Painting the World With Essie

How a trip to Vegas launched the famous nail polish with a thousand shades. By Robert Klara

Essie Weingarten founded the nail polish company bearing her name in 1981, but it wasn’t until eight years later that she knew that she (or, rather, her brand) had truly arrived. 

A letter arrived from Buckingham Palace—specifically, from Queen Elizabeth’s hairdresser, who kindly requested that a bottle of pale pink polish called Ballet Slippers be shipped off to Westminster.

Nowhere in the many (many) tellings of this story has it emerged how the Queen found out about Essie, but the larger point is that she did. And before long, the royal request put Ballet Slippers, and Essie, on the world’s beauty map.

Seven years later, Weingarten received a request for a bottle of Ballet Slippers from the manicurist to Queen Elizabeth.

Then again, that was happening anyway. Because founder Essie Weingarten wasn’t just an innately gifted marketer, her polishes filled a niche that hadn’t existed before—and, indeed, still do.

“Essie continues to be at the top of the polish pyramid because Essie Weingarten was really the first one to build out the idea of a must-have color,” said Erin Flaherty, Hearst Magazines’ executive editorial director of luxury beauty.

In 1981, wise to where she’d find a ready market for her new nail polishes, Essie Weingarten (top right) took them to Las Vegas (center), where they were a hit. Word spread quickly and far.

Born in New York’s borough of Queens, Weingarten earned a degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology before working a series of jobs in the field, all the while dreaming of starting her own company. In the postwar city in which Weingarten had grown up, nail salons did not yet exist. Women seeking manicures could get them at hair salons where the choice of colors was limited and conservative. Weingarten had other ideas.

In 1981, she cashed out her life savings of $10,000, hired a chemist, and produced a line of 12 polishes in eye-popping shades. There was Blanc, a shade whiter than whipping cream; Bordeaux, a burgundy so dark it was nearly black; and Baby’s Breath, a pale mauve color.

Weingarten could have tried to sell her colors in New York, but instead she packed a crate of them onto a flight for Las Vegas. She reasoned that there were tens of thousands of women employed in Sin City (as dancers, as cocktail waitresses, etc.), and that those women—possessed of more panache than the prim ladies back east—would respond better to her shades.

The celebrity following for Essie started with Joan Rivers (top), who touted the polish on The Tonight Show. More recently, Essie has been the polish of choice for designers like Proenza Schouler, whose models (bottom) wore Essie shades on the runway at New York Fashion Week in 2016.

She was right. All of the casino salons where Weingarten left samples soon placed orders for more. Meanwhile, vacationing women who’d had their nails done in Vegas began asking for Essie back home. Before the year was out, Weingarten was shipping orders to 10,000 salons nationally. Stores began stocking Essie next and, shortly after, celebrities began wearing Essie, too—notably Joan Rivers, who sang the praises of Essie’s vivid red Jelly Apple on The Tonight Show in 1983. 

Beauty colossus L’Oréal bought Essie in 2010, expanding its 300 colors to over 1,000. But while the richness and individuality of the hues continue to move product, Essie general manager Carolyn Holba also credits another Weingarten innovation—witty, quirky and highly memorable names, many of which take puns to new levels (see sidebar.)

Name that hue These days, canny names for nail polish colors are standard, but Essie was a pioneer. The names range from the clever wordplay (Empire Shade of Mind) to the very punny (The Fuchsia Is Bright) to the mildly suggestive (Take Me to Thread). Some names (Spin the Bottle, Fun in the Gondola) give little hint as to what the color actually is. But no matter: With a thousand Essie shades to choose from, customers are surely grateful for any help remembering their preferred ones.

“We have wonderful, whimsical names that were developed, and we’re true to that all the time,” said Holba, who convenes her marketing team to come up with “very smart shade names” consistent with the “whimsy and wit” that Essie’s known for.

Which brings us back to Ballet Slippers, a name that describes both its hue (the pale pink of Desdemona roses) and its backstory. When, as a child, Weingarten would do well in her ballet class, her mother would reward her with a trip to the salon to get her nails done. 

Humble origins for a shade that would later become a favorite of the Queen of England, while the Duchess of Cambridge favors a slightly lighter shade called Allure. But whether you’re a royal or a girl from Queens, a cool color is a cool color.