At fashion week, there are a handful of manicurists who lead teams and create looks. Rarer still, there are a few nail artists who influence the trends and direction of the industry, season by season. These are the artists who work in partnership with designers to create a vision, not just as a pretty nail to complement the clothing, but as a true accessory that completes the collection. how to work fashion week backstage nails
Heather Reynosa-Davis is one of these rare talents. She has worked with CND for roughly half of her 20 year career, but how exactly did she go from behind the table in her salon in Alaska, to creating some of the most talked about nail designs in recent memory?
We spent some time with Heather at fashion week and after, discussing her journey, and her advice for those looking to follow in her footsteps. how to work fashion week backstage nails
[The Nailscape:] Everyone knows Heather Davis, CND designer extraordinaire, but few of us know your story, and how you got to do what you’re doing now. Can you share how you found the nail industry?
[Heather Reynosa-Davis:] “I was the girl in high school that everyone came to for hair, makeup, and nails before dances. I remember watching ‘The Breakfast Club,’ and coveting the dusty pink manicure Molly Ringwald wore. I was a nail biter, and decided I would stop. I found the polish color and wore it religiously. I later branched out into experimenting with liquid and powder sets from Walmart.
In 1995, I was living in Las Vegas, and I contemplated moving to LA to pursue acting. I had a friend who was in beauty school, in the manicuring program, specifically. I watched her do a set of enhancements, and the whole time I was thinking, ‘I could totally do that!’ so I enrolled in the program the next week.
While I was in school, I became well-known for my hand painting, and since the school didn’t allow appointments with specific students, I would often have a line of people waiting for me, so that I could do their service. I completed the 600 hour program and in 1996, I moved back to Alaska.”
How did you then move from Alaska to working with CND?
“My family members all had bachelor’s degrees, so I never really saw nails as a career. The flexibility of the schedule and the draw of instant cash were too good to pass up, but I never pressured myself to take it very seriously. I had no competition in my small town in Alaska, so I built a clientele rather quickly. I wasn’t well-versed in charging what I was worth back then, so I was working 16 hour days, and I always had a line.
I burned out a few times in the next ten years. During that time, I actually quit twice. In 2006, a CND Education Ambassador visited my salon in Alaska and she made a huge impression on me. She was so professional, polished, and articulate. She showed up in slacks, a button down shirt, and heels, and could have been a lawyer for all I knew. She pointed out to me that I had ‘cherry-picked’ products that I liked. From that moment, I decided I needed a system. She planted a small ember in me that grew rapidly.
A year later, I went to my first trade show, and my sole purpose was to go to the CND booth and find out how to become an educator. I saw it as giving myself a promotion. I wanted to know the new information before anyone else, but most importantly, I wanted to be the best at what I was doing. That is my true passion; to move forward constantly and evolve. In the next three years, I took every class that CND offered, twice, and in 2008, when CND put out a call for ambassadors, I sent my bid.
I went through the interview process, and in May 2009, I attended boot camp in San Diego. It was a powerful experience that helped me realize that I was in the right place. When you are empowered with facts, it gives you an immeasurable level of confidence. It changed my entire life, and certainly how I looked at my career. However, as soon as I completed boot camp, my husband was laid off. We moved, and in my first year as an Education Ambassador, I didn’t work a single event. I used that time to hone my skills in the salon, eagerly awaiting my first assignment.”
What kept you motivated during that year, to eventually come back into the fold in a big way?
“Back then, the fashion week team was called ‘Team Red,’ and I was fascinated with them. This team was creating nail style as accessories that made fashion week seem accessible, and in doing so, they gave nail art a level of credibility that I appreciated. I thought they were the coolest girls, akin to sitting at the ‘head cheerleader’s’ table. I immediately resolved to become part of that team. I set three goals for myself: Join the fashion week team, join Team CND, and get the cover of a look book.
In 2010, I finally attended my first CND event, a training and launch for CND Shellac. I was so excited to be there. I sat next to a different ambassador everyday in order to network and meet more of these amazing educators. Jan addressed us at our meet and greet cocktail party the first night and she told us that if there was something we wanted to do with CND, we needed to tell someone in order to make it happen. I walked up to Jan shortly after and said ‘I want to work on the fashion week team.’ Jan laughed and said ‘Duly noted, my little wallflower.’ That December 2010, I ended up with a nine hour layover in Seattle with my family, so we went to the Space Needle for lunch, and it was there that I received the email from Roxanne Valinoti, inviting me to apprentice for my first fashion week.”
