AUDREY (April / May 08)
This June, Shu Uemura, the man behind his eponymous line of cosmetics, beauty and skincare products, would have turned 80 years old. But on December 29 of last year, Uemura passed away in Japan, succumbing to pneumonia.
Perhaps best known for the eyelash curler that bears his name – a staple of makeup artists and women everywhere (with even a mention in the film The Devil Wears Prada) – Uemura’s contributions to the world of cosmetics went beyond mere makeup, skincare and, indeed, the very concept of beauty.
As a child growing up in Tokyo, Uemura dreamt of becoming an actor. But when he contracted tuberculosis as a young adult, he was sent away to a hospital in the mountains, where he remained for eight years. Though he bested the disease, eventually returning to live in Tokyo, the illness left him with scarred lungs and in a weakened condition that effectively ended thoughts of an acting career.
Displaying the progressive thinking that would typify his entire career, Uemura decided to enroll in beauty school. It was the 1950s. He was the lone male in a class of 130 students at Tokyo Beauty Academy. But no matter – he’d become interested in art while sequestered in the mountains and viewed makeup as another form for expressing his creativity.
Maybe he was always fated to become famous. Born in 1928, Uemura was a Dragon, considered one of the luckiest and most powerful signs of the Asian zodiac. Whether such astrology is to be believed or not, he got a fortuitous opportunity in 1955 when someone from the set of Joe Butterfly, an American movie being shot on location in post-war Tokyo, came to the beauty school looking for a male assistant. Uemura was hired.
The chance encounter led to Uemura moving to Los Angeles and embarking on a career as a makeup artist, becoming a favorite of such celebrities as Frank Sinatra and Edward G. Robinson. In 1962, Uemura experienced a Hollywood moment of his own when Michael Westmore, the original makeup artist tasked with turning Shirley MacLaine into a Japanese courtesan for the movie, My Geisha, got sick. Uemura stepped in and engineered a transformation of the American actress. Notwithstanding the larger social implications, the effect was astounding for its time and brought him instant acclaim. Looking back on the experience, MacLaine writes on her website:
“Attaching gauze, spirit gum and liquid adhesive to the corners of my eyes made them look slanted. Strings were then attached to the gauze and pulled tight around my head. I remembered my temples getting so raw from ripping off the gauze that at the end of the picture they had to shoot me from the other side so that the red raw flesh wouldn’t show.”
Uemura was nothing if not innovative. In 1965, he returned to live in Japan and started the Shu Uemura Makeup Institute, the first of its kind to teach Hollywood-style makeup artistry in his native country. He also started a business importing American cosmetics and opened the first Beauty Boutique in the trendy and upscale Omotesando district of Tokyo. Later, more boutiques would follow in London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles. He also established a laboratory to develop his own cosmetics and skincare products, the results of which – it would not be an overstatement to say – revolutionized the beauty industry.
While Hollywood makeup artists had, for years, been using an oil cleanser to remove heavy theatrical makeup, Uemura formulated a gentle oil-based cleanser that he introduced to Japan in the 1960s. It utilized a unique combination of botanical oils that lifted impurities without drying out the skin.
In the 1990s, Uemura introduced the world to the concept of incorporating deep seawater into cosmetics and skincare products, which he called “Depsea Water.” He had discovered that the waters off the coast of Cape Muroto in Kochi, Japan were unique in their high mineral composition, purity and softness. Uemura built a factory in Cape Muroto to develop the use of the seawater that came from 200 meters below sea level and had been untouched by sunlight and pollutants.
In 2000, Shu Uemura and the French cosmetics company, L’Oreal, formed a business alliance.”The Shu Uemura company, one of the most original and modern luxury brands, was a fantastic opportunity for Mr. Uemura to enhance his presence around the world and for L’Oreal to nurture diversity and offer every woman around the world the beauty she aspires to,” Stephen Bezy, general manager for Shu Uemura international, explains in an email.
Bezy, who met regularly with Uemura, describes him as an extraordinary man and the most charismatic personality he has ever met. “Mr. Uemura used to say, ‘Art is essentially about imagination and that’s why my work can be linked to art – it is an imaginative exercise. But it was an art combined with science, as he was the first man who brought a state of the art approach to makeup and skincare,” Bezy adds. “He was truly a master of contemporary beauty and a unique inspiration to others.”
“He was a pioneer in the world of makeup. He revolutionized the beauty industry. He was the first to say, ‘Beautiful makeup starts with beautiful skin,'” explains Gina Brooke, who has been the artistic director for Shu Uemura USA since 2005. “Other cosmetic companies started with lipstick or foundation, but he started with skincare. He believed, as artists, the skin was our canvas and that it must be clean to start with. His cleanser is still the best to this day.”
Fourteen years ago when Brooke started out as a makeup artist, the first place she went to outfit herself was straight to Shu Uemura.”Everyone knows that you need the best tools in our business, and Shu Uemura had handmade brushes that applied makeup beautifully to the face.” (Brooke says she uses Shu Uemura products on such clients as Madonna, Naomi Campbell and, most recently, on David Beckham for his Giorgio Armani ads.)
Fran Cooper, a celebrity stylist who has worked in the industry for the past 30 years, concurs. “I love Shu Uemura products and have used them for many, many years,” she says. “The texture and quality of the makeup is great, the colorations in the lipstick, foundation and color palettes were very revolutionary.”According to Cooper, makeup artists have been passing Shu Uemura products around for decades.
