Nails of New York: Doan Ly

March 31, 2019

Our newest Nails of New York features Doan Ly, an incredible florist and self-taught photographer who is known for the dreamiest of color combinations, beautifully unexpected compositions, and her graceful, joyful spirit. We visited her heavenly studio in Brooklyn to chat about her love of interesting color duos and her inspiring creative process. Read more to learn about how she tells compelling stories through her saturated photographs, why she first started getting manicures when she played a queen in Shakespeare play, and why having nice nails makes her feel like the boss that she is. 

Nails of New York: Doan Ly

How did you get into floral design, and subsequently photography?

I've always loved flowers. Ever since undergrad when I noticed how my sad dorm room could be transformed by just a single stem of flower, or by a plant placed in the corner. Flowers and plants became a way of life. I had many different jobs, but finally I found myself doing flowers part-time for a friend who started a plant shop business in Brooklyn. It took me seven years to get the courage to brand out on my own and start a.p. bio. I could never have imagined where it has led me. I feel very grateful. And tired!!

I had to teach myself photography when I started my own business as a way to document my work in hopes of getting, well, more work! I had no idea it would become my main creative engine. It was like I was given my voice! I wasn't even looking for it! It just found me through the camera. I come from a storytelling background having studied literature and performance, but never considered photography as my form of creative expression until I bought myself a camera. Now it's just so much fun.

Photography by Doan Ly

What is your approach to color?

My approach to color is to use them! I seldom use primary colors together, but everything else is fair game. I think I started using gloves because I wanted to use hands in my still life and they were such a fun way to make hands, already so expressive, even more highlighted through color. They become stylized and symbolic, reduced to the gesture, which gets magnified. 

When do you get your best ideas?

On the train, listening to music. 

What inspires you?

Hmm. Anything that puts a skip in my step or opens up my heart. Walk out the door. A shaft of afternoon light. Apricots for sale. Play some music. What colors are people wearing in that song? Old movies are great teachers, and paintings won't let you down. Other photographers will stretch how you see. Shakespeare. Words well-used. Color. Texture. On and on. Also, deadlines. 

Photography by Doan Ly

What's been the proudest or most exciting moment of your career?

I'm a small business owner and a creative. Paying the bills while being my own boss and exploring my artistic voice makes me super proud. Not easy, not easy at all. It means long hours and loneliness a lot of the time. But, I am learning something new everyday. If I can get through a hard day, I'm proud. If I can make time to take a photo, I'm proud. If I can make a photo that moves me, I'm proud. Each new client, each new collaboration and experiment. Each new interview and connection. It's so wild that I get to do this - I'm grateful for it all. 

Nails of New York: Doan Ly
Nails of New York: Doan Ly
Nails of New York: Doan Ly

What's your earliest nail memory?

I loved going over to my cousin's house in Minnesota growing up. She had a lot of nail polish colors. It's all wrapped up with childhood summer memories. I also played a Shakespearean queen once in a show. It was set in the 20s. I thought a queen had to have nice nails, so I had an excuse to get manicures every week throughout the run of the show. Now, I only get my nails done before I travel. I work with my hands and wreck them, so polish never stays. But when I am traveling and away from flowers, I get to have nice nice. To me, they signal vacation and adventure style. 

How did you pick your design?

 It was not easy since everything in the Paintbox look book is sooo fun. Anna, my nail artist, really helped me work it out. I was like a kid in the candy store and she really had to reign me in. 

How does your manicure make you feel?

Like a million! It makes me feel confident and put together. Classes up any outfit whether I'm dressed up or just in a sweater and jeans. I always feel like a boss lady if I have nice nails. 

Photography by Doan Ly 

Three things you're into right now?

1) Running! It's torture and I run about as fast as walking, but it really helps me clear my head. 

2) Making short, lo fi music videos. I make my assistants star in them. Often slo-mo. Sometimes just trains. I get completely engrossed. It's the most focused flow I ever experience when I'm making these. And It's just for fun! I often come up with ideas for these when running. 

3) Sleeping in! I am at low season right now and really enjoying not setting the alarm. I go through bouts of working 14 to 17-hour days for months on end, so when I get a stretch of time to have slow mornings, it's heaven. 

Photography by Doan Ly