When skincare brand founder Victoria Tsai first met real-life geishas in Kyoto, she was taken aback by their delicate yet striking look - faces painted white and clad in elaborate kimonos.
"They were so beautiful I almost started crying," says the Taiwanese-American, of her first encounter five years ago.
"I wanted them to tell me about their make-up and look into their bags.
"What I realised later on, after seeing their fresh faces without make-up, was that whether they were 20 years old or 80, they had amazing skin," she adds.
Ms Tsai, now 35, found out that their beauty secrets were based on natural and time-tested ingredients such as camellia flowers, rice bran and green tea, which have antioxidants and moisturising elements.
This discovery led to the creation of Tatcha, a beauty brand based on the secrets of the geisha, a dwindling group of artisans schooled in the classical arts such as dancing, the green tea ceremony and playing instruments such as the shamisen.
Testing on her own skin
Launched in 2009, Tatcha's products have been featured in a slew of high-profile magazines such as Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Ranging from US$12 (S$15) for blotting papers to US$185 for a brightening serum, they are available at fashion emporiums Barneys New York in the United States and Joyce Beauty in Hong Kong, as well as globally at its online store www.tatcha.com.
In a phone interview with Urban, the married mother of a four-year-old girl admits that the Tatcha venture came about partly because of self-interest. The former credit derivatives trader on Wall Street went to Harvard Business School and interned at Proctor & Gamble while there.
To understand the retail landscape and research the competition, she tested products on her own skin, to disastrous effect. They left her skin covered in blisters, peeling and permanently sensitive. "I wasn't a pretty girl but had good skin. When I ruined it, I couldn't look people in the eye. It impacts how you feel about yourself," she says. The only product she could use on her affected skin was Aquaphor, a Vaseline-like heavy ointment. She became a self-described "greasy monkey", and turned to blotting papers to absorb the build-up.
She moved on to work for Starbucks and while helping to launch its business in China, she often travelled there via Tokyo and would pick up blotting papers, or aburatorigami, there.
She eventually left the corporate world to start up her own business. Interested in making the blotting paper that had been her own beauty lifeline more accessible overseas, she travelled to Kyoto after learning that the best blotting papers, with abaca leaf, were made there.
The beauty entrepreneur discovered that the blotting sheets - known for their absorbency - were known as beating papers because artisans hammered gold leaf in between the sheets.
Despite not speaking any Japanese, she convinced the gold leaf manufacturers to work with her and they, in turn, introduced her to some geishas who could explain more about how they were used.
In addition to the blotting papers, she learned about their naturally derived beauty rituals. After adhering to it for about two months, her afflicted skin cleared up completely.
She made a list of all the ingredients the geishas mentioned, did research in English and hired others to do research in Japanese and Chinese.
In the process, she discovered an often-referenced Japanese text, roughly translated as the Capital Beauty And Style Handbook, dating back to 1813.
Many of Tatcha's beautifully packaged skincare products are now developed from information in the three-volume, seven-chapter book written by Hanshichi Sayama in the Edo period.
For example, Tatcha released an Indigo collection earlier this year based on the knowledge found in the book, which explained that samurai used to wear indigo-dyed garments to help heal wounds and injuries because the plant extract has anti-inflammatory properties.
Other bestsellers of the brand include items such as camellia cleansing oil (left), silk-infused moisturiser (above) and rice bran exfoliating powder (bottom).
The San Francisco-based Ms Tsai visits Japan every year and has employees there and in the United States. She declined to reveal exact sales figures of the fast-growing company, but says that it has increased 300 per cent each year.
The Tatcha name reflects the brand's ethos and her belief in simple, natural ingredients for beautiful, clear skin. It comes from the word tatchibana, which means standing flower, and illustrates the single stalk in an ikebana arrangement.
She says of the simplicity and elegance of the geisha that inspired the brand: "Beauty is when the excess is stripped away."
This article was first published on July 11, 2014.
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