“She’s a Sagittarius,” jokes Rachel James when speaking about Pear Nova, the award-winning, cruelty-free, cult-favorite nail polish brand she created in 2012. The Chicago-based CEO, creative director, mom and Black Ink Chicago alum refers to her nearly 7-year-old brand as her baby—that is, of course, after her two sons.
We’re sitting in James’ new home for Pear Nova, a chic but relaxed space just southwest of downtown Chicago. For her first studio location, James chose the Lacuna Lofts, a creative haven that houses everything from independent bakeries to barbers to tattoo parlors to an in-demand event space, all of which cater to Chicago’s hippest millennials. As we talk, I’m getting the Pear Nova treatment from manicurist Melinda, who takes her time in restoring my feet to their polished glory.
As I’ll come to understand, the relaxed atmosphere—even at an in-demand salon—is a result of James’ laid-back (but always about her business) vibe. With both an aesthetician’s license and a degree in fashion merchandising, it was likely inevitable that the entrepreneurial-minded James would end up working in beauty or fashion. But while James always knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur, starting her own line of polishes was a spontaneous decision born of chance and inspired by her own habit of changing her nail color almost daily.
“The last day of college, I presented a project on a fake nail polish brand—it was a marketing project. And I remember, my professor was like, ‘You need to do this...your ideas are great.’” she recalls. “And I went home that day—I was about eight months pregnant—and I started googling ‘How to Start a Nail Polish Line’...Ever since that day, I just took it and ran with it.”
Fortuitously, James’ newfound ambition coincided with a chance meeting with a cosmetic chemist, who taught James how to hand-mix nail polishes, which dovetailed with her detail-oriented eye for fashion. As Pear Nova’s devoted following knows, fashion trends are always reflected—if not anticipated—in their of-the-moment shades with coy names like “Candy Rain” and “Cleo-F*ckin-Patra.”
“The real inspiration behind [Pear Nova]? I would just say my background in fashion and beauty—I kind of wanted to make something that sat in the middle of both,” says James. “Runways kind of set the tone for what color palettes we’re going to be into for that season. And I was just like, why can’t we flip it? I want to make palettes where someone might look at it and say, ‘Oh, I never thought to put these colors together; maybe I’ll paint my walls those colors.”
These days, James gleans inspiration from everywhere, and her talent for color theory is evident throughout Pear Nova Studio’s sun-drenched, simultaneously spacious and intimate space. A canvas of white and wood is punctuated by a soothing but stylish palette of navy, blush and brass—colors echoed within Pear Nova’s extensive shade range. On a wall-mounted television, videos from the likes of Ari Lennox and Eryn Allen Kane play on a percussive loop, as guests lounge on plush velvet furniture while receiving or awaiting services.
But it’s more than style that makes the Pear Nova Studio experience so palatable; James has managed to elevate and expand upon the black beauty shop experience, creating an environment that is both casually luxurious and colloquially familiar...you can’t help feeling like you’ve been welcomed to your girlfriend’s house, and you’re welcome to stay as long as you like.
“I definitely wanted to create a space that was like nothing I had ever been to before,” James adds, both of us noting that it was a heretofore unfilled niche in Chicago. “I really wanted it to feel like you felt at home; you felt like you could relax; you feel like you can be loud and joke and laugh with whoever is next to you...but I also wanted it to feel intimate, too.”
As we chat, I’m treated to both a glass of wine and a test drive of Pear Nova’s newly-released 10-free gel shades. (I choose the gorgeous neutral Biscuits & Honey—and promptly forgot to photograph my flawless results). Meanwhile, in one alcove of the loft, natural hair artist Mo G braids a client’s hair, while on the opposite end, there is a designated space to have eyelashes done, faces waxed or even a Swarovski gem applied to a tooth. And while there’s no café in the open layout—which can easily accommodate events—James encourages the neighborhood vibe by welcoming in a number of homegrown food vendors to cater to her clientele.
The result is a one-stop-shop: nails done, hair done, everything did. But like James’ initial impetus to start Pear Nova, the genesis of the studio was organic.
“I wasn’t planning to open a studio; I was only looking for an office space,” she laughs, recalling how her former space was overflowing. Approaching the Lacuna owners about availability, they told her they had something special for her to consider. “And when I saw it, it was like, ‘Ohhhhh...I do want it.”
Now fully realized, the studio is quickly garnering a reputation as an urban oasis—a place to be pampered and restored, as I was at the end of a hectic week. And James is extending that ethos to her philanthropic efforts. In honor of Domestic Awareness Month, Pear Nova has partnered with The Nova Star Project, a nonprofit “devoted to educating, strengthening, and empowering domestic violence survivors by bridging the gap to a life of safety through comprehensive support services,” according to a release.
The cause is personal to James—and the mission fitting, considering the origin of her brand’s name. Named for her sister Nova and the admirably durable pear tree, James tells me the name “Pear Nova” represents resilience. All month, 10 percent of proceeds sitewide have been donated to The Nova Star Project (the Nullification of Violence in America), including the muted lilac shade “Muva’s Day” ($18.50) in honor of the color of Domestic Awareness Month. What’s more: On Sunday, Oct. 27, Pear Nova Studio will host its first NovaCare event, where survivors will be treated to a private pampering day, including services like manicures, pedicures, hair braiding, and eyebrow and lash services.
Having spoken with James about her love of our shared hometown, it’s clear NovaCare is the type of gesture that reflects her commitment to reinvesting here. And despite garnering a national following, it’s also the reason Chicago was the natural choice for her first studio.
“Pear Nova wouldn’t be what it is without Chicago,” she says. “if I was going to give it to anyone first, it would be Chicago.”
The Glow Up tip: For more information on Pear Nova and NovaCare, visit PearNova.com.