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Geisha without makeup up close
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Tatcha skin care line

FROM EAST TO WEST

Victoria Tsai: Skin Secrets of a Geisha

Why you should care

Tatcha founder Victoria Tsai is willing to put her money where her skin is. She’s betting big on bringing age-old geisha secrets to the United States, all in the name of beauty.

Victoria Tsai was once worth negative one million dollars. Why was she in so much debt? One bold idea: taking care of your skin using a 200-year-old beauty routine.

Tsai is the founder of Japan-inspired beauty skin care line Tatcha. The high-end brand is based out of San Francisco and sold in the U.S. online, at Barney’s and on QVC and also at stores in Hong Kong. Tatcha is used by celebrity makeup artists and has received glowing reviews from Vogue, Oprah and the Wall Street Journal. However Tsai’s desire to share Japanese geishas’ beauty secrets is neither purely altruistic nor merely about business — she credits the geisha for solving her own acute skin problems.

…after working in beauty, my face was seething.

In order to launch Tatcha, Tsai worked four jobs while pregnant, used all of her savings, maxed out multiple credit cards and sold her car and her engagement ring. (“I’m not going to lie — I miss it,” says Tsai of the ring.)

The route to Tatcha was paved with personal intentions. Tsai, the daughter of two Taiwanese immigrants, had ruined her skin while interning at a prestige skin care brand while at Harvard Business School, testing skin care products on herself for competitive research.

Closeup of Vicky Tsai

Vicky Tsai

“I went through high school and never got a pimple. Then after working in beauty, my face was seething,” recounts Tsai.

Her doctor told her the acute dermatitis was permanent. Tsai took jobs outside the beauty industry, but over the years steadily collected what would become the keys to her line: She bought Japanese oil blotting papers called aburatorigami on a stop while traveling between Seattle and China as a Starbucks brand manager; while working as marketing director for an ethical shopping guide, she learned the average person absorbs five pounds of chemicals from personal care products every year. And when Tsai was preparing to have a baby, she was appalled to learn she could pass on carcinogenic toxins to her newborn. Something clicked.

She quit her job and traveled to major innovation centers for skin care and cosmetics: France, Germany and Japan. “My intention was to hopefully figure out a makeup solution that I could feel good about and also cover up my messed-up face,” she says. While in Kyoto, she hired Japanese translators and tracked down the aburatorigami manufacturers, and they introduced her to the very private world of geisha.

A common misconception is that geisha are all prostitutes. Geisha actually means “art person” in Japanese, and the women are trained in music, dance, conversation and tea rituals.

“The woman who walked up was such a work of art — living and breathing art,” recounts Tsai. “I saw them with their makeup off. Their skin is like a Boticelli painting, whether they’re 80 or 20, their skin had that same quality.”

2 women looking at products in their hands

Tsai meeting with geisha

Known for wearing heavy, elaborate makeup every day, the geishas’ clear, unblemished skin was a surprise. Tsai interviewed them about their makeup and skin care rituals, learning the ingredients they use are simple: rice, green tea and seaweed. Tsai used the ritual on herself and says her skin was completely healed within four months. She decided that rather than start the color cosmetics line she had been researching, she’d launch a geisha-inspired line. The blotting papers were the star product in the launch, followed by lotions, cleansing oils and serums.

If I lean in any more, my ankles are going to break.

“A lot of people thought she was a bit insane,” says Geoffrey Jones, Tsai’s former HBS professor and author of Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry. Jones says Tsai’s decision to launch with the blotting papers was smart, because it wasn’t an area many of the big beauty players were in. He says Tsai’s brand is anchored by her constant trips to Kyoto to learn more secrets — she even hired a Japanese culture expert to track down a 200-year-old book documenting the geisha’s rituals.

When Tatcha launched in September 2009, Tsai savvily sent press kits to celebrity makeup artists and editors at top magazines. After that, success was quick.

Product shots of skin care creams

So quick, that when distribution went national in January 2010, Tsai did a press interview while in labor with her daughter, who was born that same day. By June 2010, Tsai was turning down the first of multiple acquisition offers. To this day, she does not take home a salary. Her husband, who recently joined the company full time, takes home enough to “pay the daycare” for their daughter.

A Tragic Awakening

  • During the 9/11 attack, Tsai and her husband, Eric Bevan, were working at Merrill Lynch on separate floors of a building connected to the World Trade Center towers.
  • Making it through that experience motivated them both to re-evaluate their lives, says Tsai, particularly when Bevan fell ill for the next two years. ”I think of my life as pre-9/11 and post-9/11,” says Tsai.

Tsai’s mentor, bareMinerals creator Leslie Blodgett, along with Ryan Aipperspach, Tatcha’s technical co-founder, both refer to Tsai as humble and dedicated. Aipperspach says he agreed to work on Tatcha because “you know that if Vicky does something, she’s going to do a good job.” Multiple people pointed out that Tsai surrounds herself with top-tier talent, filling in any gaps where she might have weaknesses.

Tsai’s next big challenge is scale. “If Tatcha continues to grow at this pace, the logistics, sourcing from Japan, and above all Vicky’s time and life will come under impossible pressures,” says Jones. “‎She will need to see if the brand has a life of its own and can survive without her constant personal attention.”

Tsai brought up the struggle of balancing the direct, intimate relationships she likes to have with customers, her quickly-growing team and her family.

“I don’t have the kind of time that I wish I did. I see the Sheryl Sandbergs and I’m glad you can have your hair done nicely and dinner cooked and out on the table. If I lean in any more, my ankles are going to break.”

Still, Tsai is steadfast in her loyalty to her brand and her desire to bring Eastern traditions to the West.

“In the U.S., people are always looking for the newest technology. My realization was that we all had mothers and great-grandmothers and they looked beautiful up until the end. Some people can look in the future; I’m going to look into the past.”

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Meet The Author Lorena O'Neil

Lorena covers religion, LGBT rights and feminism. She is also unusually fascinated by Instagram dictators.

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