Tatcha CEO's book takes a beauty lesson from the geisha culture


Victoria Tsai, founder and CEO of San Francisco beauty brand Tatcha, wants you to forget everything you learned from the best-selling book “Memoirs of a Geisha.” The Harvard Business School-educated Tsai would know; she based her entire brand on the beauty rituals of the geisha. Tsai takes authenticity so seriously that she has a senior director of brand insight, known internally as the “geisha whisperer” for cultivating valuable relationships with many of the geisha houses and ensuring Tatcha always stays true to its roots.


The so-called “J -beauty” skin care and makeup brand, sold at Sephora and Barneys, is as Instagrammable as it is luxurious with whipped elixirs and brightly hued lipsticks housed in jewelry box-esque packaging. In Tribe Dynamics’ March skin-care report, which measures earned media value, Tatcha was No. 1 with $7.8 million in earned media value, a 316 percent year-over-year increase.

Tsai is an encyclopedia of knowledge on the beauty rituals of the geisha, which is why colleagues persuaded her to write a book about it: “Pure Skin: Discover the Japanese Ritual of Glowing” (Clarkson-Potter; 128 pages; $18). The book, with stunning illustrations, is full of historical tidbits about Japanese culture and the geisha, and how those tidbits can translate to modern-day beauty.

The book offers practical advice, helping readers simplify their skin-care routines. But it also gives a window into Tsai’s life, including her battle with atopic dermatitis, and how she discovered her passion for Japanese culture.

Bonus: A portion of the proceeds from the book will fund schooling for girls in Southeast Asia and Africa through the Room to Read Girl’s Education Program, which Tatcha has partnered with since its launch.

Q: What inspired your love of everything geisha?

A: I met my first geisha in 2008 on a trip to Japan when I was pregnant with my daughter. I was immediately entranced by her grace and beauty. I ended up talking to her for hours about the geisha’s beauty rituals, which have been around for 400 years.

Q: What is the biggest geisha myth?

A: Let’s clear up that geisha were not concubines. I’ve asked a dozen geishas where that misconception comes from. What we’ve been able to gather is that back in the 1700s and 1800s there was still imperial court life, which is when the geisha evolved as stage entertainers. There were courtesans in the imperial court, but you could tell the difference between the two by their bustles: courtesans had a bustle in front for easy access; geisha have a bustle in the back. It took a dresser with a pulley system to get the geisha’s bustle, made of 40 pounds of silk, on and off.

Q: How did you translate this love of everything geisha into a skin-care brand?

A: It all started with the blotting papers. While I was working for a large beauty company, I treated my skin like a science experiment, so of course I developed atopic dermatitis. The only thing I could use was Aquaphor so I always looked greasy. On a trip to Japan, my friend introduced me to magical blotting papers. She told me the blotting papers were “beating papers,” a byproduct of the gold-leaf hammering process. I went to Japan to investigate and our first product was born.

That same friend took me to a Japanese apothecary where I took home camellia oil, exfoliating rice powder and cream made from liquid silk. All I know is my dermatitis cleared up after four weeks.

Q: You dedicate a whole chapter in your book to what you call the Japanese beauty book, “Miyakofuzoku Kewaiden” (“Capital Beauty and Style Handbook”), a three-volume tome written in 1813, divulging all the geisha beauty secrets. You basically used this book as a bible for your brand and for writing your own book. Can you give us something you found in that book that translates today?

A: Look at the origin of sheet masks: A geisha would first make an essence with botanicals she put in a tea-kettling system, left to steep overnight. If she captured the botanical water in a cup, she would use it as an essence. She put some into a perfume bottle and it became a botanical mist. She would soak old kimono scraps in the essence and it became a sheet mask.

Q: What is your most important skin-care lesson?

A: Be proactive and prevent the damage. Western anti-aging skin care has traditionally been about fixing the damage that has already been done. In Asia, especially in Japanese culture, it’s more like: “How about you don’t develop the wrinkle in the first place?” It may sound basic, but wear sunscreen — always.

Janna Mandell is a freelance writer in Marin County. Email: style@sfchronicle.com.

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