A sparkly pink linoleum floor cluttered with pairs of worn-in Doc Martens and clunky platform shoes marks the entrance to Catherine Côté’s home. The only custom 3D nail artist in Reykjavík, Catherine runs her studio, Rainbow Nails, out of her downstairs Skeggjagata flat.
Catherine’s shop is adorned with stacks of Japanese fashion magazines and prints by Bei Badgirl. Each wall is painted differently: seafoam green, yellow and white stripes, and soft pastel blue. It’s an oasis of colour, much like the woman herself.
With multi-coloured hair down to her waist and a smattering of vivid newschool tattoos done by the Canadian Olivier Julliand, Catherine lives up to name of her salon. Donning a Black Milk dress with an ‘Adventure Time’ print, polka-dot Irregular Choice flats, and Lime Crime’s “Utopia” velvetine lipstick, she completed what is a casual look for the artist with a low side ponytail and perfectly symmetrical winged eyeliner.
Originally from Montreal, Catherine now lives and works in Reykjavík and has jump-started a craze of nail art in the city.
While some might balk at the idea of a four-hour manicure, these are the norm for Catherine. Her nails go way beyond the basic French. Some of the sets she does are long and pointy, covered in jewels, while others are intricately painted with designs ranging from Pokémon to traditional Icelandic runes.
Catherine started doing nail art while in beauty school back in Montreal. “I wanted to do something more creative than wearing a white uniform all day and acting super formal with everyone,” Catherine says, reflecting on her time working at a spa. Catherine is, even upon first meeting, anything but formal. She’s so warm and expressive that it’s impossible not to feel immediately comfortable around her. “It was just really not my thing!” she says with a large burst of laughter.
Catherine has curated this same attitude in her own studio. As she fixes a customer’s broken nail, they talk about everything under the sun. This customer has gone regularly to Catherine since 2013 and currently has spikes, ram skulls, and clock gears adorning her fingers. The girl’s favourite manicure featured Star Wars characters. “It was fun to make Jabba so slimy!” Catherine smiles nostalgically.
Catherine moved to Reykjavík three years ago after a chance encounter at a bar. It’s a love story worthy of a film: her first night in Iceland, she decided to go grab a beer at a bar and watch a football game. A man asked to borrow a chair from her table, and then invited her to join his group. He later offered her the extra bedroom of his flat to stay in. “I thought like why not? If it’s creepy, I’ll just leave tomorrow,” she laughs.
But it wasn’t. The two continued talking for a year afterwards. Catherine has a sparkle in her eye as she recounts the tale, “In typical Icelandic-man-style, he was not really saying that he was interested, but at the same time, I’m like, you don’t waste time talking to a girl that you don’t care about.” Catherine eventually visited again and moved in with him, and they got married.
Reykjavík isn’t a city teeming with nail salons, like New York or London. A google search reveals only two, and one of them is Rainbow Nails. Catherine explains that there are a few other people who do nails, but she’s the only one to do nail art. This doesn’t seem to be due to lack of interest—Catherine recalls that though it took her maybe three or four months to become really busy, she’s now so popular that she isn’t taking new clients.
She found success mainly through word of month. “I was lucky to initially get people that were quite well-known in Iceland, so people would be like ‘Where are these nails from?’ and friends-of-friends would then come in,” she says.
Though she’s currently not taking new clients, she does sometimes make exceptions for tourists.
“A few times as soon as they booked their flights, they booked their appointment with me!” she explains. “They call in March, ‘So I’m coming in July!’”
Montreal vs. Reykjavík
After moving here, Catherine immediately noticed a difference in street style between Montreal and Reykjavík. Both places have their fair share of hipsters, but Catherine says Montreal has a more prominent alternative scene. “I have tattoos and colourful hair,” she notes. “Here it’s considered different, but in Montreal it’s just normal.”
She was not used to being stopped so much due to her appearance until she moved here. Maybe due to the Reykjavík’s smaller population or the relative accessibility of stores, Catherine says there are a much wider variety of styles in Montreal.
Catherine outlines her idea of the archetypical Icelandic goingout outfits. For girls: black platform shoes (she laughs, “which I also have”), stockings, a black dress, and maybe a big fur jacket or some weird hat. “People here wear a lot of black—like always!” With her more alternative appearance, it’s easy to see why she might notice that off the bat.
For men, the change from Canada to Iceland was more drastic. “Men here, they all wear a suit and everything.” This was not the case in Montreal, where the fanciest item of men’s bar clothing might be a button-up. But Catharine embraces this Nordic trend. With a knowing grin, she notes, “I mean, I like it. I find it cute.”
But does different street style translate into different nail trends? Absolutely. “In Montreal it’s a lot of pink and brighter colours—a lot of girly things like Hello Kitty and diamonds and bows,” Catherine explains.
In Reykjavík, Catherine finds clients ask for more toned-down manicures. “I do a lot more neutral colours like black, nudes, reds with some sort of minimal graphic design like lines, stripes, or triangles —just a small accent.” It’s a little more fashion-y than alternative.
But she likes having a mix of crazier designs and more nuanced ones. “If I would just do simple stuff I would get really bored.”
Catherine finds it hard to find the exact words to describe her own personal style. She’s inspired by a multitude of looks. “One day I can be really goth and then the next I can be really colourful,” she says. “I have outfits that I think might be too crazy for Iceland!”
She’s very friendly, but explains that she’s often quite shy with strangers. “It’s weird because I don’t like attention so much, but I guess I dress like I really do.” It’s a hard line to tread: she says she sometimes tries to dress more toneddown but then laughs as she realizes with her hair and tattoos, she’ll always be looked at as eccentric regardless of how neutral her outfit is. “So I guess I have to accept it!” she says, raising her eyebrows.