Hailing from a conservative family of businessmen and bankers, as a young man in occupied Japan, Shu Uemura dreamed of becoming an actor. But, fearing that his weak constitution would hamper his chances of success, he instead enrolled at Tokyo Beauty Academy — the only man in a class of 130.
In 1957, a makeup artist on the set of a Hollywood production being filmed in Tokyo, came to the school in search of a male assistant. Uemura’s career as a makeup artist was launched.
After three years fashioning the onscreen faces of famed Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Edward G. Robinson, Uemura, who turned 78 last month, found widespread fame when he transformed Shirley MacLaine from a sassy redhead into a sultry maiko (trainee geisha) for the 1962 flick “My Geisha.”
His success in Hollywood led him back to Japan in 1965, when he established the Shu Uemura Makeup Institute, a makeup school where he began to impart the experience he gained across the Pacific.
Then, two years later, Uemura made his first foray into the world of business, when he launched upon the Japanese market his signature cleansing oil based on the makeup remover that cosmetics professionals and actresses in Tinseltown swore by.
Nowadays, Uemura is credited with aligning the world of cosmetics more closely with that of fashion; his Mode line, launched in 1968, was the first cosmetics brand to release two collections per year in sync with the catwalk shows.
Since then, his business has grown into a multi-million-dollar global enterprise, which became part of the L’Oreal Group in 2003. Although no longer directly in charge of the day-to-day operation of his brand, the silver-haired beauty guru still keeps busy, overseeing hair salon Masato, chocolatier Richart, lifestyle store De la Rose, the Immudyne range of health supplements and the Utoco Beauty & Healthy Water bottled-water business.
Even now, though, the love for the stage that Uemura harbored as a young man remains strong: He cites contemporary ballet as one of his richest sources of inspiration, and is renowned for demonstrating his art in front of an audience with a steady hand that belies his advanced years.
The sprightly septuagenarian met with The Japan Times at his boutique on Tokyo’s brand boulevard of Omotesando, where he spoke with enthusiasm about his Utoco Deep Sea Therapy Center and Hotel, his life and his work spanning the last half-century.
How did it feel to work as a Japanese in Hollywood in the 1950s and ’60s?
It was right at the close of the heyday of Hollywood, and there was an incredible sense of awe, like walking into a royal palace. There were all sorts of culture shocks, and lots of new discoveries.
Who was the most interesting star you worked with?
Edward G. Robinson, who was most famous for his gangster roles. In the dressing room he was always so funny, he always made me laugh and was always very considerate.
But I’ll never forget how, on my birthday, Frank Sinatra presented me with a makeup box on which he had written “Shoe, Shoe Baby” — at the time the song was a big pop hit. I still treasure it to this day.
Nowadays, you are a great advocate of deep-sea water. Can you explain what is so special about it?
Water is an essential part of all living things, and it’s an essential part of cosmetics, too. Of course, water is very different depending on where it comes from. For my cosmetics, we use water that’s drawn from deep parts of the ocean.
Scientists have been studying this for over 100 years. In Japan, they found only a couple of places where it’s possible to extract this water from the ocean; one is off Saga Prefecture in Kyushu, the other is off the city of Muroto in Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku — which is where we get our deep-sea water from.
That water starts life as ice in Antarctica, then it melts and travels around the Earth in slow-moving currents. It takes about 2,000 years to make one circuit. It’s very different from the mineral water that comes out of springs like those in France: it’s very clean and very rich in minerals.
How is deep-sea water incorporated into your cosmetics?
Well, we take the salt out while keeping the goodness. Then we add a gentle, natural scent.
The idea of spraying water first came from air stewardesses. They used to spray mineral water on their faces on long flights because the air conditioning in the cabin would dry their skin. But that was mountain water; we use sea water, which is even easier for the skin to absorb.
How is the water extracted from the sea?
There’s a pipe running 3,000 meters out into the sea, which then goes 300 meters down. There, at the edge of the continental shelf, deep-sea water comes up from the seabed — about 1,000 meters down — toward the surface, and that’s where the researchers found they could siphon up the water.
What is the concept behind your new spa hotel in Muroto?
I wanted to create a place where people could relax and revitalize their bodies, to get back to full health after becoming run down; a place for rejuvenation. It’s not just the water that’s great about Muroto, where the hotel is located — the sea breeze, the sun, the sounds of nature, they’re all very good for the body, especially the skin.
We serve food from the local area. The concept is all about health and beauty, so we do a lot of wholesome, organic food. But it’s all very tasty!
