NEW YORK — Shu Uemura was one of the seminal leaders of the modern makeup artist movement, but he is shy about taking credit.
“I’m just one makeup artist — I think the current industry came about as a result of supply and demand,” he said modestly. “But to combine art and pleasing people — it is one of the highest forms of gratification.”
The 75-year-old Uemura, casually clad in a white button-down shirt, blue jeans, a black sports jacket and black running shoes, said when he started in the industry as a Hollywood makeup artist in the mid-Fifties, “being a makeup artist wasn’t a profession. I always wondered if I’d be able to be self-sufficient doing it.”
In fact, Uemura’s alternative career options included running a cleaning service. “Not that I’d be the one pushing the mop, but a clean, happy environment helps contribute to happy living,” he said. Becoming a fashion designer or an interior designer were other options. “I wanted to be a pioneer — to do something different,” he said.
And does he feel he’s succeeded? The perfectionistic Uemura said he’s still not quite satisfied with a few formulations, and he’d like his next act to include bringing nutritional supplements to his home turf of Japan. “There are so many nutritional supplement options in the U.S., but few in Japan,” he said. “I’d like to change that. Beauty has to start from the inside out.” And while he’s earned the right to kick back and enjoy his successes, Uemura isn’t planning on doing so anytime soon. “To be honest, the business is like a relay race,” Uemura said. “You have to have someone to pass the baton to. And my son is a businessman — he doesn’t touch faces. At least not for money.”
Uemura, who was in town this week for the New York ready-to-wear collections — of which his company is the official makeup sponsor — also didn’t hesitate to weigh in on the makeup coming down the runways. Overall, he’s of the opinion that makeup for the shows is pure theater.
“You are not working with a blank canvas — you are working with someone’s face,” he said. “Even when you are trying to be daring and creative, you need to find something that looks pretty to the majority. I look at what some of the makeup artists are doing [for the shows] now and there seems to be a desire to shock, rather than to prettify. I think makeup should be simple, yet rich. Makeup for the collections is very formal, very stylized.”
Still, he says, “I find it gratifying that the makeup artists are reaching out like that.” As he said when his company signed the sponsorship deal in 2002: “Fashion Week is a showcase of creative endeavors from both the established and emerging talent that New York has to offer. Essentially, Fashion Week is a birth and evolution of new ideas; since the beginning of my career I have always been interested in the birth of some new idea. I then strive for the quality and authenticity that will shape that idea into a product or tool.”
But does show makeup create trends for average women to follow? Uemura doesn’t think so. “Makeup at fashion shows reflects the identity of the designer,” he said. “Designers are in a constant search for identity — a makeup artist serves to follow and enhance. Makeup at the shows is for the designer’s ego identification, or to make his product look better. Women should not look at the shows so literally. The average woman should take the spirit of the show and just use that. Makeup is like a restaurant menu — you can order à la carte.”
As far as upcoming makeup trends for real women, “I don’t think that the drama of makeup will continue [in the coming years],” said Uemura. “We’ve reached a watershed mark. A more natural look will come back — those beigy-brown shades, perhaps with a one-feature focus again. Perhaps focusing on the eyes and neutralizing the rest of the face, or focusing on the lips, and neutralizing the rest of the face. I challenge myself periodically to do the perfect natural face, but I haven’t yet reached that point of satisfaction.”
Another item on Uemura’s wish list: increasing awareness for his skin care business in the U.S., where the brand is available at Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, Takashimaya, Sephora and select Nordstrom doors, as well as its own boutique.
“Anyone who cares about makeup, or is even remotely interested in makeup, needs to work with their skin,” said Uemura. “Even the best color does not look good if you do not have good skin. If you have good skin, then color is simply gilding the lily.”
His key skin care product is a cleansing oil he’s been touting since the early Seventies. However, Uemura doesn’t take the credit for discovering the oil. “It actually was based on a product given to me by Ben Lane, another makeup artist, during our days in Hollywood,” said Uemura. After returning to Japan, Uemura began importing the oil, then gained the rights to it. Around 1970, he began tinkering with the formula, which has been continually revised over the years as new ingredients have become available.
“I am preaching gospel to the heathens about cleansing oil,” he said. “I’ve converted the Japanese — now my mission is to change things here in the U.S. Think of it as good oil that’s neutralizing bad oil. The best way to remove one thing is often with the same thing.”
Of course, there are a few Americans who have already been converted. “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. Do you know of her? She’s famous, isn’t she?” he said in all earnestness.
“We add things to our skin care to take care of our skin as it ages, but most important is what we take away,” said Uemura. “We must use products that eliminate toxins, ridding them like junk mail, before we can add anything else. The skin can also provide for itself, rejuvenate, after you’ve subtracted the negatives.”
These days Uemura is perhaps best known in the U.S. for top-of-the-line brushes and color. “People always tell me that they love my brushes and that they have had the same ones for decades. On the one hand, I’m very flattered, and I always thank them graciously. But I’m running a business here,” he laughed. “They should replace them. I am often praised for my brushes, but I am not the Fuller Brush Co. — I want to be praised for my cleansing oil. And I get the greatest satisfaction being praised for my color. I heard the Rouge 4 Lipstick does very well here, and that makes me happy.”
Uemura is also in the process of revising his foundation line. “The two most important elements of foundation are texture and color,” said Uemura. “You have to address the skin first, then how color reacts to the light, so that you don’t end up with an unnatural finish.”
Uemura’s passion for perfection in his products has been enhanced since he began partnering with L’Oréal. In November 2000, Uemura inked a deal that gave a 35 percent stake in Uemura’s company to L’Oréal’s Japanese subsidiary, Nihon L’Oréal K.K., making L’Oréal the second biggest shareholder in the family-owned group. The deal also gave Uemura, known for being a perfectionist in regard to product formulations, access to L’Oréal’s research and development resources and the group’s worldwide distribution network.
Also as a result of the deal, L’Oréal took control of Shu Uemura’s international business, including the rights to the brand outside of Japan, and has increased its presence globally to more than 15 countries, including the U.S. and France. The brand’s freestanding boutiques include a SoHo location in Manhattan, and a door on Paris’s Boulevard St. Germain.
L’Oréal also provided a point of inspiration for Uemura’s spring 2004 color cosmetics collection when L’Oréal executives took Uemura to Thailand recently. “My winter collection was all about restraint, but this new collection is all about effervescent, very bright, positive colors,” he said. “The vividness of the colors in Thailand inspired me. I don’t know if it was the Buddhist influence, but the country was peaceful and gentle, and the colors were overflowing in their beauty.” The new color collection was previewed backstage at runway shows this week and will be on counter next March.