That had to feel like a dream come true! What was your first fashion week like and did you attend from then on or intermittently?
“I was very near happy tears the entire time. I felt like it was such a natural fit because there was almost no learning curve. A fire was set from that moment, that hasn’t since been put out. I wasn’t invited back that Fall and I was devastated, until Rox told me to be patient, trust my mentors, and try to let things happen. From that point, things continued to quickly move forward. I was involved in some way from 2011 on, and in September 2012, the structure of the team and CND’s presence at fashion week changed.”
How did that structure change affect your role on the fashion week team?
“That next season, I was invited, but the structure changed two weeks beforehand, and the invites were rescinded. I had submitted a template design for the Diego Binetti show, and it was a look based on a conch shell opening, with a pearl inside. Rox called me a few days before fashion week began and said that Diego loved the design. I was asked to come to New York, and it was the first show I ever led. It was my first time on camera, and if you look deep on CND’s YouTube channel you can see me saying “Yes, that’s amazing” to Jan, and that’s about it! (laughs) The following season, CND dramatically changed formats, cutting down the number of shows worked per season, so I went back to working remotely. This was the season that the ‘CND Design Lab’ was born.”
How do you concept looks for shows? What is your design process?
“The most important first step is understanding the story. Most designers have a muse, an inspiration, a story that’s guiding their collection for the season. In the beginning, I would look at fabric swatches and translate them into nail styles. Now I create vision boards and production packets. It’s only gotten more thorough with time, but it keeps me very dialed in to the process. I used to struggle with finding inspiration, and would catch myself forcing art creation. I called Kristina [Estabrooks,] looking for guidance to get out of my head, and she gave me the best advice, that I also tell anyone who asks ME for the same advice: Give it 15 minutes. If inspiration isn’t coming to you, walk away. I have quite literally never lost my fount of inspiration since. Sometimes I create 30 concepts for a story. Sometimes I create two to three. It’s always different, and always depends on how I am personally inspired to translate the story.”
How does that process evolve? What were your next steps after the Design Lab was created?
“In 2012 when the design team condensed, I worked from home and concepted looks for Alexander Wang and Creatures of the Wind. I had a bit more experience under my belt and had gotten pretty good at putting out a lot of concepts in a short amount of time. For the Alexander Wang show, I think I sent something like 27 separate template designs. For Creatures of the Wind, I sent 20-25. I found a photo of a fabric swatch that looked like graffiti, which inspired me to paint a nail with Studio White on one side, and a slate grey on the other. I didn’t have enough time to paint it, so I used Sharpies instead, and it became a huge DIY thing. I think that is what cemented my place on the team. I was creating these looks from my little space in Alaska, but I was very dialed in to what was happening in New York. I haven’t missed a fashion week since.”
Did your role with CND continue to evolve as well, as your fashion week experiences were increasingly successful?
“Definitely. I was invited to teach in the classroom in March 2013 at America’s Beauty Show in Chicago, and it was there that I found out that my underwater bubble nail look for Joy Cioci was the cover of the Look Book. I was in the back of the classroom freaking out silently, having achieved another of my personal goals. About a year before, I had decided to try out for Team CND, and so I responded to the open call. I sent in my application, photos of nails, the personal essay, a new resume, and figured it would be a good way to gauge my progress. It felt like an impossibility, but when I made it to the second round of interviews, I started to take the possibility seriously. At the big training in San Diego, I was a part of a group interview, and I was asked what I would say to a boot camp attendee who was not selected to become an education ambassador. I gave my answer and spoke with a confidence level and conviction that even I wasn’t aware I had. I then realized that I was doing all of the things I had set out to do.” how to work fashion week backstage nails
How has being a member of Team CND changed your views on your career and professional progress up to this point?
