In person, Sharmadean Reid has the kind of negotiating skills that make me feel as though I ought to be taking notes. Born and raised in Wolverhampton, a gray industrial city in England's Midlands, the Jamaican-British founder of WAH Nails kick-started the nail-art craze, opening the cult East London salon in 2009. After graduating from Central Saint Martins (London's most prestigious art school), Reid worked as a stylist and creative consultant before starting her own business — and expanding it into a venture so successful that she was awarded with an MBE (an Order of the British Empire, courtesy of the Queen herself) in 2015.
WAH — an acronym that stands for "We Ain't Hoes" — began as a fanzine about "what it feels like to be a girl." A DIY-style printed publication with a focus on hip-hop-influenced clothes and celebrities, the zine mixed high fashion with cut-and-paste culture. It developed Reid's personal brand into an aesthetic that she would later crystallize with WAH's tagline: "For downtown girls worldwide." Some four years later, Reid created a physical space for the London contingent of her downtown girls by way of a Dalston salon.
WAH's popularity spiraled; Reid and company soon found themselves at London Fashion Week, throwing parties for clients like Nike and Opening Ceremony Tokyo, and launching a pop-up salon in the luxury department store Selfridges. Later, Reid opened a concession in Topshop's flagship store and developed an exclusive line of products for British pharmacy chain Boots, all the while raising her young son, Roman. With her recent Princess Diana–themed capsule collection for ASOS and a new salon opening in Central London, she's not slowing down anytime soon, either. I talked to Reid over lunch at her favorite jerk spot in Soho (jerk chicken and salad for her, goat roti for me) about feeling like a weirdo, making beauty accessible, and building her business from the ground up.
Simran Hans: Let's talk a little bit about WAH Soho. You said you envisioned WAH as the kind of place for people to come and hang out and be part of a community of girls. It makes perfect sense that you would eventually open up a salon in Central London, but why are you doing it now?
Sharmadean Reid: For me, our position is really important, to be next to our friends at Bleach Hair, at Supreme, to build up a little new wave of what Soho means and is. But in the last few years I worked on a product range with [British pharmacy chain] Boots, and that took up a lot of my time, because I didn't raise any investment to grow my team.
There was no vernacular of start-up economy when I started WAH like there is now. I just started a business as a side project for fun — I had no funding, no plan, and didn't think about how I was going to grow it into a successful, scalable business.
It doesn't happen overnight. The bigger the decisions get, the longer it takes to do them. To open this salon, I have had to take an investment for the first time ever in seven years, but I'd spent a lot of time from October to now meeting loads of different wanky investors ... Well, some of them are nice!
I didn't feel comfortable with any of the people that I met. No one jumped out where I was like, "I want to give you a piece of a brand I've spent the last six years building."
Finally, I did find a location, and I didn't have any funding in place for this location, but the location was just too perfect to not do. I just contacted the landlord and signed a lease without any money in place ...