Sharmadean Reid has taken WAH Nails (yes, it really does stand for “We Ain’t Hoes”) from a fanzine about women in street culture to a cult nail salon and brand on the brink of expansion. The Dalston salon opened its doors in 2009, giving “the downtown girls a place to hangout and get cool designs” but quickly grew to include an eponymous range of products, a cult Instagram community and has indelibly altered the perception of nail art.
We sit down with the WAH Nails founder at her Dalston salon to talk hip-hop, feminism, tech, and learn about her journey from a girl with big dreams in Wolverhampton to a de facto entrepreneur who even has been awarded an MBE for her contribution to the Beauty Industry in the UK.
Semaine: Tell me the story of WAH. How did it all begin?
Sharmadean: "I moved to London in 2003 and started going to hip hop clubs because we had no clubs in Wolverhampton where I'm from. I moved here to go to Central Saint Martin’s. By day I lived a high-fashion lifestyle and by night I would go raving in super ghetto spots. Every time I would go to these clubs – Kung Fu in Camden, a night in Bar Rumba on Shaftsbury Avenue – on hip hop nights there weren’t many girls there and it was the peak of UK hip-hop. People would always come up to me and ask me if I was a singer, a dancer, or something. At that time it was all about booty-shaking girls and 50 Cent videos. I found this new scene really exciting, but also really misogynist, so I decided to make a fanzine about women in street culture who are actually cool and doing interesting things.
My degree at CSM was in fashion and communication so I had to make a magazine in my fourth year. That’s how it all started: WAH was a fanzine about girls in hip hop. Shortly after, Echo clothing decided to pay for 10,000 copies to be made and distributed in JD Sports stores. We had a shoot in there where this girl had her nipples out, so at the last minute someone at JD pulled the magazine and said they weren't having it so I was left with 10,000 issues in my living room. I decided to go out raving every day of the week, and if I ever saw a girl who I thought was cool I would give her a copy of the magazine. I wasn’t trying to get as many fans as possible, I was rather targeting girls that would be into the same things that I was into. Slowly, people started knowing me as the WAH girl. At the same time, I was working for Nicola Formichetti and Kim Jones, so I lived a dual life of fashion weeks and WAH.
I decided to start a blog in 2006 called WAH happenings. Making a magazine was really hard and I couldn't produce it every month so I made one fanzine a year and the blog. Every time I would travel to NY or LA or anywhere cool I would recruit more WAH girls. I did 5 issues in 5 years and the blog really took off"
Semaine: You were building your girl gang so to speak?
Sharmadean: "Yes, but before it was cool. In the first issue of WAH, I said I wasn’t a feminist, it was still quite a negative thing back then. But after I made the first issue, Martha Cooper, the photographer, emailed me saying, "I totally love this so called everything hip-hop, but you’re a feminist you just don’t know it." After that, I did loads of research and gave myself a women’s studies course. So I guess I am a feminist."
Semaine: How do you define being a feminist?
Sharmadean: "Someone who believes in equal rights. I would say more than anything I’m a humanist. At the time, feminism meant that you wanted more than men but, for me, I just wanted to be at the same level. A feminist is someone that believes in equal rights for men and women. My brand of feminism, and what’s cool now with this new wave is that it’s a pop culture movement. It’s still really important to understand that wearing a t-shirt about it will work for some people, but because I’ve been doing it for 10 years now it is important to actually do."
Semaine: Back to WAH. What initiated this shift from a fanzine to then opening your first salon?
Sharmadean: "I was living in Haggerston, had graduated from CSM, was still doing the fanzine, was working at Arena Homme Plus with incredible photographers and living the dream life I had always planned with a lot of autonomy to do what I wanted. I was going out, had a great set of friends, and had lots of different networks that didn’t cross over. I had a huge flat, was making loads of money, and still doing WAH every now and again. I thought getting my nails done was part of being a fly girl. I would always get my nails done every Friday, not really tacky, I’d be trying to mix what I did in my day job with my nightlife and I thought nails are going to be really cool but no one’s was doing it as cool as it can be. So I thought I’m going to do it. My son’s dad found a spot 2 minutes from my house on Kingsland road. I applied for it. Got it. Had no idea what I was doing. Completely naïve. I thought I just want to open a nail salon for all the girls I’ve collected."
Semaine: So basically a hang-out spot for all your friends.
Sharmadean: "Exactly. That’s what it was. I had no acquisition strategy but I thought if all my mates come and no one else that’s enough! The vibe was like my living room but public."
Semaine: Do you remember the first design you did?
Sharmadean: "It was the design that made us super famous. A three-color base with leopard on top. We had gone to some trade show and found some nail pens that gave us a distinct look and thought, what can we do with these pens? So we made the design and posted it on Facebook (bear in mind there was no Instagram at the time) it just blew up. Everyone wanted that nail. We did a couple of pop-ups before my shop was ready, like Frame gym in Shoreditch and a few others, and it took off from there. After that, everyone kept wanting the designs I was doing."
Semaine: Were you aware that you needed to change the current perception of 'nail art' so to speak?
