Park Eunkyung: Meet Unistella, the Genius Behind K-pop’s Most Iconic Nail Art
Known for her stellar custom nail designs for nearly every major South Korean act, the founder and owner of Unistella Nails is determined to shine the spotlight on an industry that’s often overlooked
This story appears in Rolling Stone India’s K-Music Special Issue, on sale now. Buy your copy here.
If you are, or have ever been a member of the K-pop fandom community, there’s a skyscraping chance that you’ve come across Park Eunkyung’s work, either knowingly or unknowingly. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, her sobriquet sure will. Park is none other than the creator behind the immensely popular, globally acclaimed, Seoul-based nail salon, ‘Unistella Nails.’
Park, alias Unistella is the creative genius and pioneer behind various viral nail art trends like shattered glass nails, wire nails and pierced nails, and has worked with a wide-ranging, exclusive celebrity clientele – from chart-topping Korean acts like BlackPink, aespa and the ‘King of K-pop’ G-Dragon, to international names like Bella Hadid and Cara Delevingne. In 2016, she made history by becoming the first Korean nail artist to be formally invited to attend the prestigious New York Fashion Week, and her dynamic, milestone-laced journey since, has been just as sensational – to say the least. With two decades of experience in the industry under her belt, Park has also launched an exquisite nail jewelry line that features one-of-its-kind designs like ice heel rings, diamond cuff rings, bodysuit rings and more, with an aim of revolutionizing nail art by making it trendy, wearable and low maintenance – all at the same time.
In this exclusive interview with our journalist Oysmita Majumder for Rolling Stone India‘s 2022 K-Music Special issue, Park discusses her all-time favorite creations, using GIFs in her nail art and the pressing issue of plagiarism in the industry.
Can you tell us a little bit about the first time you first discovered your passion for nail art?
Actually, I had never seriously thought of becoming what I am today. If I had to trace back how and why I got so passionate about the field of nail art in the first place [which in fact, occurred to me after encountering this question], maybe it all started with an inferiority complex?
When I saw the blatant discrimination against the nail artist’s job in avenues like cinema, magazine editorials, etc. wherein hair and makeup gets all the credit, I think that’s when my goals shifted towards pioneering and developing the under-appreciated nails industry, into a much more respected, appreciated one.
At the end of the day, it’s all about placing the artists’ identities [irrespective of what industry or field they are in] in the much-needed spotlight and giving their hard work and art its due recognition.
“Doing everything in my power to make ‘nonsense’ make sense is my source of inspiration and creative freedom.”
How did you manage to manifest this dream of yours into a reality, and get your headstart in this industry?
Even a few years back, there was hardly any attention being paid to the nail industry in Korea, but today, it seems that the times are slowly changing. I’d like to think that this is because I took the initiative towards networking right.
The very first thing that I did while starting out in this field was to make as many contacts as possible, because I thought it was the only way to get people to notice us and our work. Hence I reached out to different magazines and expressed my desire to work on the artists’ nails during their photo shoots, and also during the fashion shows of Korean designer labels.
I honestly just wanted people to recognize my art. In turn, the people who saw and liked my work graciously went ahead and got their nails done by us, which gradually enabled our brand to grow and expand.
Can you explain the moniker ‘Unistella’? What’s your raison d’être for singling out this specific name for your brand?
‘Unistella’ means ‘a one of a kind light.’
During the process of naming the brand, I jotted down my favorite words, sentences, city expressions, etc, on paper. There were words like ‘black,’ ‘simple,’ ‘unique,’ ‘star,’ ‘universe,’ ‘only,’ and more. I actually wanted to create a new compound word; by blending pre-existing words in a unique format. So I chose two of these words and came up with an all-new name for myself. Out of all the choices I’d penned thus far, my favorites were ‘unique’ and ‘stellar’ – hence the name ‘Unistella’came into existence.
I’m now Unistella, and it is certainly the most precious name of my life.