“Hitting my ‘hat trick’ of goals allowed me to recognize that I was walking the walk. Letting it go and continuing to do what I was good at were integral to owning my own space, being creatively free. It has allowed me to work with confidence and not second guess myself or my creative decisions.”
Your work with Libertine has not only lit up the runways, but also created some of the most talked about nails in the past five years. What makes your relationship with Johnson (Hartig, Libertine designer) so special?
“After Jan met Johnson in Aspen, we both went to the initial meeting with him in LA. We went to his small studio, and he had a very specific vision. He wanted matte white seed beads, end of story. I had brought my archive of all of the templates I had ever created, and showed him a nail I had done a while before that, where I covered a nail with foil, covered it with matte black, and carved out a rib cage. I was also taken with the beautiful skull patterns in the collection, so I concepted a matte white nail with a pink skull pattern that looked dainty. After seeing this and our passion for the designs, he gave us his blessing to ‘do whatever we want.’ And every season, our relationship evolves. I was given more and more lead time, and the season where I created the checkerboard nails, I showed up to the meeting with a printout of blank nails to draw on, an inspiration document with references, a vision board, etc. We knew were were really in sync when some of the same images were showing up on both of our inspiration boards without having coordinated it. I know that it is my job to complete his vision with the nails, not to compete with the clothing. It is that understanding that drives my process and, I think in no small way, is partly why Johnson trusts our vision.”
And the season after included the fur nails that went viral, right?
“Yes! Oh, the fluffy nails. Those were my babies. Johnson handed me a big stretch of faux mink fur to use on the nails. That was also the season with the sculpted eyes, which were supposed to be lit. I had spent a lot of time getting the LED earrings embedded into the eyes and hiding the batteries under the nail, but during the beauty test, Johnson was worried that the light was too bright, and it would make the art and nail color harder to see. If I had had some more sleep and could be objective, I would have just widened the hole and set the light deeper into the nail, but that’s all in hindsight.”
This past season with Libertine, you created a rose garden hand painted design. How did those go from template concept to the runway?
“This season, as we’ve been doing for the past few seasons, I collaborated with the team to have templates submitted. We put out a request to select artists to design for us, and hosted a webinar with inspiration boards. After the templates were submitted, Jan, Shelena Robinson, and I had a meeting to choose which templates we would show to Johnson. Jan and I presented him the nails in long, black velvet jewelry boxes with printouts of the vision boards in his new showroom in LA in January. Johnson’s space is huge, and his clothing is much more intricate, and the styling is more focused. He gave me a large piece of custom fabric with roses and geometric patterns on it. I created concepts based on that. Roses appeared to be a core theme throughout the collection this season, as I felt that the rose gardens anchored the more intricate nail styles with their vibrancy. I decided to create the 10 sets with a more marbled rose design because I didn’t want to paint a traditional rose that’s been done a million times. I was a little nervous at the beauty test, since we had already completed 10 sets with this slight change, but he loved it. That was very validating.”
What advice do you have for nail pros who want to do what you’re doing? What steps should they take?
“It depends on how you want to become an editorial artist. You can do what I did by working with a manufacturer, and if they see that you have a knack for it, they will help you develop your skill set. Otherwise, I think you need to be in a bigger city. Being a CND Education Ambassador allowed me to go from my tiny town in Alaska to fashion week. All of the opportunities I’ve had were afforded to me by being with CND. My talents made me well matched for what I wanted to do. My strongest advice is this: Everything will present itself as it is supposed to. Editorial manicuring is a small pool for a reason. You have to have a sense of humor. Be flexible. This is not the line of work for a person who needs a regimented schedule. You have to be able to fly by the seat of your pants and at the same time exude grace when plans are changing all around you. Think outside of normal confines, and look for creative solutions. I think that’s the biggest takeaway; you have to be a solver, not a complainer. It isn’t just about being artistically creative, you also have to have a positive attitude. You can’t be defeated before you start. Big egos don’t work, you have to go in humble and be ready to work, be resourceful and keep your head down.”
That’s awesome that you an draw the line all the way back to being an EA. What would you say the average nail pro doesn’t know about being an educator that they should?
