Shu Uemura: Creator of a global cosmetics brand
Wednesday 27 February 2008
Like Max Factor, Shu Uemura was a make-up artist who learnt his craft in Hollywood and turned his talent into a global brand. His big break came in 1962 when he was asked to stand in for an established make-up artist who had fallen ill while working with Shirley MacLaine on the film My Geisha. It was Uemura's task to transform MacLaine from a bubbly redhead into a Japanese beauty. The end result was incredible, applauded by both star and staff on set.
Uemura's reputation forged, he became make-up artist on a series of films with Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball and Edward G. Robinson. One of Uemura's most enduring memories was working with Frank Sinatra on location in Hawaii shooting the 1965 PoW blockbuster None But the Brave. Suitably impressed, at the close of filming, Sinatra presented Uemura with a make-up case with the inscription "Shu Shu Baby" – a take on the popular song "Shoo Shoo Baby" and an object Uemura cherished throughout his life.
At the height of his career, in the mid-1960s, Uemura returned to Japan to open a make-up studio saying, in retrospect: "It was time to change direction. I needed to teach what I had learned and to expand my own ideas." He founded his own company, "Japan Makeup Inc", built not on make-up, however, but on skincare. In 1967 Uemura created his first cleansing oil, which he called "Unmask", formulated to remove make-up without stripping the skin of its natural moisture. This became popular in Hollywood circles, finding fans such as Elizabeth Taylor and Lucille Ball. But it was not until 1983 that Uemura decided to relaunch the brand under his own name and opened boutiques around the world, including one in Covent Garden, London.
Born in 1928, son of a wealthy Tokyo merchant, Shu Uemura was diagnosed with tuberculosis after the Second World War and remained bedridden for five years. Having ample time to ponder his future, he decided to find "a profession that needed only minimal stamina and matched my interests and character in a field that nobody had ever tried before". On his recovery, he initially enrolled on a fashion design course but switched to Tokyo Beauty Academy and found himself the only male in a class of 130 females.
Being the odd one out worked to his advantage. "One day a film team on location from the USA asked the beauty school to provide an English speaker to assist with make-up," Uemura recalled. "The headmaster suggested they take me and that was the beginning of my work in cosmetics."
In 1999 Uemura achieved a long-standing dream to produce customised cosmetics when he set up his Atelier Factory in the Venus Fort shopping mall in Tokyo. Here, consultants would advise on lipstick, eye-shadow, blusher and cream foundation specifically mixed to suit the skin tone and taste of the individual. Uemura maintained a high profile in Japan, with a reputation on a par with Coco Chanel's in France.
A cash injection from L'Oréal – they acquired a majority stake in 2004 – meant the brand was launched in the United States, with branches in New York, San Francisco and Boston. Shu Uemura became a cult cosmetic label in the UK, selling in key department stores – Harvey Nichols, Liberty, Fenwick – and Space NK. Uemura compared the commercial partnership with L'Oréal to an aesthetic meeting of minds: "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'Oréal is playing the role of my Medici family very nicely."
Celebrity endorsement was never high on Uemura's list of priorities. However, his handcrafted Botan brushes were used on the set of Memoirs of a Geisha, the Shu Uemura 24-carat gold eyelash curler is a favourite of Gwen Stefani and the Depsea Water facial spray is used by Madonna.
Shu Uemura's vision for his products remained unchanged. "My philosophy is to combine science with art and nature," he said in 2001. "My hope is to bring youthfulness to women."
Shu Uemura, make-up artist: born Tokyo 1928; married (one son); died Tokyo 29 December 2007.
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