Chanel's Vamp Might Be the Most Sought-After Nail Polish in History—Here's Proof


(Image credit: @harrietwestmoreland)

Myths can be a big part of a beauty brand's DNA. Some of the most iconic beauty products are linked to an epic origin story. Take Benefit Cosmetics' Benetint Lip & Cheek Stain, which was initially made as a nipple tint for exotic dancers, or how La Mer was invented after its founder suffered burns in a lab accident. (He also consulted astrology and played a specific soundtrack while making each batch.) Then there's Chanel's Vamp aka Rouge Noir, which is a whole other ball game. The blood-red, almost-black shade was everything in the mid-'90s and hard to come by, as it was constantly selling out. Thankfully, there were tons of dupes for teens like me who didn't have a Chanel-friendly budget. Almost 30 years later, Vamp remains one of Chanel's best-selling nail polish shades. 

Vamp first debuted in March 1994 at Chanel's fall 1994 ready-to-wear show in Paris (an iconic collection that featured gold-chain cell phone and water bottle holders, which would later inspire Mona May's costume design in Clueless). Vamp's legacy includes a Chanel makeup artist coloring over a red nail with a Sharpie; another has Uma Thurman wearing the shade in Pulp Fiction. Though, neither seems to be true. 

Two days before the Chanel show, the company's director of the house's makeup-creation studio, Heidi Morawetz, and the international director of makeup creation, Dominique Moncourtois, mixed red and black pigments in Chanel's studio kitchen until they came up with the color. Morawetz told Interview in 2011 that she was inspired by how eyes and nails look black in black-and-white photos. When editors peeped at the models' gothic nails, it became an instant hit. "The journalists saw it in the show, and they thought it was incredible. 'What's this color?' The Americans did it right away because they could just put it on the counter. So it came out in America before it did here in Paris," recalled Morawetz.

The nail polish was initially called Rouge Noir but changed to the catchier and more marketable Vamp right before being launched into the market. The rest was history. Madonna was rumored to have dialed up Karl Lagerfeld for a bottle after seeing it at Chanel's S/S 95 runway show, where models wore it. The polish had a role in her music video for "Take a Bow." Demi Moore apparently tried buying a tester from a department store. Nicole Kidman wore it on the red carpet for the Interview With the Vampire premiere. In the 1996 lesbian neo-noir thriller Bound, Jennifer Tilly wore the polish. "It had just come out, and I went into Chanel, and they said, 'Oh, we only have one bottle. We're saving it [for] somebody, but they were supposed to pick it up yesterday. We're going to sell it to you.' It was called Vamp," she told Entertainment Weekly.

One of the most debated myths about Chanel Vamp is its alleged role in Quentin Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction. It's widely reported that Thurman's dark-red manicure came from Vamp. However, shooting took place over two months in the fall of 1993—four months before Vamp hit the runway—so the math ain't mathing. (Some believe she wore MAC's Dubonnet.) But Mia Wallace's manicure, whatever it was, helped popularize Vamp even more. After all, the film was a box-office success, earning $214 million, and turned Thurman into a bona fide style icon. In the past decade, writersYouTubersTikTokers, and nail polish bloggers have all debated the origin of Vamp. Earlier this year, I began investigating it myself, but there is still a lot of confusion and unanswered questions. Even Chanel's PR stated it was used in Pulp Fiction when I reached out for confirmation.

For the goths and punks of the '90s, dark nails were nothing new, but for the fashion set and average beauty consumer, they were edgy, innovative, and fresh. Vamp struck a chord because it was something of an outlier in terms of conventional nail polish. However, it wasn't the first dark red to hit the mainstream market. Essie's Wicked, which is often suggested as a dupe for Vamp, launched a year prior in 1993, according to a rep from the brand. 

As Vamp's popularity grew, Chanel released spinoffs, like the Vamp lipstick (it became a favorite of Drew Barrymore) and the nail polish shades Metallic Vamp, a silvery purple, and Very Vamp, a deep brown. As with all trends, Vamp's time in the sun would eventually come to an end. Vamp met its demise in 1997 during the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a scene, new girl Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is tested for her "coolness" and is questioned by a popular girl about Vamp's status. "Over?" she asks. "So over," her schoolmate responds. 

At one point, Vamp was discontinued, then came back later reformulated with a shimmery finish. The Vamp we knew and loved is now sold under its original moniker, Rouge Noir. In 2015, Chanel even celebrated Rouge Noir's 20th anniversary with a makeup collection called Vamp Attitude, which included eye shadow, two nail polishes, and a Rouge Noir lipstick. With the 30th anniversary just around the corner, I'm crossing my fingers that Chanel has something even bigger planned because the legend that is Vamp—or Rouge Noir—will forever live on. 

Ahead, shop more of our favorite blood-red shades that will make you feel vampy.

This post was published at an earlier date and has since been updated.

Marie Lodi
Freelance Beauty and Fashion Writer/Editor

Marie has covered beauty, fashion, and lifestyle for almost 15 years. She contributes to the beauty section here at Who What Wear. Previously, she was the Looks Editor for Bust Magazine, built the beauty vertical at HelloGiggles as its beauty editor, and was a founding staff writer at Rookie mag, giving fashion advice to teens. Her bylines have appeared in The Cut, Allure, Glamour, The Hollywood Reporter, and more. She was born and raised in Southern California and is based in L.A. Marie is a self-proclaimed costume design nerd and a co-host of Makeover Montage, a podcast about fashion in film and costume design. You'll see her writing about her beauty obsessions: red lipstick, winged eyeliner, pink hair, nail art, and skincare for people over 40. When she's not working, she's playing with her dog, Gnocchi, and writing her style newsletter, Overdressed.