And the famous eyelash curler? The patented design and silicone pad seem to make a difference. “It is the best eyelash curler in the world. The way it curls, it really works,” Cooper states. “There is not one makeup artist who doesn’t use it.” Cooper says she has used it on stars such as Janet Jackson, Cindy Crawford, Britney Spears and Tyra Banks.
Brooke was a freelance makeup artist when she met “Mr. Uemura” (as she still refers to him) in 2003. He was in New York to give a makeup show – a concept largely unknown to Americans. Brooke sat transfixed as she watched Uemura apply makeup to a model on stage in delicate strokes and touches – like a painter – that were choreographed to music. Afterward, he pulled off the cloth that had been draped around the model to reveal the entire effect of makeup, hair and attire. It was truly an artistic performance.
After the show, Brooke waited to meet Uemura at his hotel and says she has never been more nervous to meet anyone in her life. As an artist, he had always inspired her. When she finally met him and shook his hand, Brooke recalls, “I got chills.” It was, she proclaims, “like meeting the Dalai Lama of makeup. His energy was so beautiful; like one of those people whose presence creates such a calming tone, it’s overwhelming and hard to describe.”
Brooke says they collaborated on an idea she had for Madonna’s “Re-invention” tour. Brooke wanted to create a set of false eyelashes using mink that was not harmful and cruelty-free. They decided to use the mink hairs that fell out naturally from the animals. The effect created a sensation and, according to Brooke, “brought lashes back from the ’60s.” It also led to the creation of Shu Uemura’s “lash bar” where dozens of false eyelashes, in real and faux mink, are available. “Shu Uemura has the highest range of lashes in the world,” says Brooke, estimating that there are about 30 different kinds. Oprah is a fan, and according to Cooper, she orders them by the case.
“Shu Uemura’s makeup is not about painting colors. It’s about enhancing the beauty of your existing features,” Brooke explains. “And I wanted to use Madonna as a muse for that.” More recently, Brooke devised a pair of false eyelashes with diamonds on the lash line for Madonna’s “Confessions on a Dance Floor” tour.
When she was offered a job at Shu Uemura, Brooke says it was a “dream come true.” She had the privilege of working with Mr. Uemura and notes they shared a penchant for hot water with lemon. “Something about him makes you want to be the best,” she says. “His career and his life exude passion, innovation and inspiration.”
Most recently, Brooke and Uemura collaborated on the 126th collection of the company’s Mode Makeup Collection. Introduced as a wholly new concept in 1968, Mode Makeup is best described as an exploration of art through the vehicle of makeup. Each season, Uemura unveiled a new collection comprised of an artistic design and correlating palette of colors.
Asked how Uemura was able to be creative all these years, Misumi Kitano, Shu Uemura’s manager of education and events who has known Uemura for 17 years, is mystified. “This is a question that I wish I could have heard him answer,”she writes in an email. “Maybe it was his passion for finding new things and being positive about the future. Even the last time I saw him in New York, he asked me, ‘What’s new in New York?'”
Ironically, the last collection that Uemura worked on as for Spring 2008, named “Rebirth.” The collection, explains a press release, was inspired by an abstract drawing made by Mr. Uemura, of flowers and greens in nature, signifying pastels with names like Spring Breeze, Yellow Elation and Pristine Green. Blushes are called Harmonious Orange and Tranquil Pink.
Somehow the name of the collection seems apt. “His physical presence is gone, but his spirit will always live on with us,” says Brooke. “His philosophy is instilled in my heart: never stop improving, innovating, inspiring.”
Kakuyasu Uchiide, who worked closely with Uemura for 20 years and has been named the successor, considered him a teacher and father. “I deeply appreciate everything he has done for me and I will continuously develop the brand to make him happy. I strongly believe his spirit and his heritage will stay together with us.”
Cosmetics pioneer Shu Uemura defied convention and forever changed the face of beauty. STORY Helena Sung
“Art is essentially about imagination and that’s why my work can be linked to art – it is an imaginative exercise.”
– Shu Uemura
“He was a pioneer in the world of makeup. He revolutionized the beauty industry. He was the first person to say, ‘Beautiful makeup starts with beautiful skin.'”
– Gina Brooke, artistic director for Shu Uemura USA
He was in New York to give a makeup show – a concept largely unknown to Americans. [Gina] Brooke sat transfixed as she watched Uemura apply makeup to a model on stage in delicate strokes and touches – like a painter – that were choreographed to music. Afterward, he pulled off the cloth that had been draped around the model to reveal the entire effect of makeup, hair and attire. It was truly an artistic performance.
Photo (from top to bottom):
1. Shu Uemura
2. Models wearing dramatic and fantastical false eyelash creations from Shu Uemura’s Tokyo Lash Bar collection. There are more than 50 different lash styles available, and they’ve adorned celebrity clients such as Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Oprah, Alicia Keyes and Rihanna
3. Shu Uemura’s new spring 2008 line “Rebirth,” the 126th collection of Uemura’s Mode Makeup Collection – his last
4. Gina Brooke, artistic director of Shu Uemura USA with Uemura
5. Uemura applies mascara on a model
6. Uemura applies makeup to a model using colors from the Rebirth collection
7. At work during a photo shoot for Rebirth. Uemura remained a creative force throughout his career