How long has it taken to build?
It took 18 months to build, but the project has taken seven years to bring to fruition. We had to do a lot of research and get the consent of the local community.
How has your life changed since you inked the deal with L’Oreal?
Before, I was traveling on my own little boat; now I’m on a very big ship. Before, I could determine the direction and everything, now I have security, but some things are not quite the same. Still, they’re giving me a much bigger stage to perform on. You really need lots of capital and manpower to succeed in this business these days.
We always used to take a lot of risks, but we can’t do that so much now. Still, I think among the brands in the L’Oreal stable, we take the most risks.
Now we’re doing lots of exciting things, like collaborating with artists such as Ai Yamaguchi and John Trembley on special package designs.
At the end of the day, if we can create better things, it’s a good deal, and I think that’s happening for us.
Is there anything you’re dissatisfied with regarding the L’Oreal deal?
Well, L’Oreal is a global company with a much bigger, worldwide target than we had, so there’s a little less discretion for us now [in marketing terms].
But we’re still developing new products and inventing new things. I see my work as being like that of an artist. I have that kind of passion for creation. Art is about imagination, and I do a lot of invention — creating something unique. We still have that spirit, that passion, and as long as we don’t lose that, everything is just fine.
Just like in the Renaissance, artists could only create because they had patrons, like the Medici family. I guess I’m in a similar position — I need a rich patron to continue with my creations, and L’Oreal is playing the role of my Medici family very nicely.
Are you still trying to come up with new ideas and inventions?
Oh yes, there are a few things I’ve got planned. Sometimes, it doesn’t come so easily and I feel a lot of pressure. You know, Hubert de Givenchy felt so much pressure to create new designs for the next collection that his hair turned white overnight. Sometimes I feel like that!
I have an on-stage makeup demonstration performance coming up soon, so I’m preoccupied with that at the moment.
You are involved in a lot of businesses, so how do you deal with that?
I approach business as if it were art. I always try to be creative and put lots of color into it, so it’s a lot of fun.
Do these other enterprises provide you with inspiration?
Sure. I find that the other businesses complement my main job. For example, the hair-salon business: You can’t have a beautiful face without beautiful hair, so it’s good to understand that world. My approach to beauty is holistic; we say “Beautiful makeup starts with beautiful skin.” If one part of you looks good, the others will look good, too. That philosophy goes back to Aristotle, and his proposition that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
That’s how I feel about my side businesses.
Do you ever feel like retiring?
Sometimes when I’m really busy I do feel like retiring, but I would never contemplate packing it in completely. I hear from other business owners that they spend their time sailing yachts and having fun. They ask me why I don’t do the same thing. Well, taking a break is nice, but I like my work, I’m really happy in my work, living like this.
What’s your day-to-day schedule?
I get up around 6 a.m. and I take two hours in the morning to get ready. I hear that a lot of businessmen come to work earlier than their employees these days, but I come to work at about 9, just like everyone else.
Do you still practice your makeup techniques?
Not really. In the beginning it’s about technique, but when you’ve mastered that, it’s about feelings, about your heart. That’s especially true for performances. I put on some music — pop music, whatever’s in the charts — and be as creative as I can.
Do you still do the makeup for your ad campaigns?
Yes, I don’t do the art direction, though; they have better men to do that now! For the latest campaign [photographer] Satoshi Saikusa came over from Paris. He very kindly made time in his busy schedule. He said he was very happy to be able to work with me, which was very good of him. Now I have to start thinking about the next campaign.
What’s coming up for the Shu Uemura brand in the future?
We’re opening a beauty emporium called Shu Sanctuary in the new Tokyo Midtown Project complex when it opens in Roppongi next year. It’s going to be just across from a museum showcasing the work of [fashion designer] Issey Miyake. Apparently, he’s been wanting to do that for over 10 years. Now it’s finally going to become a reality.
Are there any other Japanese creators who you respect?
The people who I respect are people with a singular vision, like [Comme des Garcons founder] Rei Kawakubo and [fashion designer] Yohji Yamamoto. I guess everybody feels the same way, but finding success is about finding people to believe in you. It’s not just about the creations, you need good people-skills and a bit of luck, too.
What are your plans for the future?
Working to nurture a new generation of creators through a school — not a big one, just a little school. I prefer small numbers. Education should be heart-to-heart, face-to-face. That’s how I want to do it. Anyway, for me, that’s what I think would be fun.