The edokko, the natives of Tokyo, have a special gift: an ability to push the envelope, to innovate, to pioneer. That was certainly true of Shu Uemura, who went from being the only man in his Tokyo beauty school class to Hollywood makeup legend to international entrepreneur. In convention-worshiping Japan, he defied convention and made his name and fortune by doing so.
Uemura, who died of acute pneumonia on Dec. 29 in Tokyo at the age of 79, sold controlling interest in his self-named brand to the French cosmetics giant L'Oreal for an undisclosed but enormous sum in 2003. But he continued to be the driving creative force behind the company. Until recently, Uemura twice-a-year personally demonstrated his makeup skills in public, showing off the latest in his Mode Makeup collections in Tokyo, London and sometimes New York City.
Heading for Hollywood to hone his skills, he found himself filling the archetypal role of the understudy who becomes a star. The head makeup artist on the film My Geisha wasn't available and Uemura had to step in and do Shirley MacLaine's face for the movie, transforming her Caucasian features into those of a Japanese courtesan. He soon became a favorite makeup artist among Hollywood stars, including such male celebrities as Frank Sinatra and Edward G. Robinson.
But women were his greatest audience. He returned to Tokyo in the late 1960s and marked his first big success with a specially formulated cleansing oil, inculcating to generations of women that oil, which preserves moisture, also left skin cleaner than soap. The health of a woman's skin, he believed, was paramount and Uemura's reputation was for enhancing natural beauty not artificially creating it.
In 1967 Uemura started a company called Japan Makeup, which began with a stylish, gallery-like boutique in Tokyo's fashionable Omotesando district. The company became Shu Uemura Cosmetics in 1983, riding the wave of the fast-growing Japanese economy, taking advantage of the country's overflowing consumerism and hunger for Western trends. Uemura combined art, nature and technology to build a line of cosmetics and beauty products that soon went global and now pulls in an estimated $100 million in sales from Shu Uemura stores in fashion centers worldwide.
While nature was a selling point in Uemura cosmetics (deep sea water is a common ingredient), he also knew that women loved theatricality too. Products such as the brand's eyelash curlers, makeup brushes and eyebrow styling are coveted everywhere. Twiggy would be jealous of the selection of false eyelashes in the Tokyo Eyelash Bar collection, coming in voluptuous lengths, colors and sparkling crystals or the diamond version that Uemura created for Madonna.
With his fresh concepts of beauty, Uemura joined the generation of Japanese taste-makers who established the country's global influence in design and fashion. Among his contemporaries were the fashion designers Issey Miyake and Kenzo Takada, groundbreaking designers who, along with Uemura, however, continued the centuries-old tradition of Japanese males being the arbiters of female beauty. Men, for example, portrayed women's roles in kabuki plays since women were banned from the stage.
Uemura's funeral was held on Jan. 4. He is survived by his wife and a son. L'Oreal will hold a memorial service in Tokyo for Uemura at the end of January.