Victoria Houllis, founder of Mannequin Hands, is a cult-status nail artist whose designs have skyrocketed in popularity over the last two years. Beauty Editor Ruby Feneley chats with her about everything from growing a business, to the perks and pitfalls of social media and surviving COVID and lockdowns.
“I studied journalism and worked in marketing and copywriting for fashion and hospitality brands, but my passion was always beauty. I trained and started working with nails when I was nineteen. I worked full-time in marketing for years, but I was seeing clients after hours and on weekends! I used any spare minute I had to pursue, what I considered then, a hobby I loved. My work in marketing specifically really taught me to scale ideas. I think big and my boss would always so “okay, but we need to work to this budget, on this timeline, in this location” – that ability has been incredible building Mannequin Hands!”
Taking the leap
“I decided to devote myself to Mannequin Hands full-time in 2019. I didn’t know if there was “full-time demand” though. People kept asking for more appointments but coming from a corporate mindset I wasn’t sure if clients were available during the week, or even during the day. I had a lot of back-up plans, like specials I could run if I had appointment gaps, just to keep the cashflow coming in. I underestimated how much work I’d done building the brand. I quit my job on Monday, put my bookings up on Wednesday and was booked out for a month. I had not allotted for lunch breaks; I had not allotted for bathroom breaks. It was a lot, but I consider myself really lucky.”
“Instagram, to me, is in some ways a bit of a fallacy. I had a couple of thousand followers when I went full time with my business; my following kicked off later. I personally find that no matter how big my Instagram presence gets it doesn’t translate to my earnings. I’m launching a new product and I’m interested to see if sales will correlate with my social media growth. People say they love certain things but that doesn’t mean they will buy them. I started making and shipping press-on nails during Covid and I’ve continued doing them for those who can’t get in for appointments. Followers see client work and are like “Oh my god, make these as press-ons.” But one of my press-on kits with the most likes, sends and saves has literally not sold a single set! Instagram is a great way to build community and set trends, but there is no way of knowing if anything that happens online will reflect the sales that you make, or the value people place on your work. In some ways as a small business you really need it, but it can also be a bit of a trap.”
Working with influencers
“When I started I was really lucky, Flex (Mami) and Rowi Singh were people I knew socially. When Flex started coming to me her following was growing and by the time she was a regular her following had become massive. I really enjoy working with those people because they never came to me asking for freebies or expecting a PR exchange. Other than friends I don’t seek out influencers because I don’t really like the transaction of not being paid for work and I’m not sure of the value exchange. I have people that message me expecting free trade, it doesn’t make up for the time I’m spending because even if their followers are interested, my books are full. In a service-based industry where your time is crucial, I’m not sure I would back it, unless there is an existing relationship.”
“When I started doing nails, I had strong ideas about what I did and didn’t like. I was super into Japanese nail art which has a totally different look to anything else, you can pick it from Russian, American or my style. My biggest inspiration is fashion, and a lot of my art is trend focused. I oscillate between really cutesy girly styles or very nature inspired with Khakis, nudes, snakeskin and big pearls.” British nails – it’s very distinct. My dream has always been to have Russian cuticle technique, Japanese perfection and American pop art references. That said, I’m still developing my style. My biggest inspiration is fashion, and a lot of my art is trend focused. I oscillate between really cutesy girly styles or very nature inspired with Khakis, nudes, snakeskin and big pearls.”
“Checkerboards had a huge moment, and I don’t know if it will ever finish, but flames are dying out. In terms of what’s coming up, blobby stuff, 3D and aurora nails are going crazy. Aurora started in Japan, and it’s been so exciting seeing it come here. A lot of the times trends will be blowing up internationally, but they don’t make it in Australia which bums me out! I now find I’m doing way less hand painting – everything is playing with texture or transparency in different ways.”
Working with clients
“Because a lot of the work I do is conceptual, I always check in as we go. My advice would be to keep an eye on non-verbal cues! Often, I’ll ask and they’ll be like “yep, yep, perfect”,” but I can tell they’re suss! When I push a bit they’ll be like “oh, well I’m not sure about this” so then we can workshop it and ensure they’re 100% happy. You have to pay attention to body language. I’ll always try to combine everything a client wants. They might come saying “I want flowers, I want 3D but I also want glitter” – so I’ll be like, ‘Okay, how about glitter base, pastel flowers and a diamante at the center.” It’s just working to make their nail dreams come true. Ninety percent of people DON’T mean it when they say, ‘Do whatever.’ I’ll say ‘okay well give me shape and length at least’ and they’ll say ‘well definitely round and short’ and then I’ll pull out a colour and they’ll be like ‘oh no, not red I want pastels’ and then I’ll say ‘okay, what about this’ and they’ll say ‘no, no I want butterflies’ so it becomes a very narrow definition of ‘whatever.’”
“Prior to lockdown my purpose in life had been working and building my business. Then it was all gone, and I had to find a purpose outside my business, just to keep myself sane. I had to come to terms with the fact that just existing was enough and I didn’t have to be valuable, financially or otherwise. By the time I had been on that journey it was time to go back to work and I just didn’t know how to feel. I think I’m in the middle of coming to terms with it now, because at the time I was in survival mode and didn’t have the space to acknowledge how I was feeling. It was the first time since thirteen that I had been unemployed, and I felt lonely and aimless. I think my takeaway from the whole experience was that my life’s purpose is to make people feel good, but it was the first time I learn what makes me feel good!”
Finding a creative community
“I am lucky to have a friend Stephanie Tsimbourlas, who I work with closely on branding, graphics and illustration – and now new products. She understands my brain in a way that every business owner needs. She doesn’t work in beauty, so she brings a perspective that isn’t clouded by the industry and trends and comparing yourself to other artists. Then I bring the technical perspective. I’m lucky to have a lot of talented friends who I love to work with. You can pay people any amount of money, but nobody is going to care about your business as much as the people who care about you. It makes creating something together seamless.”
Finding a distributor
“Something I’ve really struggled with and come to appreciate is great communication, particularly in Australia where the supply chain can be complicated. I worked with one distributor who was very inconsistent. I was spending a lot of money with the brand and the distributor would never give me updates. At one point, they told me last minute that they had a shortage on the extensions I used. I ended up needing to make a bulk shipment from the US, and I was lucky to have savings from my salaried positions to do this. But for many business owners that’s just not possible. Now I work with Gellyfit and am an ambassador, I have a great relationship with the current distributor, Cathy. I love working with them because they are constantly bringing out new products. Being with a brand that is on top of trends is huge for me. I can’t be with a brand that isn’t going to have jelly colours or reflective glitters – clients will see it online and they don’t care if it’s a product from the US, Europe or Asia – they want it straight away!”
“At the moment I’m still figuring out what my vision for Mannequin Hands is – is it a 12-person salon, a product line or a beauty-marketing platform? Whatever it is, I know I want to help people feel good with my work!”
This article originally appeared in the July-August 2021 issue of Professional Beauty Magazine.
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