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It Started With Marilyn's Cleansing Oil

Elizabeth Blish Hughes, Special to the Chronicle


Tokyo. New York. San Francisco. Or more precisely: Omotesando. SoHo. Pacific Heights. All magnet neighborhoods for upscale retailers and style omnivores searching for the sharpest angle on the cutting edge, which at this moment means all things Japanese.

The new new thing is far from the Japan of Zen-warrior quality circles for just-in-time delivery, or shapeless black dresses with three armholes. This time around on the Rising Sun cycle of grooviness, it's manga and anime, or comics and cartoons, ascendant.

So it makes perfect sense, in that oft-puzzling way of East meeting West, that a Tokyo-born makeup artist with a half century's worth of A-list experience should be surfing the zeitgeist and opening a Fillmore Street boutique featuring a mural by Ai Yamaguchi, a 28-year-old former associate of Takashi Murakami, the art world sensation whose pop-driven designs
for Louis Vuitton are making the venerable French house, and countless
knock-off jobbers, very happy.

And to think that it's all coming together because of a cleansing oil (beloved by Marilyn Monroe as well as Madonna) created by Shu Uemura, made famous after he stepped in for Shirley MacLaine's regular makeup artist to transform MacLaine from a famously red-headed gal to a Japanese beauty for the 1962 movie "My Geisha."

As Frank Sinatra inscribed on a makeup case for Uemura, "Shu-Shu, baby."

The Shu Uemura San Francisco shop opening Wednesday joins a bevy of beauty retail outlets on Fillmore Street. Aveda, Benefit, Kiehl's and MAC shops are just steps away. Chris Salgardo, general manager for Shu Uemura USA, said that while the city's demographics and range of lifestyles made it a good fit, the company's Web site produced the hard numbers. After New York, San Francisco generated the most orders for the line, known for its wide selection of brilliant colors. Add in what he described as "significant" Web site shopping from the East Bay and the Peninsula, opening in Northern California became "a pretty good bet."

"There was definitely a pull," he said. "Purely coincidentally, Japantown begins on Fillmore Street."

The company also plans to open a shop-within-a-shop at Neiman Marcus on Union Square, Salgardo said.

Rachel Weingarten, the president of GTK Marketing, which specializes in cosmetics and beauty products, described the line as a "very accessible line, very user friendly while keeping a makeup-artist cachet." Part of the appeal is that "you can't just get it anywhere," but she sees a disadvantage in the name, which she describes as "curious and hard to
pronounce." She also questions whether consumers accustomed to the substantial and often ornate packaging of other high-end cosmetic lines will go for Shu Uemura's clear plastic packaging.

Yet that clear plastic is what gives the San Francisco shop, with more than 500 products, the cool modern lines that have become the company's signature. It serves as a calm background for Yamaguchi's provocative logos: adolescent girls with expressionless turquoise eyes, a deviation from the bottomless black of manga characters.

Yamaguchi has spent three weeks covering a stark white wall inside the new Fillmore store with her dreamscape of a wandering girl arriving in San Francisco on a small, open origami boat that signifies good fortune.

Surrounded by fog, she's accompanied by girls with teal manga eyes representing Japan's seven gods of good luck, all paddling through shallow waters dotted with blossoming lotus plants and reeds, which is what Yamaguchi imagined they would encounter beyond landfall. The journey has transformed them all, and they will undergo more change upon landing in San Francisco, Yamaguchi said.

"They're on a journey to find strength," she said, adding that the strength and beauty is already in each of them. Some of their newfound energy will be revealed in the store, where makeup will further transform them. "Just the brushes are so beautiful," she said of the line's coveted tools. "The colors and energy of the store are beautiful, and when
you see beautiful things, you feel that power coming up."

