When skincare brand founder Victoria Tsai first met real-life geishas in Kyoto, she was taken aback by their delicate yet striking look – faces painted white and clad in elaborate kimonos.
“They were so beautiful I almost started crying,” says the Taiwanese-American, of her first encounter five years ago.
“I wanted them to tell me about their make-up and look into their bags.
“What I realised later on, after seeing their fresh faces without make-up, was that whether they were 20 years old or 80, they had amazing skin,” she adds.
Ms Tsai, now 35, found out that their beauty secrets were based on natural and time-tested ingredients such as camellia flowers, rice bran and green tea, which have antioxidants and moisturising elements.
This discovery led to the creation of Tatcha, a beauty brand based on the secrets of the geisha, a dwindling group of artisans schooled in the classical arts such as dancing, the green tea ceremony and playing instruments such as the shamisen.
TESTING ON HER OWN SKIN
Launched in 2009, Tatcha’s products have been featured in a slew of high-profile magazines such as Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Ranging from US$12 (S$15) for blotting papers to US$185 for a brightening serum, they are available at fashion emporiums Barneys New York in the United States and Joyce Beauty in Hong Kong, as well as globally at its online store www.tatcha.com.
In a phone interview with Urban, the married mother of a four-year-old girl admits that the Tatcha venture came about partly because of self-interest. The former credit derivatives trader on Wall Street went to Harvard Business School and interned at Proctor & Gamble while there.
To understand the retail landscape and research the competition, she tested products on her own skin, to disastrous effect. They left her skin covered in blisters, peeling and permanently sensitive.
“I wasn’t a pretty girl but had good skin. When I ruined it, I couldn’t look people in the eye. It impacts how you feel about yourself,” she says.
The only product she could use on her affected skin was Aquaphor, a Vaseline-like heavy ointment. She became a self-described “greasy monkey”, and turned to blotting papers to absorb the build-up.
She moved on to work for Starbucks and while helping to launch its business in China, she often travelled there via Tokyo and would pick up blotting papers, or aburatorigami, there.
She eventually left the corporate world to start up her own business. Interested in making the blotting paper that had been her own beauty lifeline more accessible overseas, she travelled to Kyoto after learning that the best blotting papers, with abaca leaf, were made there.
The beauty entrepreneur discovered that the blotting sheets – known for their absorbency – were known as beating papers because artisans hammered gold leaf in between the sheets.
Despite not speaking any Japanese, she convinced the gold leaf manufacturers to work with her and they, in turn, introduced her to some geishas who could explain more about how they were used.
In addition to the blotting papers, she learned about their naturally derived beauty rituals. After adhering to it for about two months, her afflicted skin cleared up completely.
She made a list of all the ingredients the geishas mentioned, did research in English and hired others to do research in Japanese and Chinese.
In the process, she discovered an often-referenced Japanese text, roughly translated as the Capital Beauty And Style Handbook, dating back to 1813.
Many of Tatcha’s beautifully packaged skincare products are now developed from information in the three-volume, seven-chapter book written by Hanshichi Sayama in the Edo period.
For example, Tatcha released an Indigo collection earlier this year based on the knowledge found in the book, which explained that samurai used to wear indigo-dyed garments to help heal wounds and injuries because the plant extract has anti-inflammatory properties.
Other bestsellers of the brand include items such as camellia cleansing oil, silk-infused moisturiser, and rice bran exfoliating powder.
The camellia cleansing oil
The San Francisco-based Ms Tsai visits Japan every year and has employees there and in the United States. She declined to reveal exact sales figures of the fast-growing company, but says that it has increased 300 per cent each year.
The Tatcha name reflects the brand’s ethos and her belief in simple, natural ingredients for beautiful, clear skin. It comes from the word tatchibana, which means standing flower, and illustrates the single stalk in an ikebana arrangement.
She says of the simplicity and elegance of the geisha that inspired the brand: “Beauty is when the excess is stripped away.”
ALL ABUZZ ABOUT HONEY
Most people will not go near a swarm of bees but Ms Hiromi Mizutani is not one of them.
The 52-year-old beauty brand founder says serenely in Japanese during a phone interview with Urban: “They have a scary image but they won’t attack, not unless they’re stepped on or provoked.”
The married mother of two boys is understandably respectful of these black and yellow insects as she is the head of Hacci, a skincare brand she founded in 2003 that is based on honey. The name comes from the Japanese word for bee.
Ms Mizutani, who lives in Tokyo, says honey has perfect properties for skincare, including brightening, moisturising and anti-bacterial elements. In fact, honey is one of the few products without an expiration date because of its strong anti-bacterial properties, she says.
Hacci offers honey-infused products such as facial soaps and cleansers, shampoos, conditioners, body creams and lip gloss. Prices range from 3,000 yen (S$37) for a cleanser to 10,000 yen for a set of sheet masks, and the products are available at department stores in Japan as well as the duty-free areas at the Narita and Haneda airports.
Looking back, it seems inevitable that Ms Mizutani would end up in the honey business, although she says it was not something she had originally envisioned.
EYEING OVERSEAS PROSPECTS
Her grandfather set up a bee farm in the Mie prefecture in 1913, which grew to a network of more than 30 farms. While Ms Mizutani did not live at a farm, bees were a continual presence at the periphery of her life.
She recalls crying from a bee sting as a child as well, though that experience did not leave a lasting negative impression.
“My mother always said honey was good for beauty, and told me to mix a little bit in my cleanser or shampoo,” she says.
While those habits were inculcated at a young age, she did not think much about them. She went on to study economics at a university in Kobe. After that, she took classes in cooking, ikebana and kimono-wearing.
The eventual beauty entrepreneur got married at 26 and became a housewife and mother. Then her husband, an executive at a machinery company, was posted to Beverly Hills in Los Angeles for work and she saw other women using honey in beauty treatments. That inspired her to start Hacci and spread the honey gospel in Japan.
“I just wanted to spread this knowledge to others, like among girlfriends,” she says, adding that she encourages people to add a pearl-sized amount of everyday honey to their cleanser or moisturiser.
The products use all kinds of honey, from lavender to white clover rose. Bestsellers include the honey facial soap, which is made up of 10 per cent honey, the cleanser and the body cream.
Hacci products have also made their way onto the Best Cosme ranking, a Japanese round-up of the best beauty products as voted by journalists and beauty insiders.
Ms Mizutani says customer reaction has been positive, though many people express surprise that honey can be used as a beauty product and not just for consumption.
She declines to reveal specific sales figures, but says the company has grown 150 per cent over the last three years.
Currently, the brand is available only in Japan, but she is eyeing the prospect of taking it overseas. The brand held a special preview for invited guests here in February.
Ms Mizutani, who has been visiting Singapore since she was a student, says the response was good and she is looking for a potential distributor here.
Haaci might just catch a ride on the honey wave, with other bee-related skincare brands, such as Apivita from Greece and Apicare from New Zealand, setting up shop in Singapore in recent years.
Apivita offers products made of propolis, a resin-like bee by-product, and Apicare specialises in products made with manuka honey.
“Beauty is the origin of my everything,” she sums up what drives her and the growth of Hacci.
“I want to be beautiful and elegant in life and I’m sure others do too.”
This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on July 11, 2014. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.