My Journey by Donna Karan

After moving to Santa Monica, I nearly had a vanity-based heart attack when I realized my hair extensions were giving early-2000s Britney a run for her money on the disaster front, and I hadn’t yet found a new person to do my hair. Thankfully, a little website you may have heard of called Yelp exists, and I discovered Christine Lieu. Not only did she bring my extensions back to life and transform my hair, but she also told me about the amazing new business she is opening on January 7th.

How many times have you sat in a hair appointment wishing you could get your nails done? If you’re like me, then you’ve had that thought nearly every time your butt has been planted on that chair for hours at a time. Enter Primp and Tonic.

Christine and her partner Michael’s new business venture features a bar-themed salon that specializes in both hair and nails. With all the new cutting edge techniques and products in the industry, this spot is beauty heaven for those of us who like to show our heads, hands and feet a little love.

I caught up with Christine for a chat about her heavenly salon.

Marie Tabela: How did you get your vision for Primp and Tonic?

Christine Lieu: Ohh, it’s quite a story! I’ve always wanted to open nail salons, but I’m a hairdresser. It’s mainly Vietnamese who do nail salons, and I am Vietnamese. I hate to see so many nail salons right now that are just so mom-and-pop, small business. Working over here on the West Side and catering to people who have a little bit more money to spend, who can afford better services, and who care about products and good quality customer service really opened my eyes to doing nails with them.

My mom has had three nail salons, so it’s in my background. We are Vietnamese, we do nails! I grew up in a nail salon. My stepmom has three nail salons, and it’s all the same traditional, very small-business style. I wanted something classier. So Primp and Tonic started.

I’ve had three different attempts over the past five years that didn’t quite work out. It just never worked, whether it was the lease or location, the feeling, the landlord, something always felt wrong. I’m a little spiritual, and it was scary enough to do it, and with so many oppositions, I felt like it just wasn’t right. The last attempt was to open a place just down in the same building, two stores over. I thought that would be cool, because while I could work here, I could manage from afar two stores away. It was the perfect location.

My business partner now, Michael, is one of my dearest friends. Being a first time business owner at a pretty young age, I ran into some issues regarding leasing. The landlord didn’t feel comfortable with me. She considered other people much more than she considered me just because I’m so young. I showed her my bank statements and didn’t have much, but I said, “I promise, I’ll do my best!” and I was talking to Michael and he said, “I’ll cosign for you,” like no problem. For me, coming from my background, people don’t just become financially vulnerable like that unless they really trust you, and that was huge for me. I knew I had a friend. I was just telling him about it, and he just said, “Christine, I’ve worked with you for years and you’re one of the hardest working people I know, so it’s a no brainer, of course I’ll do that for you.” He offered! I wasn’t even asking him! I was actually going to ask my big sister to cosign for me.

MT: Wow, that is huge!

CL: I know! So, still, that didn’t work out, but that started us thinking. I was working here, a renter in [Michael’s] salon, and he was like, “Well, I’ve always thought about doing nails in here,” and I said, “Oh, Michael. We can’t just be that!” My biggest fear is having a hair salon that says they do nails too, and there’s like, one manicurist on call with 25 old crusty colors. You can’t do that. I wanted it to be an experience where people walk in and are like, “Woah, I think they do both here, and they actually do it well.” We’ve got the best manicurists, best polishes, all up-to-date with the systems and training, not like mishmash put together. I told him it’s going to take time, but we need to create something that people know they can go to Primp and Tonic and get hair and nails done.

So that’s how Primp and Tonic started, with Michael being an amazing friend, me always wanting to do nails, and us coming together and combining our friendship and our visions. It took a long time, about a year and a half, to put everything into motion. He came up with the name, he’s more clever with that sort of thing!

MT: I love the name. It’s so cute and catchy!

