Shiseido: Making-up history

By Janetta Mackay

Shiseido's role in beauty and its fusion of Eastern and Western ways goes more than skin deep.

Advertising billboards showed a brave new face, with blue eyeshadow and pink lips in the late 1950s and early 60s, where shades were developed to flatter Asian complexions. Photo / Supplied
Advertising billboards showed a brave new face, with blue eyeshadow and pink lips in the late 1950s and early 60s, where shades were developed to flatter Asian complexions. Photo / Supplied

For many New Zealand women a lacquer-red compact of cake foundation is a treasured cosmetic memory. For others it is still a daily favourite. The name on the box may be Moisture Mist, but the product is made by giant Japanese company Shiseido, unusually just for this market.

Company chairman Shinzo Maeda took time out on an international roadshow to celebrate Shiseido's 140th anniversary to acknowledge its enduring links with New Zealand. Speaking in Sydney last month, he said Shiseido was also marking the milestones of having been in Australia for 30 years and New Zealand for 40. The dominant beauty brand in Japan is focused on driving global growth, but its heritage underpins its approach to doing business everywhere.

"We are very appreciative of the fact that the New Zealand clientele has used and loved that [Moisture Mist] product for more than three decades," he told Viva.

Given that it is now six years since the company stopped manufacturing out of its Glen Innes, Auckland, factory in favour of Asia, this perhaps is a new twist on the maxim of thinking globally, acting locally. But with shared relationships central to the Japanese way, the links with New Zealand run deeper than corporate lip service. Mr Maeda says there is still a place for a "limited localised product". It helps, of course, that Moisture Mist's Beauty Cake still sells strongly, but Mr Maeda and the company's managing director for Australasia, Nobuyuki Takai, seem happy to keep making what for Shiseido is now a tiny sub-brand.

"Moisture Mist is well accepted, so in New Zealand we are going to develop further this brand," Mr Takai said. "This product is very suitable for New Zealand weather and New Zealand customers' skin."

I'm not so sure the same could have been said about the green veil I also used to sponge on to to my teenage skin in an effort to disguise redness, but this early version of a colour-correcting primer was quite the thing for a while, echoing the transformative impact of Shiseido's introducing coloured powder to the Japanese market at the beginning of the 20th Century. Back then cosmetics were limited to the geisha-inspired look - red lips and whitened skin. Shiseido removed dangerous lead from popular powders nearly 30 years before authorities finally banned the ingredient.

The company had its origins as Japan's first Western-style pharmacy and was the first big cosmetics company anywhere to grow from a pharmaceutical background. To this day it prides itself on melding Western science and Eastern aesthetics. This shows in its formulas and design standards, but the company has had a marked influence in the social history of Japan, pioneering new ideas not just in cosmetics but through retail and publishing ventures.

Japan got its first soda fountain and ice-cream parlour in 1902, then a series of Western restaurants, chain store selling concepts and children's clothes thanks to Shiseido, plus a host of revolutionary ideas about how modern women might look, dress and shop, partly promoted through its own magazines.

Shiseido was first introduced here after the wife of a distributor was impressed with its skincare during a visit to Japan. Moisture Mist itself was launched in 1978 aimed at an international market and with its packaging given a prestige look in the early 1980s by French creative director Serge Lutens. But it was here that the mid-priced range best took hold, in shades and a texture tailored for local skins.

For a decade New Zealand exported Moisture Mist to Thailand, Malaysia, Australia and the Pacific. When costs eventually led Shiseido to became the last of the major international cosmetic brands to cease manufacture in New Zealand, laying off around 25 remaining factory staff in 2008, local management persuaded head office in Tokyo to maintain the Moisture Mist line exclusively for New Zealand. Aside from a sub-brand in China and products specific to the Japanese market, Shiseido's other lines are all marketed internationally, including its youthful budget Za range.

Mr Maeda has overseen a more international focus for Shiseido. Its French-based perfumery arm Beaute Prestige International is behind a premium scent portfolio including Jean-Paul Gaultier, Issey Miyake, Narciso Rodriguez and Michael Kors and it has recently acquired American mineral makeup specialist Bare Escentuals after picking up cult cosmetics brand Nars.

With Japan's population ageing and conditions in Europe and America tough, Australasia is looked on as being in relative good shape with a growing population, but it is China that is the real pillar of growth. There are high hopes too for the other fast-emerging nations in Asia, for Russia and for Brazil, which is already the world's third largest cosmetic market. These markets are being eyed by pretty much every multi-national company, but Mr Maeda believes Shiseido's commitment to service through its beauty consultants, a concept known as omotenashi, leaves it well placed to fulfil customer needs. "The universal unchanging aspect is that women want to live rich lives and look beautiful."

To support this notion, the company has lifted its profile in fashion, using its respected makeup director Dick Page to collaborate backstage with international designers including Marc Jacobs. It is supplementing its labelling of makeup colours by code with friendlier names and has promotions planned for new eye and lip products.

