Peek through the pink-lit salon with culture-bedazzled nails — you find yourself in The Nail Collab, a Chicago-based nail boutique that specializes in Asian-inspired nail art. Owned by Taiga Lee, the now-salon has come a long way from a tiny basement apartment to a storefront and having a stable online community. Come sit down with EnVi and Taiga Lee in today’s Small Business Spotlight to talk about how she builds community as an AAPI artist through fingertip canvases!

Prepping for the Base (Coat)

For Lee, her career as a nail artist was a “leap of faith.” 

Originally a software engineer when the pandemic started in 2020, Lee grew tired of corporate life. This came from the lack of control and relatability in a male-dominated field. In perfect timing, DIY nails began to trend during pandemic social media. She saw this as a field that would allow her to be creative while socializing in a fulfilling manner. 

“I’ve always found the designs that came out of East Asia very eye-pleasing but also a testament to the wearer and technician’s personalities and culture through art,” said Lee. 

Initially attracted to the aesthetics of East Asian nail art, she realized there was a void of Asian nail art-focused salons in Chicago due to a smaller AAPI population, compared to New York or California. Lee saw an opportunity to specialize in a niche of products and services. She compares this to many Russian manicure salons popping up due to the Russian mani’s popularity — she can do something similar with Asian nail art. 

“With the rise of popularity for nail art, more people are seeking out technicians that can produce the quality of work they see on social media,” said Lee. Yet, in the Chicagoland area, demand seems to exceed supply for salons that do high-level nail art. With a mission statement of “quality work in a sanitary and fun environment” in mind, Lee set off to create “The Nail Collab.”

Nail-ing Artistry

3D accents with gummy bear textures and sharp chrome lines on airbrushed ombre, Lee quotes her specializations to works by Singaporean nail artists. 

Photo courtesy of Taiga Lee

“Every artist at my salon specializes in different styles,” said Lee. “It’s interesting to see that each style comes from a specific country.” 

She talked about how another staff member specializes in Korean nuance style nails, which are more “delicate in style and oftentimes look like natural surfaces like marble or stone.” Another artist enjoys creating Japanese junk-style nails — “full of fun and charms,” said Lee. 

A salon full of artists with a common goal, Lee described how each of the artists has “very strong bonds and a level of trust with one another.” The artists often rely on each other to navigate through the different techniques and skills they must learn. 

“It does help that we all love gossipping and talking to each other all day though,” Lee added. 

Culture on Your Fingertips

The community that Lee has managed to build extends far beyond the artists themselves. By adding culture to the mix of nail art, Lee’s audience is naturally tailored to the AAPI community who seek to represent and share parts of their culture and identity with nails. 

“It’s beautiful being able to represent people’s culture through little pieces of art on our fingers,” said Lee, who recalled having an influx of Chinese customers during the Lunar New Year season. With culture shining on your fingertips, it becomes a natural conversation prompter in the salon. 

Much to Lee’s surprise, some of her best conversations were with concert-nails customers. According to Lee, many fans take photos with their lightsticks, so an on-theme set of pretty nails is a must for an extra-photogenic shot.

Photo courtesy of Taiga Lee

“It’s always very cute to see how excited folks get when their dream nails come to fruition in an environment that can relate and understand their hobbies,” said Lee. 

The community connection also helped The Nail Collab blossom and maintain a stronghold in the AAPI community. Lee explained how one of her co-founders, Tipa, is very involved in the local Thai community, quickly becoming a clientele source.

“I realized that finding support in a community I belong in was one of the best things I’ve done for my business. Shoutout to Tipa!” said Lee.

Staying Polished 

Unlike many other industries, the nail industry is a unique hub for AAPI female business owners. Though this means that Lee “fits right in,” there are still many hurdles to overcome. Despite the industries’ strong roots in Asian immigrant communities, the existent negative stigma is something that Lee hopes to go against by innovating and building off of the legacies left by other Asian immigrants. 

“This industry was built on the backs of Asian immigrants just trying to survive, and I’m thankful for the foundation they’ve set up for me to thrive,” said Lee. With products sourced from Korea and Japan, Lee paints patterns of cherry blossoms, Chinese porcelains, and lotuses with Asian-founded and advanced techniques. 

“The reputation that I’ve built up has 90% of pictures that people show me as nail inspo created by Asian nail artists,” said Lee, aware of how her specific niche helped her business stand out in such a saturated industry. “My advice to new business owners, especially those in underrepresented communities, is to rely on the people around you.”

Looking forward, Lee hopes to help destigmatize the concept of an “Asian salon” and offer a space for the Asian community and others interested in the culture a space to enjoy.  

If you’re in the Chicago area, follow The Nail Collab on Instagram and book an appointment for your next set of nails!

Looking for cute things to take nail pics with? Check out EnVi’s guide here on Sonny Angels, and find the perfect one to pair with your fresh manicure.