“I think nail pros don’t always understand what the role is. There is this trend right now of pros becoming educators to become stars. The role is actually much quieter. It is not going to make you famous. If you agree with the mission and culture of a brand, then absolutely consider it. I was exclusive to CND products for three years before I applied to become an EA. Education, in its essence, is about elevating our industry – that’s what it’s for. It’s not about sitting on a pedestal or looking down your nose at others. It’s me finding out what you need to know and finding a way to communicate it to you. It’s not about star power, it’s a commitment to elevating.”
What are some of the trends you’re seeing in nail education?
“Many nail techs aren’t hungry for education like they used to be. They all ‘want’ classes, but then don’t sign up for them. It’s part of the commitment. A big draw for me to working with CND is that the goal was to raise the outside view of the industry. We don’t want to be the ‘redheaded stepchild’ anymore. Makeup artists can just learn as they go, and have a higher level of esteem. You have to go to school to learn nails and take exams to obtain your license. CND has a certain level of respect backstage that they’ve earned after many years. But there is this unfortunate stereotype steeped in American culture that you think of when you hear the word ‘manicurist’ vs when you say makeup artist or hair stylist. So by extension, most of our industry just needs to take themselves seriously.”
What do you mean by ‘seriously?’
“This is a valid vocation. When I moved to Seattle, I had no idea where to start, so I found the nail tech with the best reputation and best work, who also had the highest prices. I set my prices 10% higher. I felt that my resume dictated that. In the corporate world, if you have more experience, you make more money. When I did that, questions about my pricing went away. What we do is a luxury, so we need to cater to that. Why are the nail service prices the same at a discount salon as they are at an expensive day spa? If people want budget services, let them get an $18 haircut at a discount hair salon. It’s the same for nail services. I was charging $120 to start for a single color set of enhancements, and I rely on my clients to be my walking billboards. You end up creating intense loyalty with your clients this way.”
What about new nail techs coming into the industry? Are you seeing anything exciting when you educate the next generation?
“Newer nail pros are coming into the industry and looking at it like a business. They are treating it like a business opportunity. They need to look for opportunities in precision education about their chosen craft. There is a professionalism in the way they are attacking their businesses. The DIYers are making us accessible to a different customer base. They are putting nail art on a pedestal and helping all of us in the process.” how to work fashion week backstage nails
Shifting gears a little, on the operational side, how do you pack your kit for backstage and editorial work? Is there anything that doesn’t make the trip?
“Glue dots are my number one item. Industrial glue dots, which are SUPER sticky, and mini glue dots work great for pieces that decide they want to fall off at the last second. I also always bring whatever colors are on the nails themselves and a full kit to perform a very precise manicure: remover, nippers, etc. I use Solar Speed spray to moisturize the skin, by applying it to a fluffy brush and then over the skin, so that no oil touches the expensive clothing. I also have a giant roll of one inch wide 3M mounting tape, which I buy at Staples.” how to work fashion week backstage nails
You’ve recently transitioned into a full-time position with a company in Seattle, in a field outside of nails. How did working at the top level of the nail industry aid in your transition? What skills did you gain in nails that translate to your new position? how to work fashion week backstage nails
Project management. The last eight years have trained me in event planning and project management. An opportunity presented itself that my CND life has trained me for. It has helped me be creative and resourceful in finding solutions to challenges. My time management is important, as is knowing how to create a process for completing projects, even if I am making it up as I go along. The marketing field is varied, so it keeps things interesting for me, and while it is as varied as the work I do with CND, it’s steady. I find that speaking with conviction and knowing how to communicate well are skills I picked up from my time as an educator, and being able to learn quickly helps the transition.” how to work fashion week backstage nails
Any final words of advice to those who are on a similar career path?
“It doesn’t occur to me what failure looks like; I only see the goal. It’s not coming from a place of being weirdly ambitious, it’s just not considering failure. Not everything in life, or this industry, is black and white – give yourself permission to see grey. If I had a motto, it would be “life is for devouring.” Look at things from the ‘wrong’ point of view and your creativity will allow you to succeed.” how to work fashion week backstage nails
Heather has such a large portfolio of work that we couldn’t share it all above. Click through the gallery below for more inspiring work. You can follow Heather Reynosa-Davis on Instagram here. how to work fashion week backstage nails
how to work fashion week backstage nails