Josh Espley is CEO of Blakk Cosmetics, whose first product, Alphanail, is being billed as "war paint for your fingernails." (It’s nail polish, but for dudes.) Here Espley talks about his unlikely product, which is coming soon in a clear-polish version, for men who want to protect their nails without making a fashion statement.
FAST COMPANY: What is Alphanail?
JOSH ESPLEY: We realized a trend in the market, that men’s cosmetics are being more accepted in the marketplace. We launched Alphanail, and are working on a concealer line. The concept is not to mimic what girls already have, but catering more to what men would want.
Was there an aha moment?
Probably five years ago, I started seeing more guys wearing nail polish. But it hadn’t really been marketed for men. Men settled on using their girlfriend’s or their sister’s products lying around, or going to the grocery store and being relegated to going to the cosmetics section. That can be kind of taxing on your manhood.
Are there misconceptions about guys wearing nail polish?
The first thing is the gay assumption—that you’re gay if you wear nail polish. That’s the first thing out of anyone’s mouth.
If girls' products are good enough for gay men, why not for straight men?
They should be. Honestly, it’s a marketing strategy. With our product, it’s not just nail polish, it’s a nail polish delivery system. The pen we use is a key piece. You click the pen with your thumb, and out comes no more nail polish than you need. You don’t have to daintily dip a brush. Any guy can use a pen. Another thing we’ve found out is that we don’t market to women, but we get crossover sales all the time.
How much of your market is women?
Sales? 10%. But in terms of interest—people visiting the website, leaving comments—I would say it’s about 50-50 on the site.
The only guy I knew who wore nail polish was Marilyn Manson. But your website doesn’t tout people like that—it types traditionally masculine guys like kickboxers who wear nail polish. You call the stuff "war paint" for your fingernails.
That was the original marketing concept. This was conceived five years ago. It’s just about expression, and function, and overall if you want to make a statement. It’s for alpha males who don’t care, guys who just take chances, who don’t run their lives off of what other people think. I don’t care if you’re gay or straight or black or white, it doesn’t matter who wears our product. On our website, we had to overmasculinize the product because of the taboos at the time.
Take [Former Ultimate Fighting Championship Light Heavyweight Champion] Chuck Liddell, go back and look at his UFC fights, and he has his toenails painted pink, red, most colors guys would never wear. He takes the attitude: Guess what, he’s Chuck Liddell, and he can do that, he doesn’t care, and who’s gonna say something to Chuck Liddell?
You’re in the process of retooling your site, and refocusing on this product after working on another company. Will the site be changing to be less macho?
Yes, we realized that’s not what the concept is about. It’s about going against the grain a little bit, expressing yourself through a medium traditionally for women. It’s just kind of not really caring what people think. Now it’s being revamped to incorporate the everyman.
Do you encounter homophobia?
I could show you hate mail like you wouldn’t believe. You wouldn’t believe the threatening comments I get. They flood in. It’s sad, it really is. Some guy yesterday emailed me and said, "James Dean, Frank Sinatra, and John Wayne are all rolling in their grave right now." I wrote back and said, "I’m sorry to disturb their eternal sleep, but I don’t understand why they would be upset about nail polish. It’s just ridiculous that if James Dean were in his grave rolling over about anything, that that would be the one thing: nail polish."
You’re straight, yourself. Do you wear your product out regularly?
I do. I wear it on my toes all the time. The nail polish I rotate out. I never wear nail polish on all 10 fingers. It might be three on one hand, one, two, three on the other. The concrete color is my favorite color. There’s also a baby blue one that hasn’t been released yet on the site.
Is it a conversation starter at the club?
It is. If you’re confident, they see that. If you say, "Yeah, I guess I did this 'cause my buddy told me to," they’re like, "OK, this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing." But if you say, "Yeah, I wear it 'cause it looks cool," girls see that. If you just go from a confident standpoint, it works to start a conversation with a girl. It works really well. It has definitely been a conversation starter that has sparked a relationship with a few women.