“Darling, I’ll be digging my heels into this space for as long as humanly possible.” This is Lauren LaRouge: artist, entrepreneur, burlesque alumni and the most sought-after nail artist in Sydney. Hailing from the east, she arrived in Parramatta in 2015, renting a table at the front of a salon. A few months ago she set up her shop, Nailed By LaRouge, on George Street.
“I was losing hope in the city,” she says. “This place is the new frontier. In the Wild West, there’s plenty of hope and possibility.” A qualified nail technician but a self-taught nail artist, LaRouge has well and truly taken Sydney by storm, one nail at a time. “It’s a bit of fun,” she says. “I’m not curing cancer, but you can be having a crappy day sitting in a very grey office cubicle, and you look down at your hands, and you smile.” Parramatta was never on the cards for LaRouge, who was born-and-bred in the eastern suburbs. In fact, before making Parramatta her business home, she had only visited the place once in her life.
As the lock-out laws came into full force in Kings Cross, LaRouge’s partner convinced her Parramatta was the perfect place for her new salon. “We drove down Church Street, and there were all kinds of merriment,” she says. “Business seemed to be doing so well. I saw they had Messina and Bondi Pizza and I was like... this place has definitely changed. I gave my notice at the Cross and it was lucky I did – 3 weeks after I left the salon shut up in the middle of the night. My business would have been homeless overnight.” LaRouge says Parramatta and Kings Cross share some important similarities, though they’re seemingly worlds apart.
“I was attracted to Parramatta for the same reasons I was attracted to Kings Cross. You’ve got working professionals, colourful locals, and plenty of businesses. There’s this real community flavour about the place and real characters who hang about, even though it’s a thriving city centre. I definitely feel like I got in at the right time.” Before making it big in nail art, LaRouge spent nearly ten years as a burlesque dancer and worked the corporate 9-5 slog. She knew art was what she wanted to do, but it wasn’t until a friend introduced her to nail art that she started experimenting with designs on herself.
“I’m just a train ride away but I feel like I’m discovering a totally different city. I love it here. I want to stay in Parramatta.”
“They just made me so happy. I’d go into the office and everyone would be like, What are you doing next? It became a thing. Then one Halloween a bunch of friends of mine happened to be going to parties and wanted their nails done. I said, Just give me a bottle of wine. Well, I ended up with about 7 or 8 bottles of wine and I thought, okay. Okay, maybe this could be that elusive day job I couldn’t find.” No stranger to doing the hard yards, LaRouge had to start from scratch when she set up at a table in front of a salon in Church Street, although the business was technically 5 years old.
“I knew this was day dot,” she says. “At first I was having a stroke and the first year was tough because I was starting from square one. But I never regretted the move after that first year.” And why would she? Business is booming, and LaRouge constantly has people in salons in the Sydney CBD, Newtown and Bondi asking her to set up out there. But she’s loving the energy of the West.
“It’s got that sense of hope and development,” she says. “You can always see things being built, developments going up, there’s always a festival on. It’s full of life.” With so much competition around, LaRouge says the most common question she gets asked is: What’s the difference between you and those big nails chains? It’s passion, she says, and she knows it has a real impact.
“I truly love nails, and I care about what I’m doing. I love working with a range of people. I’ve got clients who are older, and have only discovered nail art recently – they get so excited about it. I get a lot of girls recovering from surgery coming in, a lot of new mothers. It’s one size fits all with nails – you can feel good about yourself, no matter what else is going on.” Where once nail art was considered niche, LaRouge says the whole landscape has changed and people are coming from as far as the Blue Mountains. Just don’t ask her to do plain nails.
“I’m only taking on new clients wanting nail art,” she says. “Most nail artists start out in beauty and move to nails but I have always been an artist. Nails are a wonderful and wearable canvas, and they have that semi-permanent aspect.”And as her clients have become more adventurous, so too do they allow her more artistic licence. “I’m finding as the business grows and I’m a bit more well-known, people trust me,” she says. “Now I can say: Give me a budget and a vision, and that’s my jumping off (sic) point. My favourite work usually happens when it’s a collaboration.”
So the question is, as Lauren LaRouge’s star continues to rise, does she reckon she’ll ever be lured back to the east? “You know, I lived my whole life in the east,” she says. “I’m just a train ride away but I feel like I’m discovering a totally different city. I love it here. I want to stay in Parramatta.”