Guiltless Pleasure

Van Court Studio puts a new emphasis on ethical manicures for fashion pros

Van Court Studio uses natural products made in-house
Van Court Studio uses natural products made in-house

The first thing that strikes me when I walk into Van Court Studio on Water Street is the smell. Or rather, a lack of that stinging, chemical scent that infuses most nail salons and lingers in nostrils for hours.

Van Court does not smell. In fact, Van Court doesn’t do a lot of things that traditional salons do. The bright and airy Water Street space only features nail polishes that don’t contain carcinogens; it uses as many natural products as possible, including some that are made in house. But perhaps the most important difference is the price.

“People will say that my prices are really expensive and my response to them is: ‘So are my technicians’ because we’re paying them a very, very, very fair wage,” says Van Court’s founder Ruth Kallens. This is very different from many nail salons in the city, which can pay their workers as low as $30 a day, according to a major investigation by The New York Times last year.

And these are not your average nail technicians either. Kallens recruited many of them from the fashion industry, where she used to work as a digital media strategist. “There are many points of differentiation about Van Court, but I think first and foremost is the talent,” she said. “These are the girls who are doing editorial work, they’re doing Fashion Week, they’re backstage, so their attention to detail is meticulous.”

“People will say that my prices are really expensive and my response to them is: ‘so are my technicians.’” 

Unsurprisingly, Van Court so far has attracted many fashion-insider types, though Kallens says there has also been a sprinkling of Wall Streeters who live and work in the neighborhood, which she calls “the next Soho.”

In addition to regular manicures ($40), the salon also offers treatments like “Drink Up,” a hydrating treatment that will moisturize your hands ($50); “The Man’s MANicure” ($30); and “Head Over Heels” ($85), a pedicure and intensive foot massage. The salon also provides less expensive treatments for kids, which are perfect for mother-daughter outings.

Before my manicure, my technician, Lisa Lee, has me fill out a very intense questionnaire that asks everything from my preferences for my nail shape — I choose “almond” because I like to eat them — to whether I am pregnant or have diabetes. Jessica Washick, the salon’s creative director and a colorist for Nike, curated the nail colors, which Kallens points out all come from brands owned by women. I select a bright periwinkle color called “Chuffed to Bits” from Londontown that seems appropriately spring-like.

During the manicure, I sip a mint tea and chat with Lee about the book “Crazy Rich Asians” (Lee is from Singapore) and how we’re too afraid to ever try cryotherapy. Lee tells me she used to work as a manager at Nordstrom’s before she became a nail technician and that she uses what she learned there about customer service at Van Court, where she is also the manager. 

The manicure feels like a treat, not just because it looks lovely but because it is such a delight to talk with Lee. Unlike the typical nail salon experience, during which I awkwardly try to flip through a magazine without smudging my nails or disrupting the silent technician, this is cozy and comfortable. I leave the salon feeling pampered, stylish and, best of all, guilt-free.