Kyoto story

Tatcha founder Victoria Tsai reveals the beauty secrets of the geisha, writes Tama Lung

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 11:21pm

As the global cosmetics industry can attest, most women are on a quest for perfect skin. Victoria Tsai just may have found it - in the faces of Japan's famed geisha.

"I didn't know anything about geisha, I didn't speak Japanese, I was pregnant - and then one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen walked up to me, and she was so exquisite I actually cried," the founder of skincare brand Tatcha says of her first encounter with one of the traditional Japanese entertainers. "What impressed me about the geisha's skin is how baby-smooth and radiant it is despite how much of a burden they put on it, including heavy stage make-up and lack of sleep. Whether they're 20 or 80, the skin is truly porcelain-looking."

An American of Taiwanese-Chinese descent, Tsai is no stranger to Asian beauty. Her mother ran a luxury cosmetics store - where a 15-year-old Tsai had her first job - but would only use herbal remedies inspired by traditional Chinese medicine. "I was the stinky kid who walked around high school smelling like ginseng," Tsai says. "But gosh, I had good skin."

After a stint as a credit derivatives trader, Tsai enrolled in Harvard Business School and started working with global beauty brands to develop and market new product lines. She went on to work for Starbucks and a Silicon Valley start-up, but years of testing beauty products had left Tsai with acute dermatitis.

When a course of steroids and antibiotics failed to clear up her skin, Tsai returned to her roots - seeking out natural alternatives on trips to Asia. A search for traditional blotting papers led her to Kyoto's Gion district. One artisan led to another and another until Tsai found herself face-to-face with a geisha named Marikiku.

Tsai was soon introduced to a world of custom-blended beauty treatments made from camellia flower, red algae, rice bran and green tea. Having found the solution to her skincare woes, she pored through books and reference materials, hoping to trace the treatments back to their origins. All the signs pointed to a little-known, 200-year-old Japanese manuscript detailing the beauty rituals of the geisha.

Years later, Tatcha was born. The brand's gold-flecked "beauty papers" gained a cult following among make-up artists and celebrities. The Core Collection - a four-step skincare regimen that made its international debut in Hong Kong last month - followed, with products such as the water-activated Rice Enzyme Powder and liquid-silk moisturising cream.

Tsai goes to great lengths to honour the efficacy of the treatments found in the book while shunning the use of parabens, phthalates, mineral oil and other "awful" ingredients. She also consults geisha on every step of the process.

For the Buddhist Tsai - who says she created Tatcha because she wanted to "start doing something good" - the goal is to transform more than just women's skin. "I hope I can create something that lives beyond me," Tsai says. "I hope I can do something that my daughter will be proud of one day. I hope I can create a brand that makes Japanese people proud of their culture. And I hope I can create something that reminds Chinese people of how much wisdom we have that we sometimes forget about."