Sharmadean: "I knew nail art had a dirty name. Six or seven years ago people thought of nail art as what tacky black girls wore in Brixton or Dalston. So for every customer that came in, I took a picture not only of the nails, but also of the girl that was wearing it. I had to show that girls like you were coming here, or girls you wanted to be. That to me was massively responsible for the success of it."
Semaine: How did you get people in the door of the salon?
Sharmadean: "I painted a giant pink board saying 'WAH NAILS COMING SOON GALLERY NAILS, ZINES, CLOTHES.' I left it there for four months. Imagine on this road with all the buses, because there was no overground at the time. Now with the overground, you can miss things that happen on the street, but before that you had to get a bus. Every day, fashion people living in the area were seeing that massive sign. These things seemed natural to me and were responsible for the evolution. I often say, we as a company don’t appeal to every person in the girl gang. Just the leader so we get the effects of her influence in the crew."
Semaine: Was there a moment you thought you were really onto something?
Sharmadean: "I never think like that. Without sounding like a prick, I don’t ever do things I don’t know will be good. I wouldn’t waste my time. If I don’t know much about something I get obsessed with it. I know a little about a lot of stuff. I get obsessed with anything. Tell me a random subject."
Sharmadean: "I would have been obsessed with elephants. I would have read a National Geographic article then Google loads about it, about people who poach them, different types of them, what an Indian elephant is compared to an African elephant…I get obsessed. With the nail thing obviously I had never done nails before so I just obsessively read everything on the internet, did a nail course, got the Marian Newman nail book, and read that cover to cover until I was fully versed on nails. If I did an elephant charity I would make the sickest elephant charity and do loads of fundraising for it. And throw a sick party."
Semaine: Who is the WAH girl to you?
Sharmadean: "WAH girls are active not passive, they aren’t waiting for things to happen to them. They make them happen. They are comfortable uptown and downtown. They can hang out with posh people or BME boys, and they can wear street wear or designer. A girl that has that vibe that people want to be around them.
Some girls on the street just turn heads. It’s not necessarily that they’re fit but they have something about them. I’ve never wanted to be ordinary. For me the perfect WAH girl is someone that is not ordinary and dry...to me the worst thing a girl can be is dry."
Semaine: Even if you didn’t imagine this happening at the start, you are now a pioneering entrepreneur and important figure in the London startup scene, using your voice to help young aspiring girls…
Sharmadean: "What I find crazy now is that when I started there was no scene. In London, you can now go to a talk every single night of the week on business technology. It didn't used to be like that. I definitely felt very alone as an entrepreneur at the time. A lot of people say they feel alone as entrepreneurship is a very lonely process. But right now, I’m a natural sharer. My ex-boyfriend was so cool and clever but if he had a piece of information, or heard a sick song, or discovered a subculture he’d keep it to himself. I’d share it, write a blog post, Instagram it. Being an entrepreneur is hilarious. That TV show Silicon Valley is so sick because what we do is a comedy, you can be on your floor putting up shelves one day and then meeting a government official the next. I find it so funny I need to tell everyone about it.
For me, it’s about helping girls not make the same mistakes that I made, helping girls get the confidence so that they can do whatever they want. I don’t enjoy being a poster girl for anything, it’s not why I do it. If I wanted to be an it-girl I would have turned it into any other project, but that’s boring."
Semaine: The WAH future. What’s in the stars for WAH?
Sharmadean: "Because I’ve done this accidentally and had no strategy, I knew from day one I needed products because any service-based business has its limitations. I always understood that it’s really hard to scale a salon unless you want to essentially start a HR and logistics business. I always knew I wanted to make products, which is what we did. But it took me along time to understand how I could make WAH work for me.
In all honesty, I’m not a nail person, it wasn’t my burning passion to start a beauty company but that’s what I’m known for above anything else. I had to make this work for me and make sure it ticked the box for everything that interests me: I’m interested in girls, culture, primarily youth-girl culture, and I’m really interested in technology and finding out why people do the things they do. It’s about creating digital solutions for the beauty industry that don’t already exist.
Products interest me but not churning them out to retailers. When I made the nail products, I wanted to make a classic WAH wardrobe. What’s really good is that because we have a fully active salon, we know what colors are popping and not. I made 34 colors based on our most popular colors and 13 nail art pens.
WAH is about building a flagship salon that is the truest, purest vision of the brand that is fully interactive and immersive. It has to be the mecca for all things WAH. If you don’t live in London it has to be your pilgrimage. It’s also about doing more girl business events, and building something I feel comfortable with a proper business rather than just a brand. We are also building a virtual reality nail app that already looks sick.
I’m just that type of person who if I want something I just go and get it and if it’s not coming to me, I just switch up my strategy but I never think I’m going to fail at anything. It’s just not my vibe. Why bother if not. You would break. You have to be the type of person that sees problems and wants to solve them with a burning desire. If you don’t have a burning desire you will hate your life because it is 24/7."
With that confidence, unbridled ambition and get-up-and-go attitude, sky is the limit for Sharmadean and the empire she’s building.
By Michelle Lu for Semaine.