KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 18 — The cult luxury skincare brand Tatcha may be loved by the likes of Meghan Markle, Kim Kardashian and Selena Gomez but naysayers once told founder Vicky Tsai that her Japanese-inspired products would never be a hit among clients in the West.
The year was 2009, about a decade before K-beauty and Asian skincare became all the rage it is today when Tsai, a Taiwanese-American decided to launch the brand after a chance encounter that healed her acute dermatitis.
She was living with flare-ups that made her face bleed and blister, and despite being medicated with steroids and antibiotics, doctors told her that her skin would never be normal again.
All that changed after a trip to Kyoto.
A modern-day geisha told Tsai about Japan’s ancient beauty rituals which saved her skin and she wanted to share that with the world.
But no one believed a niche line of clean formulas that marries science with the beauty traditions of Japan’s geisha would sell.
“When we launched, we were constantly being told that Tatcha would never work, that it was too niche or exotic, and that Western consumers didn’t see Asian skincare as aspirational,” Tsai told Malay Mail recently.
At the time, smaller manufacturers were unheard of, and the first-time entrepreneur was up against Japanese giants such as SK-II, Shiseido and Kose.
Ironically, everything experts told Tsai and her team not to do ended up resonating with clients.
“(They) allowed us to become the brand we are today and ultimately drove the market towards becoming interested in Asian beauty culture.
“I look at the industry now and can’t help but be extremely grateful to them and make our clients our number one priority.
“They are the reason we exist,” the 42-year-old said.
In many ways, Tatcha was a forerunner to the Asian beauty wave that has taken the US, UK and Europe by storm in recent years.
Today, the brand is as aspirational as it gets — any beauty junkie would happily have a shelf full of the cult brand that was acquired by Unilever in 2019 for roughly US$500 million (RM2.1 billion).
It wasn’t easy in the beginning but Tsai pushed on.
She left her Wall Street career, sold off her engagement ring, maxed out her credit card and worked from her mum’s garage to start the brand.
“I started Tatcha and became a mother at the same time.
“There were certainly moments of fear and doubt, but I never considered giving up because I have always had a wonderful team of people at Tatcha to inspire me and keep me going.
“I was also fortunate to have loved ones who supported me unconditionally, especially my husband who continues to lead the company with me today,” Tsai added.
What she learned in Japan not only healed her inside and out but gave her back her sense of self and purpose, something that transcends culture and connects us all together.
“Tatcha exists to celebrate and share Japanese well-being rituals that are both embodied by the geisha and embedded deeply into the fabric of Japanese culture,” the Harvard Business School graduate said.
“It is incredibly important to us to be both authentic to our Japanese heritage as well as our San Francisco roots.”
The brand has a wellbeing mentor who is a Zen monk from Kyoto and a brand and culture team dedicated to ensuring Japanese culture is brought to life authentically.
In Kyoto where geishas are called geiko, the brand studied with about 15 of them over the years and continue to have strong bonds with the geiko community there.
A practising geiko named Mamefuji-san, who has been a friend and muse for years even serves as brand ambassador.
Tsai’s company has also funded over 5.5 million days of school for girls in Asia and Africa through their partnership with the non-profit Room to Read and they hope to fund 10 million days by 2025.
When it comes to business advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, Tsai said “the test of whether to pursue a venture comes down to market need and acceptance.”
She tells business owners to keep going if what they offer fills a real need and clients value what they do.
“If you cannot get traction for your product or service, it could be because there is a product or market fit issue.
“In those cases, I would shut down and look for a new problem to solve.
“There’s always another problem to solve for,” said Tsai.
Tatcha is available exclusively at Sephora Malaysia stores, in-app and online.