Its color has been likened to black cherries and dried blood. It was prohibitively pricey yet prodigiously popular. It was subversive, inappropriate, and hard to find, but everyone was wearing it. It’s the most famous nail polish of all time: Vamp.
Back in the 1990s, a casual consumer like myself couldn’t turn to Wikipedia to uncover the backstory of Chanel’s run-away hit, which quickly became their top-selling cosmetic and, according to some sources, the fifth best-selling nail polish in the world at the time. But today, a quick search turns up several tantalizing details about the origins of this trend-setting nail polish.
Vamp was created in 1994 by Dominique Moncourtois, the director of makeup creation at Chanel, at the behest of Karl Lagerfeld, who wanted a dark nail polish that would show up in black-and-white photos of Chanel’s 1995 Spring/Summer Ready-to-Wear collection.
Lacking a dark polish that would fit the bill, Moncourtois painted his models’ nails with red polish, then scribbled over them with a black marker. The new color was an overnight success. It was such a big hit that it was chosen as Uma Thurman’s nail color for the film Pulp Fiction.
But is any of it true?
A surprising number of these Wikipedia “facts” come from a 2000 article in Singapore’s The Straits Times — an article that currently can only be accessed via a website maintained by the National Library Board of Singapore. If you want to read the text, you have to go to Singapore, head to a library, and sit yourself down at one of the agency’s designated computers, which are the only machines allowed to access the original story. Most of the other sources cited on Wikipedia are similarly hidden behind newspaper paywalls and other subscription-based access blockers.
To separate fact from myth, let’s ditch Wikipedia and take a close look at the history of one of the most influential and glamorous cosmetics of all time.
Myth: Dominique Moncourtois invented Vamp for a black-and-white photo shoot
Fact: The first question that occurs to any nail-polish-wearer who has fiddled with the black-and-white filter in Instagram is, why would this be necessary? Regular red nail polish shows up just fine in black-and-white photos. Observe:
Leaving that aside, the secondary myth that Vamp “was invented on the fly backstage before the 1994 autumn ready-to-wear collection,” as Peter Philips, Creative Director of Chanel Makeup, recalled in a 2011 interview, is suspect at best. And, in fact, Philips debunks this myth in the same interview, in which he discusses the origin of the shade with Chanel’s Director of Makeup Creation Heidi Morawetz. Morawetz worked with Moncourtois on Chanel’s 1994 Autumn/Winter Ready-to-Wear show (note that it was the 1994 Autumn/Winter show, not the 1995 Spring/Summer show as Wikipedia records).
Morawetz recalled, “I had seen a photograph in black-and-white, and in black-and-white, eyes and nails turns black. I thought maybe we should do something for the nails like that. … We had to do it fast, in two days before the show.”
So, not for a photo shoot, not at the request of Karl Lagerfeld, and not because red nail polish wouldn’t show up in a black-and-white photo.
Myth: Vamp was created by drawing with a black marker on red nail polish
Fact: Though this sounds exactly like something I, a churlish teen in 1994, might have done some rainy Thursday night after pining over magazine photos of unobtainable Vamp, it seems unbelievable that professional makeup artists at one of the leading fashion houses of all time would resort to such makeshift goth improvisations before a critically important fashion show attended by buyers and press from around the world.
Again, in the 2011 interview, Morawetz clarified that markers were not involved in the formulation of Vamp, which was originally given the name Rouge Noir. “We did this black Rouge Noir in our kitchen, Dominique and myself. Don’t ask me how the quality was. … We did our pigments ourselves, and very often we did the mixing ourselves. The manicurist said, “What is this terrible quality that you’re giving me here?” But we had to do it fast, in two days before the show. And then in the lab, they made it nice, of course.”
Myth: Uma Thurman wore Vamp in Pulp Fiction
Fact: The Pulp Fiction timeline doesn’t match up with the Vamp timeline. According to Vanity Fair, “principal photography for the 51-day [film] shoot began on September 20, 1993.” That’s a year before the advent of Vamp. The film’s release in theaters on September 23, 1994, coincided perfectly with the start of the Vamp craze, but it was too late to be an early adopter of the nail polish.
In its 2018 obituary for Morawetz, the New York Times threw cold water on the lore surrounding Mia Wallace’s eye-catching nails, citing the possible source of the long-standing rumor. “The nail polish was said by Peter Philips, who worked with Ms. Morawetz at Chanel, as well by as others in the makeup industry, to have been worn by Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Pulp Fiction in 1994 — although others say that the shade Ms. Thurman wore, while similar, was created for the movie and was not the color Ms. Morawetz helped create.”
And then … Vamp vanishes
One mystery, unsolvable either by Wikipedia or the powers of myth-busting, remains. Why did Chanel discontinue Vamp not long after it became a household name?
“Vamp was Chanel’s best-selling product ever, which made the company’s decision to yank it from stores a few years later all the more baffling to its legions of fans,” writes Liza Darwin. “Popular and obscure products alike are shelved at whim. [But] some products receive a second life (like Vamp, which was revived in 2003 albeit with a different formula).”
The problem was, when it finally returned to stores, Vamp had changed. No longer the glossy, scorched-blood shade of the 1990s, it now had a brownish hue and an unmistakably glittery sheen. Chanel’s explanation for the alteration to the classic color was weak at best: “The iconic nail polish is reformulated for longer-lasting, high-shine colour that cares.”
For reasons known only to the Chanel marketing team — about which Vamp inventor Morawetz said, “If we listened to a marketing team, we would have never created Rouge Noir” — the brand had been split into two different shades: Vamp and Rouge Noir. As The Cut observed in 2015, Rouge Noir is “a truer match to the original creme Vamp before it was discontinued and then re-released.” So today, Rouge Noir is Vamp, and Vamp is something else entirely.
If that wasn’t perplexing enough, both brands were given the same product number.
“In the [United] States, No.18 Vamp was now a different shade compared with the classic No.18 Rouge Noir. Yes, they’re both still marked-up as No.18, which is where plenty of confusion still lies,” Amy Lewis at Byrdie explained.
To summarize, if you want old-school Vamp, don’t buy Vamp. Buy Rouge Noir. Or do what Scottish Lass of Pointless Café did and get yourself a nearly identical and far cheaper drugstore product, like Mirror Mirror by SinfulShine. “I can’t believe I’m about to say this (you guys know I love my Chanels),” she writes. “But in this particular case, I actually prefer the SinfulShine because it’s just a tad lighter and actually reads like a vampy red on me in all lighting, while Chanel Rouge Noir reads black on me in some lighting. Yes, I know…heresy.”
These days, the Vamp knockoffs are closer to the color of 20th-century Vamp than 21st-century Vamp; the fakes have become more genuine than the real thing.
Imagine my surprise when I plunged into the depths of the classy freezer bag that houses my seedy nail polish collection and unearthed a bottle of the very same Mirror Mirror polish that is now more Vamp than Vamp itself. When had I acquired it? How long had it been hiding beneath generic reds and pinks, waiting to out-Vamp Vamp? And why on earth had I bought it?
That may be the biggest mystery of them all.
I guess, as with that other Chanel classic that I’ve written about, I can’t resist a genuine fake.
Speaking of fakes, check out my latest novel, False Memoir, a genuine fake memoir that combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can grab a copy on Amazon. It’s cheaper than a real memoir and a hell of a lot more entertaining.