PARIS — Shu Uemura, the celebrated Japanese makeup artist and founder of the Shu Uemura cosmetics brand, died of pneumonia Dec. 29. He was 79.
A private funeral was held in Tokyo Jan. 4 and a memorial service is planned there for Jan. 31.
Uemura was a pioneering figure in modern makeup artistry, favoring an artistic approach to beauty. He promoted Japanese traditions and a brand philosophy that focused on healthy skin as the foundation for beautiful makeup.
“We are all extremely affected by this very sad news,” said Jean-Paul Agon, chief executive officer of L’Oréal, in a statement Tuesday. The firm has had management control of the Shu Uemura brand since 2004. “Mr. Shu Uemura was an extraordinary individual with whom we had the great privilege of working with great passion and enthusiasm over a seven-year period.”
Uemura, who built his brand around the idea of fusing science and the art of beauty, started his career in 1955 when he was hired as a makeup artist’s assistant for the Hollywood film “Joe Butterfly.” Recognition on the international stage came when he transformed Shirley MacLaine into a geisha for the 1964 movie “My Geisha.”
Upon returning to Japan in 1965, Uemura founded Japan Make-up Inc., which imported American makeup into the country. In 1968, he created the concept of Mode Make-up, seasonal makeup collections, which come out twice a year. He summed up the brand’s philosophy as: “Mode has the right to break rules.”
In 1982, Japan Make-up changed its name to Shu Uemura and the following year Uemura opened his first boutique in Tokyo’s Omotesando district. A store in Paris’ Saint Germain des Prés neighborhood was inaugurated in 1986. From that year, he expanded the brand’s international presence with boutique openings in New York, Los Angeles, Taiwan, Milan and London.
Typically modest, Uemura played down his role as one of the leaders of the modern makeup artist movement during an interview with WWD in 2003.
“I’m just one makeup artist — I think the current industry came about as a result of supply and demand,” he said. “But to combine art and pleasing people — it is one of the highest forms of gratification.”
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Uemura was also reluctant to take credit for his best-selling treatment product, a cleansing oil he began touting in the early Seventies.
“It actually was based on a product given to me by Ben Lane, another makeup artist, during our days in Hollywood,” Uemura said in 2003.
After returning to Japan from Hollywood, Uemura began importing the oil, then gained the rights to it. The oil remains one of the brand’s emblematic products and a celebrity favorite.
“I met this woman in Paris years ago — I think she’s an actress here — and she said she loved my cleansing oils. So many years later, she still buys them here. Her name is Lauren Bacall,” Uemura recalled in all earnestness in 2003. “Do you know of her? She’s famous, isn’t she?”
Uemura was something of a celebrity himself within the cosmetics world.
“He had a vision and color sense like no one else,” said makeup guru Mary Greenwell.
“He led the way,” added makeup artist Hannah Murray. “He was the first person who looked at makeup in a scientific way — he looked at textures and a kaleidoscope of colors that had never been there before.”
Uemura also found a fan in Frank Sinatra, who once gave him a makeup box engraved with the words “Shu Shu Baby” as a birthday present.
On his birthday in 1998, L’Oréal approached Uemura about a business deal. After first taking a 35 percent stake in the Shu Uemura brand in 2000 through its Japanese subsidiary Nihon L’Oréal K.K., the French beauty giant raised its holding to 52.9 percent in 2004, thus gaining management control of the company.
The brand is present in 18 countries, with more than 350 points of sale, including 22 freestanding boutiques. The bulk of its sales are in Asia, led by Japan, followed by Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. Its international business, which represents more than two-thirds of sales, is rapidly expanding, L’Oréal said in the statement, driven by the fast-growing Chinese market, as well as dynamic growth in the U.S. and Europe.
Uemura continued sharing his artistic vision for the Shu Uemura brand with L’Oréal. He recently, for example, participated in the creation of a hair care line, dubbed Shu Uemura Art of Hair, which bowed in June.
“The brand will survive and grow further, exactly as Mr. Shu Uemura would have wished,” L’Oréal said in a statement. “The Shu Uemura team and L’Oréal will honor the memory of Mr. Shu Uemura and carry on his legacy around the world. We will nurture his heritage through the brand that carries his name, demonstrating to the whole world the finesse, the sensitivity, the delicacy and the refinement of Japanese culture, of which he was the perfect ambassador.”
Kakuyasu Uchiide, Shu Uemura’s international chief makeup artist, was Uemura’s disciple for some 20 years and is his chosen successor, L’Oréal said.
“We are absolutely certain that his highly trained successors are wholeheartedly committed to follow in his unique and inspirational footsteps,” said Agon.
— with contributions from Koji Hirano, Tokyo, and Brid Costello, London