Images via Ollie Trenchard
The day I took shelter in celebrity manicurist Ama Quashie’s nail salon, Ama, Brixton was drenched in winter wetness, brightened only by the broad grin I was met with when I stepped in. It was followed by a wickedly-fun laugh when I stood awkwardly and said, “I’ve never had my nails done before.”
I sat where she directed me. The salon, clearly, is named after its owner, the woman I’d come to interview. When I sat down with Ama, she inspected my nails before meticulously giving them a glossy purple shine, then we moved onto the squishy seats by the window with a mug of coffee and to talk about her new venture.
Ama is a 33-year-old British-Ghanaian and instantly likeable. Her rise from working in media “doing nails”, as she calls it, feels like a film montage: a young woman grafting through the whirlwind of the entertainment industry before a redundancy pushes her to take the plunge and do what she did on the side for a living.
But she didn’t work with just anyone. Her early connections whilst working for a start up Sky Channel, coupled with her excelling on a nail course, collided into the perfect beginner’s fusion. At the start of her manicurist career she was initially doing the nails of Alexandra Burke and other music stars. Now, she can add Cara Delevingne, Tilda Swinton and Solange Knowles to the list. I asked her how she went from doing celebrity nails on a “friends-of-friends” basis to getting the global recognition she has now.
“I had a really great boss in media at the time who let me go part-time to focus on nails,” she says.
“A few agencies were giving me work now and again and then I got to do my first Vogue and Tatler shoots. My step mum loved that, she loves Tatler.”
London born-and-bred and growing up in Brixton, she describes her family as being supportive, with her dad being “so happy about the shop, more than anything. When I thought about making the jump, they supported me”.
Of course, it’s never that easy getting everyone on board: “I’ll show my family respect, but some people just say ‘is this the best use of your brain’”. She believes it’s best not to directly respond to their criticism, adding “I’ll show them respect, but if they don’t think doing nails is good, whatever.”
“I opened the salon in Brixton because I wanted it to be somewhere anyone can walk in and feel comfortable”
I’m struck by how relaxed Ama seems in her skin and how sure she is of what she believes. When we talk about Brixton and why she chose to have her salon here, in an area where gentrification has been the topic of discussion over the past few years, she rolls her eyes, grips her mug and laughs. “How do I put it… Brixton is where I grew up, it is home. I opened it here because I wanted it to be the kind of place where anyone can walk in and feel comfortable.”
And that certainly shows in the shop. Customers can walk in and have a glitzy manicure, with bold designs you would expect in any nail salon, but can also opt for the “free from…” menu, which has nail varnishes with up to 90% natural and vegan ingredients. You can come in for a glamorous party look, or, as Ama prefers, to put nail care first and smarten up your own nail without any coloured varnish – the natural look.
Manicures are anything from £20 to £80, depending if you opt for a pedicure too. The prices rise with the choice to use the vegan ingredients, such as £35 for a “free from manicure” of up to 10-free, with harmful ingredients replaced with natural alternatives.
Images via Ollie Trenchard
The salon has a long feature wall running along it filled with photographs and artworks that are – for want of a better word – diverse. Photographs of nipples in all shapes and sizes look back at me, as do men and women, young and old.
“I genuinely want everyone to feel welcome here,” she says. “Brixton has changed a lot over the years and on gentrification, I feel like it should not be in with one thing, out with another. Anyone moving to a new place should try and fit in, not take over it.
“There are many places around here where I think the very people who live here, and have done for years, wouldn’t feel welcome. I’ve had that experience, where people have been rude to me and I don’t care. But it’s not right that people are made to feel unwelcome.
“I hope the salon shows that we’re inclusive – and I will be closed every Monday to do charity work in the community and talks at the local school, things like that.”
It’s obvious her experiences growing up in an ever-changing London has shaped the ethos of her business. She’s conscious of inclusivity and two months into her salon opening, there are plans to get those who are most disadvantaged in for pedicures.
Images via Ollie Trenchard
Before that all begins, her salon has already gainined a lot of traction, especially where her choice to opt for “the natural route” in her products is concerned. With Ama’s polishes made up of 90% natural resources rather than the other chemicals usually used in varnish, her offerings also use products which are certified organic.
“I don’t use a lot of products anymore because I think more about where they’ve come from and what they do to us, so, with Ama, I wanted it to be something I can put my name to and I wanted to go down the clean routine.
“There were a lot of questions about this as people think I chose it to be trendy, but it’s actually because I love it. And the stats help too – it’s a growing market to be more ethical, in our food consumption, in the fashion industry, in beauty, everyone’s more conscious now.”
Ama pauses when asked about why this became important to her, before answering: “I went through a phase where I was super clean eating, everything from my toothpaste to my creams because I got scared about cancer, to be honest.”
She hasn’t yet had a run in with cancer among any close friends and family, but instead with acquaintances. At one point, she suggests it even felt like the possibility of getting it was closing in – like an inevitable force.
“I don’t know why I became obsessed with it, I just wanted to fight it because I think modernity has a lot to do with how many people have cancer. The air we breathe, to the plastics we use, to what we eat, spray and drink.
“It’s not nearly as bad now, I realised I was going into it too much and my friends said to me ‘this is too much’, so I was forced to stop and realise that I was getting obsessive. But I still think about it and it still influences my choices.”
We finish our drinks and I pull on my coat. Before I head off, I think about the confident businesswoman in front of me who was also part of the first ever Vogue shoot shot by a black woman photographer in its 127-year history, Nadine Ijewere, and wonder how we could all inherit a bit of that. How does she do it?
“I have moments where I think ‘what am I doing’ before remembering you always sink a bit before swimming. I’ve sunk a few times, now I think I’m swimming”.
And with that, she opens the door and I step back out into the drizzling street, my nails adding a hint of glamorous shimmer to the rainy day.