Mr Maeda, who oversees more than 45,000 employees in 88 countries, is banking on payback from investing heavily in research and development. Five major centres are staffed by 1000-plus researchers in centres across the globe. A showpiece is a skin science collaboration with Harvard's Cutaneous Biology Research Centre.

Attention to the deeper action of ingredients has been a hallmark of Shiseido since founder Arinobu Fukuhara, the son of a traditional herbal medicine doctor educated in Western ways, left his post as chief pharmacist for the navy to found a business dynasty. He set up shop in 1872 in the recently fire-ravaged Ginza district of Tokyo, which quickly became the hub of a new urban environment, where roads had pavements and women ventured out and experimented with Western looks. Fukuhara introduced vitamin pills, breath freshener and cake toothpaste to his country. In 1897 he began making skincare, starting with Eudermine skin softener, a hydrating lotion still sold in an updated formula.

His son Shinzo broadened the company's reach with hair tonic, hair oil, pioneering skin brightening products and the first commercial fragrances derived from Japanese flowers such as plum and wisteria blossom. Fifty years later, Zen perfume proved to be one of Shiseido's biggest hits when introduced to the West in the Sixties, in a distinctive black bottle decorated with gold cherry blossom.

Fukuhara junior, who studied pharmacology in Japan and the United States, invested in research, but also in art and philanthropy, influenced by time in Paris where he was sent to learn more about cosmetics but dreamed of becoming an artist. His photographs were acclaimed and he opened a gallery which continues to this day. On taking over the company in 1915 he separated the pharmacy, giving cosmetics its own retail store and opening a hair salon and spa. He also gave Shiseido its logo, based on one of his floral sketches. It is the camellia, a favourite symbol also of Chanel in France, but claimed earlier by Shiseido.

Fukuhara set up a design department which produced trail-blazing advertising incorporating jazz era imagery in an East-West fusion. He employed Frank Lloyd Wright to design the family holiday home but a few years after it was built in 1920 it was destroyed by an earthquake.

Over the decades Shiseido grew into a public company. Exports started in 1957, first to Taiwan, then a few years later to the United States.

Advertising billboards continued to show a brave new face to the nation, with blue eyeshadow and pink lips in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but in shades especially developed to flatter Asian complexions. By the late 1960s local models looked less like Western clones and two in particular, sun-tanned Beverly Maeda and sloe-eyed Sayoko Yamaguchi, became stars. Yamaguchi went on to be one of the first Asian models to achieve international success, noted in a Newsweek list of the world's top six fashion models and appearing on the cover of Steely Dan's 1977 album Aja.

By 1980, when Shiseido opened a French division, Japanese designers had made headway in Europe, helping its profile. Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto designed the uniforms of its counter staff throughout the 1970s and 1980s. But the highly stylised exotic look of its advertising campaigns, featuring a sun-motif, and its stylish packaging (as seen also in Moisture Mist) were the award-winning work of multi-talented Serge Lutens.

With a love of eastern culture and a fashion editorial background at Vogue and Elle he did much to shape Shiseido's modern brand image. These days he is known for boutique perfume making, a craft he began at Shiseido.

Skincare remains the heart of Shiseido. The company boasts more awards from the industry's version of the Oscars than any other cosmetic manufacturer. The International Federation of Societies of Cosmetic Chemists has 15 times given Shiseido a top award, last year for work on self-dissolving micro-needles of hyaluronic acid as an anti-wrinkle treatment. This delivery mechanism, developed for use in eye masks, is attracting attention in aesthetic dermatology.

Other breakthroughs include the first large-scale manufacture of moisturising hyaluronic acid and improved suncare standards and ingredients, including the first UVA protection and anti-ghosting zinc-oxide.

Mr Maeda hopes the company's suncare and sophisticated technology will become better known in Australasia. He says the company's strength is being innovative and adaptable while maintaining a consistent philosophy. In a world where consumers are wary of corporate standards, he wants the company to be as trusted overseas as it is in Japan. "It's a precious asset to us."

The goal is to have half of its total sales from overseas markets by 2017, but first it must recruit new customers, by managing its proud Asian image in a way that grows its appeal. "We want our products to be loved by people around the globe."

Mr Maeda says the demanding Asian approach to skincare, with customers typically using more products than in the West and expecting aesthetic refinement, has much to offer.

"It comes down to education ... I think they have a more deeper consciousness or awareness of the skin, the condition the bare skin is in, they are very aware of the need to take really good care of it."

* If you are going to Toyko, you will still find Shiseido headquartered in the Ginza, where it is a drawcard destination, with a flagship cosmetics store plus salon and restaurant businesses, including a 21st century version of the Shiseido Parlour.

* Check out Viva's brand new Facebook page, the place to find out what's hot in fashion, beauty, food, wine and design.

- NZ Herald

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