“It’s all about placing the artists’ identities in the much-needed spotlight and giving their hard work and art its due recognition.”
‘Unistella’ definitely has a nice ring to it! Now let’s discuss trends. Can you name a nail art trend that you personally think will be big in the K-pop space this year?
Truth be told, I’m not quite sure about trends [smiles]. I think not going with the trend is the best trend these days. Above all, I think you should focus on doing what you want to do.
You’re the creator behind some of the most memorable designs that the nail care industry has ever witnessed: uber-intricate designs like disco lights nails, necklace nails and gummy bear nails, to the more minimalistic-yet-chic wire nails, and not to forget, two of my personal favorites – the pierced nails [as seen on BLACKPINK’s Jisoo during the “How You Like That” promotions in 2020] and the unbelievably stunning shattered glass nails. Among all of the designs that you’ve experimented with and created in the past, which one creation best embodies your creative caliber as an artist?
I’d like to say that it is my glass nails creation that made me who I am today.
That’s a coincidence, because glass nails are actually what led me to discover your work as well! A couple of years ago, I remember reading one of your interviews, where you’d mentioned that the next design you’d like to test would be GIF nails and I still have the very thought of that idea vividly etched into my memory. The entire concept of creating nail art with GIFs is something utterly unique, fascinating and ground-breaking. Tell me, how do you manage to consistently conjure up such exquisite ideas? Do you follow a standard creative process that helps you ideate new designs, or do you wait for inspiration to come to you?
The most difficult word for me is ‘inspiration.’ I’ve never really been inspired by anything, nor have I felt the need for being inspired in order to create my art. However, before doing anything, I always ask myself, ‘Does this make sense?’ I think that’s how the idea of GIF nails was born.
Hence, I’d simply say that doing everything in my power to make ‘nonsense’ make sense is my source of inspiration and creative freedom, that helps me in conceptualizing and implementing new designs.
“I think not going with the trend is the best trend these days. Above all, I think you should focus on doing what you want to do.”
Your recent work with Peniel Shin, DPR Ian and Song Kang has been truly splendid. What are your thoughts on an increasing number of male idols in the industry – or men in general – opting to get their nails professionally done these days?
I’m extremely interested in working on men’s nails. I firmly believe that nail art is not just for women, neither is it an emblem of femininity. Everyone deserves to get their nails done and be happy.
This may sound weird to some readers, but I always say this: when life gets tough and challenging for you, try drawing a smiley on your thumb nail, and you’ll find yourself smiling every time you use your phone!
I definitely think more and more men should start seriously considering the possibility of getting their nails professionally done.
That doesn’t sound weird at all! Infact, I’ll make sure to try this out soon. So tell me, as a celebrity manicurist with around 20 years worth of industry experience, what would you conclude is the most rewarding part of your job?
The happiest aspect of my job? I’d say that the process of getting my nails done, by itself, is quite therapeutic and gives me confidence. Being in charge of this process is supremely rewarding, because what I feel is pure, unadulterated happiness while I’m working on my own nails. After all – the most important and loved person to someone should be their own selves, right?
That’s the biggest and most important reason why I’ve been doing nail art till now.
“When life gets tough and challenging for you, try drawing a smiley on your thumb nail, and you’ll find yourself smiling every time you use your phone!”
Today, the primary focus while making art is often laid on the ‘originality’ spectrum of creativity. Thanks to the internet, it’s quite seamless to draw inspiration from the host of talented content creators whose work we readily have access to. However, there remains a fine line of distinction between inspiration and impersonation that easily gets crossed, intentionally or otherwise. Something similar happened to you back in 2018 with Sally Hansen’s ‘K-BEAUTY’ line. This seems to be a pressing problem for the artists/creators of today.
Yes, it’s very upsetting, because I’ve been through this issue multiple times already. In the past, I’ve tried to register my nail designs under copyright, and after registering the design, I’ve heard things like if you put one more dot, it constitutes a completely new design.