The characters in the mural, "the girls," represent something that Yamaguchi said she sees as lacking in herself -- an ineffable spark, a completing strength that she finds in the images. She imagines the girls as having a power to share their strength, even though "as strong as they are, the girls have anxiety and fears, but they will find their strength
being here. "

A shimmering swirl of gold unifies the mural, an undulating ribbon that is a traditional Japanese technique suggesting time travel, according to Yamaguchi, who says it also refers to the Gold Rush, which she studied in school. The white wall is now, and the gold "is a different time," said the muralist, speaking last week amid paint pots as work crews
finished the shop interior.

The figures reflect the bold outlining technique of manga artists, while the backgrounds show the two-dimensional influence of traditional ukiyo-e. Blending sensibilities separated by centuries is the hallmark of Yamaguchi and others in Murakami's orbit. Blurring what could be seen as low and high culture isn't such a stretch, given that Japanese department stores traditionally mount major shows in their in-house art galleries. Indeed, Yamaguchi has had several shows in Tokyo department stores as well as in galleries worldwide.

The Uemura-Yamaguchi relationship began in 2003, when he sponsored her solo exhibition in Los Angeles, an installation at Roberts & Tilton Gallery. The company commissioned her to create line drawings for a limited edition of the cleansing oils. (A percentage of the profits from the limited-edition oils will support RxArt, a nonprofit that places original fine art in hospitals to relieve the stress of patients, families and medical personnel.)

Yamaguchi drew four of the big-eyed, topless, breastless, long-haired figures she refers to as "my girls" for the transparent plastic pump-bottles containing the oils -- only three of which are available in the United States because of FDA import restrictions. As with her
mural characters, they exude a very faint hint of eroticism, which may be the
result of Yamaguchi's research into child courtesans of Japan's past.

Salgardo calls working with Yamaguchi "a no-brainer. She has a background in textiles, an eye for color and beauty, so collaborating with her just made sense."

The company makes a point of working with up-and-coming artists. Uemura, who turns 77 in July, hired Iona Rozeal Brown to embellish the SoHo boutique with images of ganguro, young Japanese women who adopt hairstyles and use dark foundation as part of their fascination with African American hip-hop style. Again, pop images predominate, but as with Yamaguchi's creations, the work questions notions of identity and beauty, genetic or created.

As in SoHo, the 1,700-foot Pacific Heights shop embodies the design sensibility of the Omotesando shop that opened in 1983, just as the international style cadre pegged Tokyo as a hotbed of cool. There, Uemura pioneered what is now commonplace -- the use of open displays so customers could touch and play with the products. That accessibility is something the staff will also encourage in San Francisco. As in the only other freestanding U.S. boutique, on Manhattan's Greene Street, there are sinks
for trying the cleansing oils, reflecting Uemura's central precepts: "beautiful makeup begins with beautiful skin" and "think first about what you can remove from your skin, rather than what you can apply to it."

Makeup brushes, which can cost hundreds of dollars, are displayed like bouquets of daises. The range of 55 handmade brushes, each with a specific function, comes with detailed instructions; made with goat, sable and badger hair, they originate with wabake, the brushes used in Kabuki and traditional Japanese dance.

The boutique will also offer consultations that start with a facial exploration using 150 movements based on techniques used in shiatsu massage and acupressure treatments. It takes feeling the structure of a face and the texture of the skin to devise a treatment regime and look that suit a customer, according to Mark Edio, the staff makeup artist
in SoHo who does much of the company's work for fashion shows.

That catwalk presence has contributed to demand. Even the down-to-earth style mag Real Simple touts the top-selling mascara and eyelash curler. Shu Uemura eyelashes receive kudos from Beyonce, Oprah and J.Lo, and indeed, there's an eyelash bar aflutter with more than 40 styles in the San Francisco shop.

"Women come in (to the SoHo shop) to have lashes put on ... even for just an evening out and they want a little extra pizzazz," Salgardo said.

The staff in San Francisco will teach customers how to apply the lashes, which range from very natural to fantasy creations of synthetic furs and feathers. In New York, Salgardo said the service created a 300 percent increase in eyelash sales. "Lashes are the blowout of this century."

Copyright 2005 SF Chronicle