A few years ago, Josh Espley, a former marketing exec for a sex toy company called Fleshlight, noticed that his kickboxing friends were wearing polish to cover their banged-up nails. The practice was becoming popular, he noted, with the mixed martial arts crowd: Former Ultimate Fighting Championship star Chuck Liddell famously sported dainty pink fingernail polish in fights. Espley occasionally reads Us Weekly—to help him chat up women, he says—and saw polish on male celebrities such as Zac Efron, Jared Leto, Dave Navarro, and Johnny Depp. So in 2009, as a way to supplement his income, he created Blakk Cosmetics. Its first product was Alpha Nail paint, which the company sold in $12 pens in colors like “cocaine” (creamy white), “burnin’ rubber” (dark navy), and “gasoline” (charcoal gray).
Alpha Nail’s website shows bloody, filthy fingers dabbed in nail paint; the hand models grapple with each other, fix a car, fire a rifle. “Our site is way over the top. We thought we had to really make this clear that it’s for men,” says Espley, 35, from his Houston home. He softened the marketing approach somewhat after discovering how many non-MMA, nonartist, nongay men have bought his product. “It’s shifted to the everyman who wants that extra little flair,” he says. The company sells about 400 pens a month. “It’s profitable in the sense of our overhead [being low], but as far as a great salary, that’s different,” Espley says.
Marco Berardini, a makeup artist for musicians such as Jennifer Lopez, started a men’s line of beauty products, EvolutionMan, in 2010. He added “nail paint” last year, and his sales have doubled every six months. His colors are also edgy—one black shade emulates the look of pavement—and they all dry in less than a minute, as men apparently don’t like to wait for their polish to set. Berardini, too, launched his line after seeing guys he wouldn’t have suspected sporting polish.
“I heard stories from manual laborers using it so their nails wouldn’t yellow from the products they were dealing with,” he says. Recently, he teamed up with punk designer Indashio to make a black paint with gold flecks. “Colored nail paints are like a temporary tattoo. You’re able to express yourself without the commitment of ink,” says Berardini. In July fashionable basketball player Dwyane Wade posted an Instagram of his toenails painted in EvolutionMan polish. “Matte black paint … RockStar ish …” reads his caption.
While the female nail polish market is at an all-time high—in 2012 sales in the U.S. reached $768 million, a 32 percent gain from 2011—there’s a limited market for dudes, says Virginia Lee, a senior research analyst at Euromonitor International who covers cosmetics. “Gender norms have become more relaxed in recent years, but it’s still unlikely that a guy wearing ‘nail art’ will be complimented by another guy. It’s a very niche market,” she says.
John Allan, owner of an eponymous chain of high-end men’s grooming clubs in New York, Chicago, and Toronto, has been offering complimentary manicures with haircuts since 1988. “When I first started, I was knocking down a lot of stereotypes. You were considered less masculine because you were taking care of yourself,” says Allan, whose company caters to Wall Street types who go for clear polish over “burnin’ rubber.” “Today, I think men understand it’s just good grooming,” he says. Allan’s pitch is softer than Espley’s or Berardini’s, but it’s just as effective: “I say one thing to my customers: ‘How do you think your partner likes the feel of a hangnail going down her back?’ ”