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These days, it seems that the world is in awe with Japanese nail art—and for good reason. It can hold the power to serve as a conversation starter, a mood booster, a segment of your personality. With social media, it has been spreading like wildfire, making it a buzz-worthy topic through and through…and the revolution is only just beginning.

Recently, Leafgel Premium, Japan and China’s No. 1 gel brand (and fast becoming the U.S.’s No. 1 gel brand as well) held its annual education seminar in New York City. I had a chance to check it out and slipped into class on day two of four—approximately six minutes late—at 10:36am. Walking to the one seat open in the crowded room, I looked around to find the students paying keen attention to the lesson on nail care. Every precious minute of education counts, and we were apparently already on step number three: how to file a nail. The teacher, Junko Sato (@nail_space_junx) used an emery board to file a nail and noted to always do so in one direction, never use a sawing back and forth motion. A large TV screen showed a close up of her work magnified in a crystal clear light. Zooming in to the side view of the nail, Sato thoroughly explained each step, and mentioned to adjust the emery board from 60 to 90 degrees depending on what shape you’re going for. It’s technical. Every little detail counts, too, since clean, healthy nails are the canvas for a masterpiece in the making.

The students, many of whom are nail artists themselves, came from all across the globe and some traveled on flights as long as 22.5 hours to get to the seminar. That goes to show the fan base of Leafgel, a product that’s unique for its high adhesion, pigmented color, and long-lasting durability. The goal of the seminar is to train to become a certified educator of the brand—think of it like boot camp for the fine craft of nail art!

Here, I spoke to three students at the Leafgel seminar—nail artists from Australia, Argentina, and Miami, on their careers and how social media is playing a pivotal role.

• Vivian Wong Founder of VW Nail Bar in Hurstville, Australia

“Growing up in Australia, I’ve never even known about gel nails until I visited Japan about five years ago,” said Vivian Wong, during a short break in class while a fellow student practiced how to push back a cuticle on her nail. “It was so rare because it wasn’t like anything I’ve ever seen, which were mostly just a full set of color on acrylic nails. We didn’t even have accent styles or French manicures,” Wong added. “In Japan, I went for a simple stripe design with Swarovski crystals and even then, when I went back home, people were like, ‘Wow, where did you get them done?!’ I tried to research who specialized in Japanese nail art in Australia and found a lady who had her own studio. She didn’t speak English and even her menu was in Japanese.”

Then, Wong noted how Japanese nail art started gaining more and more of a presence on Facebook then Instagram, adding to the list of reasons why it seemed fitting to pursue it as a career field. Going back even further, Wong had originally studied Interior Architecture in college while working full-time at a retail job. After graduation, she went on to become a store manager, then ventured into merchandising for Ralph Lauren. The 9-5 desk job filled with excel sheets led to her wonder what her real passion is in life. “I’ve always done nails on the side and never thought I could make a career out of it…it wasn’t until I actually quit my job, moved to Hawaii for three months, then came back and asked myself what I should do with my life!” she said. “It was one of those ‘if not now, when?’ moments. I had the opportunity to start fresh and decided to go to a nail school, got my qualification and launched my business last August.”

Currently, VW Nail Bar only offers Leafgel products. “I learned about it through Instagram,” she said. “There were only two nail artists in Australia that I found who used Leafgel. I asked one of them and she told me about her experience with it and that’s when I decided to invest in buying the entire collection. I’m planning to restock on some popular colors while some last over a year. “Especially since I only offer this brand, it’s good to know exactly how to use it and learn the skills directly from an educator. That way, I can provide the best service I can to my clients. Still, a lot of people don’t know about Leafgel and hopefully, that will change.”

• Vanesa Jaunarena Co-founder of Penny Nail in Buenos Aires, Argentina

“I was working for a software company for so many years and I was the only woman there,” said Vanesa Jaunarena. “Every time I came home, I would do my nails. It was kind of a girl moment for me. I was spending so much time making designs and guides for women who want to learn nail art and realized this is what I want to do.”

