka, and later at salons in Kyoto and Tokyo, Kawajiri moved to New York, where she met stylist Carine Roitfeld, who snapped her up for a shoot for CR Fashion Book. Since then, her kaleidoscopic creations have seen her work with everyone from Miu Miu to Marc Jacobs, Balenciaga to Blumarine.

In person, Kawajiri is just as colourful and effervescent as her designs, her carefree attitude a much-needed breath of fresh air in today’s sombre world.

Tish Weinstock: What role does beauty play in your work and its continual quest to push the boundaries of nail art?

Mei Kawajiri: Beauty is just expressing your style, mood and whatever makes you happy. I’m not interested in the idea of just making yourself look pretty. I love eyeliner and hair colour, and of course, nails, too. When I was younger, my high school was so strict, but I wanted to dye my hair red. When I did, my teacher said, ‘You have to go home and change it back.’ So I went to a wig store, bought a wig, put it on and I went back to school. I never feel satisfied when things are simple. I’m always looking for something new and fun.

How does that apply to nails?

Mei Kawajiri: When nails came into my life, it was perfect. I wanted to get into tattoos, but because I change my mind so quickly, like every three hours, I realized I needed something like tattoos but less permanent. I was 18 and I went into a magazine store and found a nail magazine. This was 20 years ago, so the only designs they had were palm trees or leopard print. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is so boring – I can help.’ I already had so many ideas for nails. I told my mum, ‘I don’t want to go to college, but can I go to nail school instead?’ And she was like ‘Yeah, but if you do it, you have to be the best.’

Very sage advice. How did nail school help you hone your craft? Was it what you expected? How did your ideas fit in with what they taught?

Mei Kawajiri: I learned all the basic things, but I had so many crazy ideas that I would draw in my notebook, like flowers with bugs on the back of the nail. I was also working in a nail salon in Kyoto as a student. I wasn’t supposed to do nails for people, but I would always be wearing the craziest nails and so people would ask me to do theirs, so I did. After a couple of years, I realized that Kyoto was too small and that I needed to move to Tokyo, so I moved there and started working with people who worked in nightlife, where everyone had crazy nails. I would charge people $60 for ‘chef’s choice’ which was where I would just do whatever I wanted. That gave me a lot of freedom to be creative.

I love the idea of chef’s choice. You later traded in Tokyo for New York. How did moving there shape your practice?

Mei Kawajiri: In Japan, everything was very clean and organized. Nails were all the same shape and colour. In New York, I could do whatever I wanted – pointy tips, square nails, long nails, short nails, all mixed together. My creations became more dynamic. I remember someone told me once that New York people wanted to be like Paris people – you know, chic and only wearing one nail colour – but now look, everyone wants to have crazy nails.

A lot of the materials you use are quite unorthodox, for example, lace, hair or an iPhone charging cord. How do you explain the significance of these?

Mei Kawajiri: All of these ideas come from my imagination. I once made a hairpiece out of nails, so I thought, ‘Why not put hair on nails?’ Anything can go on nails. As for the charger, our phones are always in our hands, so why not have a charger on our nails?

Our hands are among our most powerful tools of self-expression. We gesticulate with our hands; we greet people with them; we use them to scroll, touch and type. It makes sense, then, that nails can also become a vital tool for communication. What do your nails say about you?

Mei Kawajiri: Nails are my way of saying: ‘This is me; I am unique.’ They’re like my puppets, they talk more than me. Sometimes people recognize my nails before they realize who I am. I always have to be wearing a nail look. Even when I’m in pyjamas, wearing no make-up, nothing in my hair, if I have my nails done, I’m fine. I don’t even care about having new clothes – I just have to have cool nails. I have this big nail collection on my wall, so whenever I’m going to a party or dinner I just pick up some nails, press them on and off I go.

What do you want people to take from your work?

Mei Kawajiri: There’s a lot of comedy behind my work, but it’s also very beautiful and creative. I like something that makes you say, ‘Oh wow, I’ve never seen that before.’

We’re constantly bombarded with images and references, how do you stay inspired?

Mei Kawajiri: I look at a lot of nature and food. Yesterday I opened my fridge and I thought about what my nails would look like dipped into a strawberry. Kitchens inspire me. History, also. I just did a Mona Lisa nail.

Previously viewed as an afterthought – especially compared to hair and make-up – nail art has exploded in recent years. How do you see it evolving?

Mei Kawajiri: I think more people will get into double-sided, press-on nails. I see people having nail collections, where they will put on different nails depending on how they’re feeling or where they’re going. Nails will be the new accessory. People will change their nails like they change their outfits.

I can see that, like a wardrobe of nails you can choose from. What about your own career, how do you hope it will evolve?

Mei Kawajiri: I would love to create short films. I have an idea of a woman typing on her computer. You start off viewing from far away and then you zoom in and you realize the nails are actually connected to the computer. I have so many ideas like that.

Taken from System beauty No. 1 – purchase the full issue here.