CL: With the bar scene being so huge and recession proof, we saw so many new restaurants doing so well, and we also saw some new businesses that were incorporating the bar theme with beauty, and we combined that together because we wanted a lounge where you could get both done, but also feel comfortable enough to have a drink and hang out with your girlfriends. It’s kind of a spinoff of a gin and tonic. “Primp” means anything style wise, whether it’s by dressing or doing hair, anything to beautify. “Tonic” is usually a reference to a liquid, particularly liquids that heal. Alcohol heals! So do awesome manicure baths, and our paints are our tonics. Michael really loves that vintage appeal too. It was fun to come up with something that would combine his passions with mine with a vintage inspiration, but new age.

MT: How are you incorporating your theme into your services?

CL: We ask, “How do you take your Primp and Tonic?” It can be a Double, Shaken not Stirred, With a Twist, or Nice and Neat. There are ways to have your cocktail and ways to have your hair. It’s been fun to pair the two together. On our tonic page, you can see that I wanted to make the manicure experience different than most salons. Usually when they bring you soapy water [to soak your fingers], it smells like Palmolive! Here, you get to choose which bath you sit in. So we have Lemon Drops, which are lemon-scented manicure baths, Coconut Colada, Cucumber Mojito, and Mint Julep. Part of the experience is that at the front desk, we’ll have leather cocktail menus [for the services]. We also have a Make it Manly option for the men.

MT: Are you going to do full service hair?

CL: Full service hair! But I feel like for branding purposes, to get new customers in, blowouts are very attractive. For a customer, they don’t just shop around for a hairdresser to just do color. But blowouts you need anyway. Even if you’re from out of town and visiting, you’ll get a blowout for a party. It’s an attractive and popular thing right now, so that’s an element of branding we liked. Nothing sells more than the experience when you actually settle in the chair though. When new customers come, myself, Michael, and our employees will give them an experience and blowout they’ll love, and hopefully they’ll say, “You know what? I just saw that girl doing color. I didn’t know you do color too!” and you can open the door from there.

MT: Are you going to be offering any nail and hair packages?

CL: Our signature package is called the Primp and Polish package, where you get a blowout and manicure for $65. I am hoping we designed the place in such a way that you can get both done at the same time.

MT: It looks like it! That would be so fun!

CL: Right?! Oh, and it comes with a cocktail! If you want one, of course.

MT: Fun! People will love that.

CL: I think so! But it’s funny, because now salons make so much money just from serving wine, but that is age old. Grandmas used to go into the salon to get their hair set once a week and they’d get a mimosa. That’s been around forever! But it’s funny now when you apply the concepts of branding and sell it like that, then it becomes something different. It’s really not different though. All the salons I’ve worked at have served wine. It’s nice to know that it’s offered. But because Santa Monica is such a healthy place, no one really drinks.

MT: I actually don’t drink.

CL: (Laughing) See?

MT: Are you going to have mocktails?

CL: Oh, totally! And we’ll also have all the other drinks, like a bunch of different kinds of tea, coffee, and sparkling water too. It’s more about making clients feel like they aren’t at a business, but comfortable at home, or like someone’s hosting you. Like, yeah, you’re here to get your nails done, but seriously – is this chair comfortable? Is the temperature comfortable? Hospitality is 100% super important. I feel like businesses fail when they don’t ask, “How are you doing and what can I get for you?”

MT: Totally. Are you going to do pedicures too?

CL: Yes. Full service when it comes to nails too. We’re offering an alternative to acrylics. You can use gels to make nails strong and long, just like acrylics. Traditionally, gels are not often used in the U.S. because it’s very expensive. Like I said before, Vietnamese dominate the industry. Acrylics are cheaper, but the smell is very strong and the chemical is quite harmful. Gels can do the same thing of building an extension, make your nails stronger, and it’s a better alternative. The smell isn’t there, but it’s a more expensive product. It’s popular in Europe, and it’s becoming more popular in the U.S. as this health conscious movement is becoming stronger. We also have to think of our hair clients, because originally, we are hair people, and the smell of acrylics is very strong. So yes, manicure, pedicure, gel applications, we are full service. We also have matching gel and polish colors so you can do both. We also have the OPI top 100 colors in both gel and polish.

MT: You’ve mentioned the health conscious movement, particularly here in Santa Monica. What are you doing as a business to accommodate that?

