The first thing you might notice about Aretha Sack — apart from her tattoos and prodigiously blond, wavy, and long hair — are her fingernails, which on any given occasion are painted some shade of lime green, coral, or other eye-catching hues. The 25-year-old Oakland resident dresses up her digits daily, and has done so everywhere from BART stations to the Legion of Honor. Although she moved to the Bay Area from Austin in 2007 to study painting and drawing at the California College of the Arts, she soon found that she preferred her own lacquer and nails to acrylic and canvas. "I was in painting classes that bored the shit out of me," she said in a recent interview. "So I'd just do my nails in class."
Sack had been pushing her palette beyond bottles of store-bought polish for years. Uninspired by the colors available at the drug store, she took matters into her own hands by mixing name-brand polishes into custom concoctions made to match her earliest color memories, like the orange roofs and turquoise exteriors that characterized old Howard Johnson's restaurants and motor lodges. "I was like, 'Why don't more people use colors like these?'" Sack recalled. "From a young age I was kind of bummed on the nail scene. It's always been a problem in my life."
Soon Sack started painting the nails of her art-school classmates, and even selling them her remixed lacquer. That got the attention of Janine Lee, a CCA fashion design student who grew up with a love for nail polish and shared Sack's fondness for color. "All the girls at school were just so into it because Aretha mixed the best colors," Lee gushed. Soon Sack was spending much of her free time at Lee's San Francisco apartment. "She would just stop by and Kimmy Gibbler our house and say, 'I mixed a new color! What's for dinner?'" the now 24-year-old Lee joked, referring to the ever-present character on the sitcom Full House. The newfound friends casually called their gatherings "Floss Gloss," a nickname that would soon encompass much more than their art college crew.
Both Lee and Sack graduated in 2010, and, while they both kept their customer service jobs, they soon decided to channel their affinity for funky nail polish into their own business. When Lee approached Sack with the proposal, it was a no-brainer: "My dad was like, 'You should just jump on the back of her motorcycle and ride,'" Sack said. And by 2012 (and with no formal business training) they had written a business plan, found investors and a local manufacturer, and turned Floss Gloss into a small nail polish company that today produces the affordable and formaldehyde-free polishes they had long craved, in playful opaque colors like a neon lime green and a pinkish lilac, each packaged in a dainty bottle with a decidedly girly, golden-handled brush. "Aretha and I were trying to redesign what we had available to us as consumers in college and in our early twenties," Lee explained.
And just as Floss Gloss was entering the market, the polish industry itself was beginning to boom. Today, even traditionally color-conservative nail polish companies are starting to manufacture more diverse shades and accessories, from textured and neon polishes to at-home gel manicure kits. A recent report by the market research firm Mintel revealed that the US nail color and care market has grown by nearly three quarters, or 72 percent, since 2007.
That growth isn't so surprising when you consider that video-sharing websites like YouTube and social media photo-sharing apps like Instagram have allowed nail enthusiasts to easily share their painted nails with millions of people — before their topcoat has even dried. Floss Gloss' own Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds are updated with religious frequency, and Lee said there's a tangible connection between the company's social media updates and its sales.
The recession may also be have lent a hand in reinvigorating the polish industry. "Except now it's not the Lipstick Index, it's the Nail Polish Index," Lee said, referring to former Estée Lauder chairman Leonard Lauder's theory that when the economy slows and women can no longer afford to splurge on clothing, they turn to less-expensive makeup to spruce up their style. "Women are so much more comfortable buying nail polish as a small luxury that it's become our saving grace in a small way."
If there's any truth to Lauder's theory, it could help explain some of Floss Gloss' early acclaim, which included write-ups in Allure and Seventeen magazines and a wholesale deal with Urban Outfitters, which featured multiple nail art tutorials on its blog — all of which have helped push the Bay Area business into the national beauty product market. The recent success has allowed Lee to quit her bartending job, and Sack said she'll be resigning from her day job as well.
Lee estimated that since Floss Gloss debuted, it has sold nearly 15,000 bottles of polish, bases, and topcoats, which retail for $8 each. Two new polishes — Pony, a neon peach, and Blood, Suede & Tears, a vampy blood-orange brown — were released this month. Until recently, Sack was not just living but quite literally breathing Floss Gloss: Her Oakland apartment served as the company's storage space. "I feel like such a drug lord because I have mad nail polish for days," Sack joked, just before the bottles were relocated to a proper storage facility. "But sometimes I'm like, 'Whoa ... gotta crack a window.'"
Floss Gloss' wider success aside, it's easy to see the company's local appeal. Unlike large makeup corporations, which tend to be dominated by non-makeup-wearing men, Sack and Lee embody precisely the market they're trying to appeal to: namely, fashion- and color-conscious young women who aren't afraid to rock a nail polish color inspired by gas station nacho cheese. Together, the duo is a hip-hop-infused feminine flurry of gold-hooped earrings, pastel scrunchies, white high-tops, thrift-store fur coats, and, of course, artfully painted nails. If ever a company's product was so synonymous with its creators' personal style, it's probably Floss Gloss — whose promotional sticker depicts a manicured woman provocatively posed in green stilettos, the company's logo emblazoned in cursive across her posterior.
So it seems fitting that you can sometimes find the Floss Gloss crew set up at a local dive bar, painting nails and selling its bottles of polish. The duo initially started organizing in-bar polish parties at San Francisco's Beauty Bar late last year. Last month they brought it to Oakland's Layover, where those who had tweeted to get on the list got their nails done during Trill Team 6's DJ set. "It got so packed people were twerking on our display," Lee said, adding that they'd like to make last month's event a monthly occurrence. "Aretha and I love rap and parties and stuff, so it's cool to be with our friends, painting nails, and selling polish to women we've never met before."
For more info: FlossGloss.com