IN TOKYO, CLINIQUE and Estee Lauder are sought-after cosmetics labels. American makeup and hair-style magazines are hot commodities. And when U.S. beauty experts do the Japanese talk-show circuit, ratings soar. The American beauty look is obviously in.
Turnabout being fair play, Japanese cosmetics are showing up on American beauty counters, their manufacturers hoping to make inroads into the world's largest cosmetics market. But can unfamiliar products succeed in a country in which names like Revlon, Avon and Maybelline are household words? Or where French firms like Dior, Lancome, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent have cornered the "status makeup" market?
The answer could be a resounding yes, industry observers say, if the Japanese concentrate on promoting their advanced technology in the skin-care field. "If you look at other fields--like the electronics industry--you can't pooh-pooh the Japanese when it comes to research and development," says Allan Mottus, a New York-based marketing consultant. "Japan may be the largest market in the world for skin-care products. So firms have pumped a lot of yen into researching the newest approaches to beauty. And the result is advanced skin care."
Skin-treatment products represent a huge market in Japan because women of all ages have been culturally conditioned to care for their skin. "Only women between 18 and 25 years old use color cosmetics. There's not much of a color market in Japan for women over 45," says Sumiko Warden, senior vice president of Kao Sofina, the Torrance-based subsidiary of Tokyo's 100-year-old Kao Corp.
Warden says recent Kao research led to the development of new intercellular lipids for face creams that aid in retaining moisture.
The Sofina collection was introduced to Americans earlier this year and is sold exclusively in the United States at Bullock's. It was initially limited to treatment products, but in September makeup was added. "There has been incredible repeat-purchase business," says Patty Payne, Bullock's divisional merchandise manager for cosmetics. "More than 50% of the customers have come back to buy more."
Tokyo-based Shiseido Cosmetics is the world's third-largest cosmetics firm and probably has the highest name recognition of any Japanese cosmetics line among Americans. Other Japan-based lines in the United States are Intelligent Skin Care (IS)--which was one of the first cosmetics companies to use a computer to analyze complexions for a customized skin-care program--and Kanebo, sold primarily in Hawaii.
Pola International is a Carson-based direct-sales firm that sells the Salus line, which was introduced in 1986. Salus products are made in Japan, but company president Rusty Culler says Pola uses the parent firm's technology to design items for Americans. "American women have a different type of skin from Asian-born women, and they need a different type of skin care," Culler says. "For instance, most Japanese don't go out in the sun, so they don't need the same protection as many light-skinned Americans," she says.
Diana K. Temple, a vice president in stock research at Salomon Bros., specializes in the cosmetics industry. She agrees that Japanese technology could woo many American cosmetics buyers, but she points out that "many Japanese products are designed to be used in a multiple-step ritual. It's difficult to get Americans to change daily habits. Most U.S. companies have not been able to change women's minds about using soap to wash their faces."
But Pola International's Culler doesn't see this as a stumbling block. "Japanese treatments are designed for women who really care about their skin," she says. "When a woman feels her skin become healthy and silky, she doesn't mind spending a little extra time or money."
Photograph: David Roth; hair: Keoni / Cloutier; makeup: Carol Shaw / Cloutier; styling: Nicole Liagre / Cloutier; model: Elaine Bilstad / Vaughn Agency.