CL: It was a big leap for me, but we are using organic polishes. They’re very expensive, almost triple in price. They’re also vegan. At the moment, their formulation is “9-free,” meaning they are free of the nine most harmful chemicals found in polishes. I truly believe in Zoya (the nail polish brand). They are only going to get better with time. They are 9-free now, but maybe 15-free later on. Organic and vegan polishes are usually branded toward children, so there are limited colors – you know, pink, purple, glittery stuff. Zoya is high-fashion colors branded for adults. It has been difficult to find a distributer with them, but I was really committed to offering a vegan, organic manicure. As this movement becomes more known, I don’t want to limit to Zoya. I want to open it up to more brands.

Also, in addition to offering regular polishes and gels, we are carrying OPI’s Infinite Shine. This is different than gel, because it’s a UV-free gel. It’s tiring to hear customers say they don’t get regular manicures because the polish chips, so then that narrows it down to gels, but some people don’t want gels because they have to cure it under the light with UV exposure, and the soaking off can be damaging. This new formulation is 14-day no chip and UV-free. Esse makes one as well called Gel Couture. It’s a 14-day no chip polish.

MT: That’s amazing! Does it dry instantly like gel too?

CL: No, it doesn’t. But you don’t have to soak it off or cure it under the light. How about this: works like polish, stays like gel!

MT: Perfect! Do you do organic hair color as well?

CL: We have organic hair colors, but it’s been difficult to find one we can trust. For our clients who are specific and ask for that, we can provide it.

MT: What don’t you trust about them?

CL: Well, when it comes to eating organic, and buying organic produce, there are some limitations, like shelf life. You buy an organic tomato and it’s not going to last as long. Same properties apply to hair color. They don’t execute the same way, at least for now. Most of my clients are blonde, blonde, blonde, and there ain’t no bleach out there that’s going to take them there that’s organic. But once there is, I want to know about it!

MT: Speaking of different types of hair services, tell me about your extensions.

CL: Extensions allowed me to more conveniently do hair on location. Very quickly, I learned that if you do extensions well, there is a huge need for it, because not many people do it, and they don’t do it well. You really have to specialize in them. I learned how to do extensions because it was good money; at the time, I had moved away from home really early, and I wasn’t prepared to do this all on my own. As much as I loved the art, I was like, “I really hope this pays,” because I was so strapped for cash with my student loans and everything, so I ended up falling into extensions. It’s automatically a luxury service, and I really wanted to make sure I could do it well. I saw how fruitful it could be. It was really gratifying to learn though. It’s one thing to cut and color hair, but there’s nothing like that instant feminine aura that a woman has when she has more hair. They feel so much more feminine with that beautiful, long flowing hair.

MT: When is your grand opening?

CL: January 7! We’re going to have all of our friends, family, and new people in our lives celebrate with us. This is the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and Michael is very excited to take what he had before and revamp it. He bought the salon and took it over, and like everything, you need to re-polish! It needed some tonic! It’s wonderful that we can combine both of our passions, and we wanted our family and friends to share with us. It’s not just a party, but I swear, if you want to party, just count on a hairdresser to throw a good one, we have lots of friends, we know how to drink, and we know how to eat! But we want people to experience having both done at the same time, and here’s one location where it functions well, so hair and nails will be being done during our party. It’ll be a flow of celebration and hair and nails for people to experience. All are welcome, and we’re going to be doing a raffle for our Primp and Polish package.

MT: Any parting words before the big day about your vision?

CL: Our vision is just to have a place where you can have hair and nails done at the same time. It comes from wanting to take care of our clients. I can’t even tell you how much I sit here, doing extensions for 3 to 6 hours at a time, and the woman says, “I really wish I could be getting my nails done right now!” So it goes back to taking care of the client. What do women and men want now? We are an overstimulated society as it is. We try to do as much as we can in the time that we have. With the Internet and information around us all the time, we are smarter, better, and want to do more. We have WiFi, and each station has a USB and charging port. Our clients are of the culture that wants to make the most of their time. When a customer needs something, it’s always answering the question of what we can do to take care of it.

Primp and Tonic
1830 Broadway Ave., Santa Monica
(424) 744-8513 or primpandtonic.com

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