She continued, “A friend I met in university told me she was working on a project for nails and said we should start something together. I didn’t want to leave my job yet and was afraid of change, so every time I left the office, I continued doing my nails until midnight. It was after a year that I decided to try it at least. That was seven years ago and now we have a big store, a group of technicians, and opened up a school five years ago. The salon offers services focused on illustrated nails.” Think everything from Pokémon characters to zombies and Wonder Woman. The designs also span from holographic to crystal embellished.

Jaunarena was in town with a colleague, Sol Lopez Ferraro, who started working at Penny Nails three years ago. “I used to watch a lot of YouTube videos on nail art. I didn’t know techniques but wanted to learn and combine it with my passion for illustration,” said Lopez Ferraro. “We use Leafgel at the studio, and with it, I’m able to get such fine details when drawing cartoon characters.”

The two came to New York right in time, as the Leafgel seminar just so happened to start after their artist in residence stay at the Lower East Side location of the hip nail salon, Vanity Projects. They extended their trip, made it to the seminar, and sat right in the front. As for the future, the Penny Nail team hopes to bring more of an international audience to their salon and continue educating aspiring nail artists. “We get a lot of Instagram followers from people in other countries,” said Jaunarena. “Leafgel is not sold in Argentina so we are proud to have the opportunity to attend the seminar. We’re going to learn more and share the knowledge with our students.”

• Rose B. Nail Artist at Vanity Projects, Miami

Scroll through Rose B.’s Instagram feed and expect to see nail creations of clouds, cherries, florals, and most of all, anime. “I wasn’t very active on social media up until last year. It just took off on its own and I didn’t even know how to keep up with it,” said Rose. “Recently, I have been trying to post more consciously to my audience and responding back to comments.” Her online presence has for sure contributed to the success of her career, which started in graphic design. “I used to work at an agency and would paint my nails at my desk. As soon as I got Japanese gel nail art done and noticed how long it lasted, I quit my job, went to nail school, and the rest is history.”

Of course, that’s the story in a nutshell. She has spent years honing the craft and currently works at a top salon, Vanity Projects Miami. “All of my designs are done with Leafgel. When I was at the Tokyo Nail Expo, I bought a few colors in which we still use a lot, especially dreamy shades,” she said, citing the style numbers by heart: 427, 429, 430, and 431.

“I’m very eager to learn and be more involved with Leafgel because I love this brand so much,” she added. Later, after the seminar wrapped up, Leafgel noted Rose B. had one of the highest written exam scores. She’s now an official Leafgel Premium educator, as is Wong, Jaunarena, Lopez Ferraro, and rest of the students in the session.

In a tribute Instagram post, Rose B. wrote in the caption, “4 intense days (even +13 hours) which consist of an Advanced Art seminar, Level 1-5 educational knowledge on everything from prep, disease, and sanitation to gel application and sculpture extensions held by Japanese standards, plus a practical and written exam. Long week with little time for studying in between. Being pushed through these obstacles are how you overcome your fears in life!! I’m so honored to call myself an educator! I learned great skills this past week alongside some amazing ladies I’ve grown to consider family! I look forward to educating and passing along this knowledge of technique, science, and art in the future. Thank you so much, everyone.”

Final thoughts: I went home that day with even more of an appreciation for Japanese nail art. It’s not only the intricate technique of Leafgel’s course, but it’s also the love and thought put into the syllabus and the educators’ hope to bring together a community of like-minded creatives. Japanese nail art may feel like it’s been around for a while now, especially as I’ve been seeing it pretty often here in New York, but hearing insight from nail artists worldwide have opened my eyes to the fact that it’s really only just booming via social media and IRL. I can’t wait to see how it evolves.

P.S. Leafgel Premium’s full-color collection including 218 classic and 6 new colors will be out on March 25th. Learn more about it (and all things nails!) by following @leafgelusa.

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