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Nail salons on the cutting (and polishing) edge

A few nail salons such as Rob/B OPI Concept Salon, Gloss, Recess and Nail Time cater to those seeking style, spa-like services or just a discount.

October 04, 2009|Valli Herman

As manicures move from simple grooming ritual to fashion accessory, they've become a statement that says as much about you as your latest Facebook update.

Yet nail fans are more challenged than ever to find salons that can keep pace with ever-changing nail colors, top coats and textures that offer numerous possibilities to personalize polish.

Partly to bolster their recession-battered business, nail salons have transformed by adding more spa-like services, fresher and better-smelling air, and more emphasis on fashion. Simple neighborhood salons have adapted by offering optional massages or discounts for cash or multiple services.

Getting a manicure, especially in these dour days, is "an affordable accessory that changes your look and your outlook," says Suzi Weiss-Fischmann, executive vice president and artistic director for OPI. "I call it psycho-a-nail-isis."

Though steady sales of mid-priced nail polish indicate that women are doing DIY touch-ups to stretch manicures, salon visits haven't been abandoned, according to Sarena Kirby, brand manager for China Glaze, a top-selling polish collection.

"It's a little spa trip that doesn't break the bank," she says.

In search of salons that deliver a little more than fresh polish and neat cuticles, I spent a month visiting nail emporiums across Los Angeles County to scope out options in price, service and color trends. I found services that can match your budget, your mood and your lifestyle.

State of the art

Robbie Schaeffer spent nearly $3.4 million to build Rob/B, the nation's first OPI Concept Salon. As nephew and son of OPI founders and executives, Schaeffer brought a lifetime of nail knowledge to the year-old Studio City salon.

While many nail salons smell like Superfund sites, Rob/B's high-powered ventilation system passed my sniff test and is part of the salon's pending Gold LEED certification, a "green" building rating system. In addition to being eco-friendly -- bamboo towels, recycled glass and other sustainable materials throughout -- it's also gorgeous.

Frosted glass and bamboo partitions separate clients, chatter and fumes. Shimmering glass bowls on the reclining European Touch pedicure "thrones" look great and feel better, thanks to the programmable massage function. The manicure stations feature ergonomic Aeron chairs, individual sinks to improve sanitation, flat-screen TVs and artwork made from OPI polishes.

The salon carries the 230 OPI polish colors, plus dozens of specialty strengtheners, top coats and beauty products.

A series of extra scrubs, soaks and softeners turned my $45 spa manicure and $50 pedicure into priceless pampering, and not just because they were about $30 less than similarly indulgent services in upscale spas. My mani-pedi included warm-towel wraps and extra-long massages, but I especially liked the intense sanitation procedures.

All metal tools were blasted in a medical-grade autoclave and dispensed in sterile envelopes. My cuticles were coated with a sanitizing gel before any implements touched them (lest a hangnail invite infection). The pedicure basin circulated water that's emptied between clients. And that gurgling water-wall fountain? It dampens noise and moistens the salon's air.

I floated out of the salon with my first pain-free manicure and pedicure.

Rob/B OPI Concept Salon, 12246 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 980-7622.

Haute hipster

Not every nail salon has the artistic sensibility to apply what I call a Goth-glitter manicure -- a textured trio of navy blue, gold glitter and the new China Glaze Matte Magic top coat, made to dull the final finish. Wicked.

But Gloss is in Silver Lake, where a tattoo is practically required for preschool admission, and the 4-year-old nail salon is accustomed to the neighborhood's avant-garde tastes.

Co-owner Thien Ho grew up in Echo Park and in the nail business (her manicurist mom works at Gloss) and longed to create a moderately priced salon with upscale ambience. With a strip mall location, concrete floors, walls curtained floor to ceiling and a nook for fancy beauty products, Gloss gives off a gritty glamour. I would have liked fresher air and a cleaner, neater environment, but then, the basic manicure is only $15. A mani-pedi is $35.

My manicure included cuticle and nail grooming, a wrap of warm towels, a perfunctory massage and skilled polish application. The emery board and buffer were obviously new and fresh. Most manicures are performed in pedicure chairs, which required stretching an arm across my body to reach the technician, who sits to one side. Good thing my technician worked fast, neatly and painlessly.

Gloss has become a popular place for girlfriends to do group services, partly because the vibe is relaxed and the pedicure chairs are placed close for conversation. The salon is also known for its shelves of free books, where customers now bring their own best reads to exchange. I scored a Carl Hiaasen bestseller and great Goth-glitter nails, cheap.

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