In fashion, fantasy is a given. Elsa Schiaparelli and Jean Cocteau once designed a jacket embroidered with gold paillettes to resemble long blond hair tumbling down a sleeve. Alexander McQueen turned a catwalk into a chessboard, with models acting as life-sized queens and rooks; Viktor & Rolf’s surrealistic oeuvre includes a dress embellished with a pink 3-D violin on its neckline.
Beauty, however, is often a tamer beast. Its foundation—especially at the cosmetics-counter level—is less about experimentation and more about the simple business of looking your best. Lipstick highlights the mouth; false eyelashes define the eye.
Kakuyasu Uchiide, the international artistic director of Shu Uemura and one of the world’s most visionary makeup artists, sees things differently. In addition to overseeing the brand’s product line, Uchiide is integral in creating the annual Tokyo Lash Bar collections—ultracreative sets of false eyelashes—that challenge the definition of what cosmetics can be. He has fashioned lashes out of feathers, velvet, and even dried leaves, which he says posed his most delicate challenge. “If you look at the veins in a leaf, you’ll see perfection,” explains Uchiide. “Such works of art that human hands cannot recreate—only the hands of God can create.” Uchiide’s interpretation? An exquisitely graceful curve frosted in shiny gold leaf. Call it beauty without borders, or, as René Magritte might have put it, Ceci n’est pas un lash.
It’s not surprising, then, that before Uchiide was a makeup icon, he dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. In the mid-1980s, Tokyo’s style scene was one of the most influential in the world, and Uchiide, fresh out of university, was captivated by burgeoning stars such as Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo. Shu Uemura Omotesandō Beauty Boutique, an upscale beauty boutique in the fashionable Omotesandō area, also caught his eye. “It was like a shop of painting materials, so different from all the other cosmetic houses,” Uchiide remembers. Intrigued, he applied for a job, and soon he was working for Shu Uemura himself, the renowned makeup artist who had founded the eponymous brand in 1967. Recognizing a kindred spirit, Uemura regularly invited Uchiide to his office, where he shared beauty philosophies informed by years working as a makeup artist with such Hollywood elites as Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball. Uchiide had met his mentor.
“He was a man of perfection and ability,” says Uchiide, who describes Uemura as a second father. “When I first started doing makeup, I used to watch videos of Mr. Uemura’s makeup shows and practise his hand motions. In fact, Mrs. Uemura once told me when she was watching me from afar, I looked just like her husband. In a sense, I was a pure creation of Mr. Uemura.”
As Uchiide’s skills developed, he became bolder with his brushes. At a makeup show in 1992, he created a beauty look inspired by fireworks and extended the makeup to the forehead and across the temples. The thrill of such iconoclasm “opened my eyes to the expressive possibilities of cosmetics,” says Uchiide. Soon, he was a convert: “Fashion faded and I was crazy only about makeup.” In 1997, Uemura tapped him to become the leader of the brand’s artistic team.
Uchiide honed his craft while working on shoots for Vogue and Numéro, and by creating runway beauty looks for Giorgio Armani, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Parisian designer Martine Sitbon, who once challenged him to create “imperfect” makeup for her show. (“Everyone is obsessed with perfection in makeup. The idea of imperfection was so fresh,” Uchiide admits.) In 2006, Uemura launched the first Tokyo Lash Bar collection, which became both a cult hit and an instant fashion-meets-beauty statement. Says Uchiide, “Lashes can be an accessory, just like a necklace.”
Uchiide continues to play with the definition of makeup, seeking to always push it to its zenith. The 2008 capsule collaboration with Viktor & Rolf was inspired by the label’s Pierrot-themed spring/summer collection and yielded three sets of extravagant lashes, including the Wing Couture, which resemble impossibly chic curled paper clips. More recently, the Holiday 2011 cosmetics collection, created by Uchiide in partnership with filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, features a pair of lashes that look like they’re sprinkled with silver stardust. For Ethnocolor Scope, the 2011 Tokyo Lash Bar collection, Uchiide took inspiration from aboriginal art and ethnic crafts: tiny beads top the tips of Ethnic Charm’s brown feathery lashes, while bright dollops dot the base of the Mini Fancy Bonbons. From idea to sketch to wait list–worthy finished product, each lash collection takes 18 months to create.
“That spirit of creativity and experimentation is so important,” says Victoria Lee, senior buyer at Holt Renfrew, the exclusive retailer of Shu Uemura in Canada. “We need innovative pioneers to inspire us with creative newness so that beauty continues to evolve. How boring would makeup be if we didn’t have new trends and products to experiment with? Shu Uemura’s lashes add a theatrical element to beauty that stimulates our senses and elevates makeup into artistry.”
Although Uchiide is as modest as his lashes are outré, he, too, believes in the connection between beauty and art. It offers perennial challenge, inspiration, new ways to dream. It also allows the opportunity to carry on the legacy of his beloved Mr. Uemura, who passed away in 2007. “Beauty brings joy to people,” says Uchiide with his soft-spoken, determined cadence. “It is a sustaining force, both mentally and emotionally. It is something we cannot live without.”