Packaging Beauty: The Japanese Take

Five key Japanese beauty brands, five looks, five stories to tell—each with an eye to the global arena. So, is their packaging up to the mark?

A selection of purr-fectly packaged cosmetics from Paul & Joe.

It’s an industry fact that Japan is synonymous with innovative skin care and makeup. Formulations are light years ahead thanks to advanced ingredient technologies. Japan is world-class in its sheer foundation formulas, cosmetically appealing, high-factor sunscreen and light-as-air moisturizing emulsions, and that’s just the start of it. The engineering behind its beauty packaging has revolutionized how people conceal and moisturize: Think of the now ubiquitous twist-up makeup pens (pioneered by Mitsubishi) or the airless pump dispensers, at least one of which I’ll bet you have in your bathroom cabinet.

The Japanese beauty aesthetic has had its own influence on the West. Shu Uemura paved the way for a fresh new look for cosmetics for the ’90s (more on this later). Yet in design terms, the rules of engagement still hold: Good, effective design that’s relevant inspires desire and tells the right story. The question is: Are Japanese beauty brands playing?

Is going red the right direction for Astalift?
The New Player—Astalift

Astalift is a new, luxury skin care line created not by experts in skin care, but experts in film manufacture—Fujifilm. The company has applied the collagen-based, antioxidant technology used to protect film from color fade, to skin care. The result is contemporary anti-aging at its most innovative. This needs to reflect on pack, so the question is: How do you package a skin care innovation whose heritage lies elsewhere—and at that, in the world of professional camera film? You need to start at the heart or signature of the brand you’re creating.

Astalift’s signature product is a red tinted jelly, as novel in its texture, as it is revolutionary in its ingredient blend. Its glossy red transparency (no pun intended) has inspired the brand’s look—it’s an obvious starting point. The result is a collection of red resin tubs and tubes with red metallic lids. Gold is the accent color for both typeface and logo. This adds an element of luxury and there is something of the fine, crafted Japanese pen to the brand name’s font. The overall result is Moorish and there is little question that the ruby collection will stand out on counter. But there are questions.

Is this the right direction for a luxury brand when the most notable brands to package in red are those from the mass category: L’Oréal with Revitalift and Olay with Regenerist? In this context, does Astalift look luxurious enough? Astalift recently launched into the UK and Europe and is set for global distribution. How its red pots will sit in terms of luxury status alongside the likes of Estée Lauder, Guerlain or even, an established Japanese luxury skin care brand such as Shiseido, remains to be seen. Yet if this is a brand that wants to be noticed on the international beauty counter, we’re reading loud and clear.

Classic Luxury – Kanebo

Kimono artist Mamechiyo designed the packaging for a limited release of Shu Uemura products.
Kanebo’s exclusive allure in the West was sealed when it launched La Crème, the first high-cost, $300 moisturizer more than 20 years ago. The brouhaha and pick-up that followed paved the way for the super luxury skin care category. In terms of design, Kanebo has always been rooted in the Japanese skin care aesthetic: pale pinks, flesh tones or white and an overriding clean-looking simplicity. Today, this begins to look outdated, and there are signs that Kanebo is redressing the balance. For example, in its new incarnation, Kanebo’s premium moisturizer, Sensai Premier The Cream (note the loss of the French, la crème) embraces new forms and structures, with a spherical container within a smoke effect resin canister. This is a brand with an eye for the global playing field (it had lost ground following the Asian economic crisis), starting to adapt, update and innovate, yet retain elements of its heritage.Note its newest skin care product, Sensai Prime Solution, presented in a white, ridged glass, cocoon-like form reminiscent of its own and the company’s key, heritage ingredient, silk. It’s interesting to compare the luxury design approach of the new (Astalift) to the established (Kanebo) to see how each interprets luxury for the new global arena.

The Cult Classic—Shu Uemura

This was the original makeup artist brand in Japan, founded by Shu Uemura in 1982. The clear, Perspex lipstick and makeup compacts resonated with the emerging simplicity and functionality to Western design in the ’90s, typified in New York by Fabien Baron (CK One, Calvin Klein Cosmetics, Issey Miyake).Previously in luxury cosmetics, the designer makeup brand dominated with opaque gold, black or blue compacts (YSL, Chanel, Dior); this new Japanese-borne aesthetic struck a chord with both the design savvy and the industry insider.

How has Shu Uemura maintained relevance, zip and desirability? In design terms, one route has been to build on the iconic potential of signature products through artist collaborations. Now, thanks in part to the 1994 collaboration with artist, Ai Yamaguchi, its cleansing oils have become cult, beauty icons. This year the kimono artist Mamechiyo designed the vibrant floral butterfly packaging for a limited release of its UV Under Base Mousse.This product is so unflinchingly Japanese in its offering, from its high-tech, UV skin primer, to its ergonomic canister, to its contemporary Japanese artwork rooted in tradition to offset the iconic Shu Uemura typeface. Relevant, effective, desirable, story on track: Japanese design at its best.

Young Hearts—Paul & Joe

Always up for a story is Paul & Joe, the Parisian fashion label’s signature makeup brand. Although on the face of it a French brand, it is also a Japanese brand, inspired resolutely in design by Japanese aesthetics. It feels Japanese right down to the use of flesh-toned resins and its chrysanthemum motif. Paul & Joe is made in Japan, using Japanese technology both in product and packaging. What is interesting is that it conveys the Japanese cutesy or “kawaii” cultural codes, but with a sophistication that also appeals to a more knowing, Western eye: Its most recent collection hones in on cats, but it’s a far cry from Hello Kitty. Where the challenges for Paul & Joe may lie will be in its codes becoming hackneyed or repetitive. It’s difficult to tire of simplicity, but pattern and embellishment (which Paul & Joe does so well) date. Yet through telling new stories with each season, the brand can continue to break new ground and inspire that magic ingredient—desire. This is one of the best examples of the fusing of East and West in a brand able to bridge cultural divides and appeal to an international customer, albeit of a certain sensibility.

New Luxury—Suqqu

Suqqu is a relatively new, premium makeup brand, which also produces high-end skin care. Cosmetics are packaged in black resin compacts that look like lacquer. Skin care is packaged in clean white, frosted glass bottles. Type is kept resolutely minimal—this is contemporary Japanese beauty packaging at its finest. In the UK, Suqqu is popular with industry insiders, editors and makeup artists for its air of fine, exclusive Japanese quality. At London’s Selfridges, it has moved from the main beauty hall into the niche, apothecary area. Sales strategy aside, does this pared down, modern day Japanese aesthetic work on a global scale? Is its design relevant? Does it inspire desire and does it tell the right story? At present, it is a tight-knit brand, with a relatively small number of products. But it is a brand on the build, establishing its core identity and designed to appeal to a contemporary Japanese woman who has moved on from the cutesy aesthetic: a true, 21st century Japanese luxury beauty brand.

Japan continues to offer exciting diversity in the beauty packaging arena, and we shall be watching keenly as new products catch our eye.

About the Author
Jonathan Ford is a designer and creative partner of Pearlfisher;