I don’t know what the answer to this is, yet. I think I need to have more inimitable sources of inspiration when it comes to being an artist, but as I mentioned, I tend to get inspiration from simple things such as my daily life.
When I share my designs publicly, I actually do it to provide a ready draft to the people who like and appreciate my art. I just share them with good intentions, because I think that showing a lot of pretty manicure designs can inspire more people who like nail art and want to do their own nails.
Also, all nail artists don’t design their own art, but it’s definitely not right to sell a creation that’s not yours, just because you happened to see and like it. So yes, it’s still a difficult pill to swallow, but copyright seems like a long, long fight.
Fair enough. What sets apart Unistella Nails from its contemporaries?
The very essence of our working method is to make designs that are out of the box, but at the same time attractive. ‘Simple is the best’ is my design philosophy.
While utilizing various materials of different textures and creating unique designs on nails with them, we always prioritize how to make it look aesthetically pleasing.
Infact, I think bare nails are artful, too. When done right, bold and over-the-top styles aren’t even needed. Our team at the Unistella salon learns how to design nails incorporating various facets like these. We always have a lot of fun working together!
“Bare nails are artful, too. When done right, bold and over-the-top styles aren’t even needed.”
Your job [understandably] entails a lot of packed schedules, end-to-end deadlines, busy shoot days and traveling for work. What’s your standard procedure of de-stressing after a long day at work?
I usually like to listen to my comfort music. Also, there are times when I do nothing all day, but watch music videos on loop.
An artist that I love listening to these days is Tierra Whack.
Given the pandemic, it’s not possible for a lot of us to pay regular visits to parlors and get our nails professionally cared for. Hence, can you share a quick tip for our readers on nail-care at home?
So, the most important thing is your original nails, which is why you always have to take off the gel well in order to maintain healthy nails. The point is to think of and cherish your nails, like you would do with your clothes and jewelry.
If a novice wished to try out any of your designs, which creation would you recommend them to initiate their first attempt with?
I would suggest ‘minimal’ nails. It is simple, but gives off the perfect look!
“I firmly believe that nail art is not just for women, neither is it an emblem of femininity. Everyone deserves to get their nails done and be happy.”
Please go ahead and tell us about the inspiration behind your nail jewelry line – your collection honestly has the most beautiful, intricately designed pieces I’ve come across, and I wanted you to know that the depth and attention to detail that shines through every individual creation in the assemblage, is truly remarkable!
First of all, there should be no stereotype; the very idea that nails should look like ‘this’ or ‘that’ takes away the beauty of creating art, and makes it quite boring and meaningless.
So, I don’t believe in limiting my ideas at all. Rather, when I do nail jewelry [like you mentioned] or nail design, I design ideas that are nothing too extravagant, but definitely fun. I also like to blend in and incorporate various influences from nature. I take a lot of pictures of nature for reference, and try to recreate various natural shapes and styles based off of them.
It’s exhilarating to brainstorm designs from the mysterious colors and forms that nature has created for us.
I’d now like to ask you some more questions on the personal front. Firstly, what was your childhood like?
My childhood was nothing too different or unique, but I remember being obsessed with applying nail polish to decorate my friends’ nails. I didn’t really nurture an interest in my studies – instead, I liked to play with my friends most of the time. I remember, I wanted to grow up quickly so I could learn the art of makeup [laughs].
What does your basic manicure routine look like?
It’s simple: applying a base coat after trimming the cuticles and organizing the shape of the nails.
“The most important and loved person to someone should be their own selves.”
Lastly, we’d like to know a little more about your goals and aspirations for the future. Where would you like to see yourself in another, say 10 years?
The entire world stopped for a while due to COVID-19, but now that things are slowly going back to normal, I wish to travel the world with my team.
I want to go around hosting pop-ups, doing brand collaborations, holding my own exhibitions, and showing people a new and different side to Unistella.