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Photos courtesy of Van Court
Photos courtesy of Van Court

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What Makes This New Nail Salon So Healthy?

Non-toxic, gel-free, fair pay — at Van Court, co-founder Ruth Kallens wants to do things her way.

It's four days before the debut of Van Court, a new nail salon in the Financial District, and it's a hive of activity. There's still a lot left to finish: In the front lobby, a worker is drilling in the shelf to display nail polishes, while inside, others are perfecting the burnished metal and natural wood that make up the backbone of the decor. In the middle of it all is co-founder Ruth Kallens. "I have to get menus printed!" she says. "Maybe we can just use iPads."

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Kallens, who's wearing ripped jeans, black booties, and burgundy lipstick, is promoting Van Court as a "healthier" salon, not just because of how nails are cleaned and polished, but also because of how technicians are treated. "We're different, and I hope people ask why," she says. "I hope they question 'Why isn't there the UV light?' 'Why doesn't my pedicure chair vibrate?' or 'Why don't you have the gel polishes?'"


The salon, located on the second floor of 90 Water Street, officially opens to the public on Saturday, March 5th. It's named for the street on which Kallen's great-aunt grew up; she developed a close bond with this great-aunt by doing her nails up until her passing last May. It's a joint project for Kallens and her boyfriend Paul Balciunas — on their first date, he noticed her red nails, and "five years later, here we are," she says with a laugh.

It's not a direct response to last year's New York Times investigation that reported on the unfair labor practices and unhealthy work conditions at inexpensive manicure shops — €”Kallens tells us she already had the idea for Van Court prior to that — €”but the story helped make her feel like the industry needed the place she was envisioning.

"I was like, 'Now I know I can make a difference,'" she says.

To start, Kallens, who learned about the nail industry by doing marketing for Deborah Lippmann, hired ten nail technicians to work at Van Court on a freelance basis. These aren't the overworked, ill-treated New York manicurists a recent investigation by the state Labor Department found were expected work ten-hour shifts for only $30 (more than 40 percent of the nail salons reviewed by the state were ordered to pay $1.1 million in back wages to underpaid nail techs). Van Court's crew routinely has glamorous jobs on magazine shoots or at fashion shows; most have been hopping from manicure station to manicure station because they don't want to be tied down.

Still, Kallens is committed to being a benevolent employer, dissuading one woman who wanted to work six days a week to coming in only five. "I said, ‘Girl, you are married,'" Kallens says. "You need to spend time with your husband." As for what they're paid, Kallens won't reveal numbers, but says that "I ask, ‘What would you like to be compensated,' and then we go from there." Putting a premium on fair treatment, of course, comes at a cost: A basic manicure (it's called "Preserve Your Legacy" on the menu) is $40, and a pedicure is $65.


For the actual nail services, Van Court offers above-average sanitation methods, including tankless pedicure tubs (which are less likely to trap bacteria), individual foot files, and medical grade sterilization. "If you wanted to put the instruments in your mouth, you could," Kallens says. An advanced air filtration system leaves the salon virtually odorless, that familiar polish scent all but untraceable. There are also non-toxic polishes, from brands like LondonTown, LVX, Ginger + Liz, and Deborah Lippmann — €”and absolutely no acrylics, gels, or Shellacs.

When asked if she's worried about not offering the increasingly popular durable, UV-hardened polishes, Kallens says, "No, why? I was to be as natural as possible. This isn't for everyone." The treatments, like "Splitsville" ($45) for weak nails or "Drink Up" ($50) for dehydrated hands, are done with scrubs and oils made from natural ingredients like jojoba oil or coconut oil — Kallens says you could eat them, theoretically.

Fingernails aren't soaked in water at Van Court; it can cause the thin cuticle skin to bloat. Instead, techs use Deborah Lippmann's cuticle remover, and never cut the cuticles. "This excessive nipping where your fingers are raw?" Kallens says. "It's not going to happen." The skin is also dry brushed, which revs up circulation and glow.

What Van Court's doing is simply designed to make your manicure look better. Kallens has been a manicure perfectionist since she started getting her nails done alongside her mom as a five-year-old. "I was all about making sure the polish completely covered the nail," she says. "I'd be like, ‘You missed a spot.'"

Plus, there's 16 edgy nail art designs available, including a style that makes it seem like paint's dripping down the fingertips. And if you come in the shop with gel polish on, you can get it soaked off — €”and won't be shamed for having it on in the first place.

"Come!" Kallens says, "Let us rehabilitate your nails."

Van Court

90 Water St, New York, NY 10005, USA