Tatcha Founder Vicky Tsai Isn't Interested in Chasing Skin-Care Trends: "We Try to Tell a Story"

Victoria Tsai speaks to her skin. She expresses gratitude and offers care, but most importantly, as someone who's experienced acute dermatitis and eczema, she listens. "I like to think about it as communicative skin," she said. "My skin is always communicating with me."

It was actually a severe bout of acute dermatitis that led Tsai to founding Tatcha. After graduating from Harvard Business School, Tsai landed a corporate job at Starbucks, but the stress and frequent travel inflamed her skin. On a work trip to Japan, Tsai found comfort in the gentler ingredients she was exposed to. She would go on to leave her job and dedicate her career to helping others heal their skin. It was a risk, but it worked: Tatcha can now be found in Sephoras across the globe, and in 2019, the brand generated an estimated $70 million in sales.

Tatcha wouldn't be what it is without an origin story. Tsai's is, of course, at the heart of the brand, but each product must also bear one. Seriously — it won't get made otherwise. "What we do is we try to tell a story every time," she said. "There's a rule in Tatcha that you cannot launch a product and you can't show me an idea for something unless it's anchored in a true story."

The brand's Deep Cleanse, for example, was inspired by the Japanese concept of kiyome, which can mean a physical or spiritual purification. The Kissu Lip Mask uses Japanese peach extract to honor Girls' Day, a national religious holiday also referred to as the Peach Festival. Taking things a step further, the Japanese word "mizumizushii" can refer to both hydrated skin and juicy peaches. The popular Aburatorigami Japanese Blotting Papers were inspired by the abaca leaf papers geisha used to dab away oil without removing carefully applied makeup.

Tsai has a deep respect for the histories that inform her innovations. Though she was born in Missouri and raised in Texas, Tsai's parents are Taiwanese, which was actually under Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945. "There's a duality to our work and our brand that inherently exists within me as well, even though I'm not Japanese," she said. Her reverence is somewhat of a rarity in an industry that has in recent years greatly profited off Asian beauty rituals and ingredients without much pause.

In honor of APIA Heritage Month, POPSUGAR spoke with Tsai about the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation, the beauty business over a year into the pandemic, her hopes for the future of the industry, the product she's proudest of, and more.

POPSUGAR: Tell us about your experience navigating the beauty business this last year. It seems many consumers renewed their interest in skin care. Was that something you expected?
Vicky Tsai: The second the pandemic hit nobody knew what to expect, but I was hopeful that skin care would be something that people would reach for — to take care of themselves in a time where we all desperately needed to take care of ourselves. If you're alive and reading this awesome article today, your skin played a really big part in keeping you alive. So taking care of your skin and taking care of yourself, it's so deeply important. I don't know if there's anything more important than taking care of yourself in these historic times. I can't say that we expected it, but we are happy about it, and it's not a sales thing for us. It's about making sure that our clients are OK.

PS: To us, Tatcha embodies simplicity — the meeting of modernity and tradition. Do you find consumers are overdoing their skin-care routines these days?
VT: We went through a phase even prior to the pandemic where the American consumer felt more was more, and the beauty industry plays a part in that too. Because the more I can tell you that you need 10 steps, the more money I make, right? I do think that for some clients, they find what works for them and then they settle down into a ritual that is most effective but most appropriate for their lifestyle. Some people want to do 10 steps and that's good for them. Good for you! And some people don't want to and that's also OK. Our point of view is as long as you're taking care of your skin and you're honoring and respecting it and using that as a moment for yourself, then we are happy campers.

PS: You've also spoken a lot about your experience with acute dermatitis. It can be very painful and frustrating to treat a skin condition, but how has that contributed to what Tatcha is today?
VT: I get eczema and hives, and then I had acute dermatitis for three years, and I am so grateful that it happened and I continue to be grateful for my eczema because I realized that it's my skin's way of talking to me. What I've found is it's your body's way of telling you that it really needs you to take care of yourself.

"My skin is my partner in my well-being journey."

As a CEO and as a mom, I am really good at mortgaging my health for work and life responsibilities. As much as I am preaching about well-being and balance, I can really do a number of myself and go a long time without eating, without sleeping, without taking a break, sometimes without breathing. When I do that, my eczema alerts me and says, 'Hey, you've taken it too far.' Until I find the source of stress that I'm not dealing with, my eczema won't go away. To me, it's like a beacon to tell me that we have to take care of ourselves. My skin is my partner in my well-being journey.

So yeah, I don't think I would have ever started Tatcha if I didn't have acute dermatitis; I wouldn't have had the need. On the flip side, I am so grateful for my — I don't even like to call it sensitive skin — I like to think about it as communicative skin. My skin is always communicating with me.

PS: If you could go back to the time when you were first developing Tatcha and give yourself some words of advice or wisdom, what would you say?
VT: Your strategy of loving your clients and always working to create a collection that is worthy of them is the right way to go, and it's going to be the only thing that matters at the end of the day.

PS: That's beautiful.
VT: It's our North Star. When I feel lost, which is quite often, I just come back to it. Let's just come back to that over and over again. Am I acting in service to my client? Am I honoring the client's tradition? If I can say yes to those things, everything else sort of works its way through and works out.

PS: You've spoken about your family and being first-generation Taiwanese American. In what ways is your cultural identity present throughout the brand?
VT: I grew up with one foot in the East and one foot in the West, and always found it interesting to see the differences, and to pick up wisdom or philosophies or ways of life from the two different sides to chart a course for myself. We are rooted in Japanese well-being rituals, but also very much informed by our roots in San Francisco. There's a duality to our work and our brand that inherently exists within me as well, even though I'm not Japanese.

The other thing is Japan occupied Taiwan for a number of years — I think it was 50 years — and so Japanese culture has been an inherent part of my Taiwanese culture just by virtue of the fact that those two cultures have a shared history. There's a native Taiwanese culture, and there's aspects of Chinese culture that exist in Taiwan, and then there's aspects of Japanese culture that exist in Taiwan. So Taiwanese culture unto itself is a beautiful little mixing pot — melting pot, if you will. I guess I'm a mix of that melting pot plus the American melting pot. More than anything, what I find is the more that you open your heart and mind to the beauty and the wisdom of different cultures, the richer your life can be.

PS: And Tatcha is a manifestation of all of those cultures combining, which in a sense is very American at the end of the day.
VT: Yeah, it's uniquely American in the sense that we like to see what we can appreciate from other places and people.

PS: The Western beauty industry has borrowed so much from Asian rituals and practices. We've seen it with jade rollers, and ingredients like snail mucin, and sheet masks. In your opinion, what is a healthy cultural exchange, and what is just cultural appropriation?
VT: The most important thing when you take inspiration from another culture is to give it credit and to celebrate it. I am so sensitive to the fact that I am not Japanese, but what I've learned in Japan healed my skin and healed my soul, and every piece of our collection is actually a little piece of history. Everything has to be made in Japan, everything has to be sourced from Japan in terms of raw materials with our own Japanese scientists and with our own Japanese team to inform the stories of the culture that they love. That is our number one job. We have two jobs: we have a job to take care of our clients, and a job to authentically share what we love and celebrate about Japanese well-being culture.

What we do is we try to tell a story every time. There's a rule in Tatcha that you cannot launch a product and you can't show me an idea for something unless it's anchored in a true story. We have an entire function led by a woman named Nami Onodera who has been with Tatcha from the beginning, and it's an entire function called Culture. Nami is at the table for every single important decision. Our creative director — his name is Norito Enomoto, and he's from Japan — every piece of creative that comes out, comes through him. If you're going to lift or share or monetize things from other cultures, you have to be so purposeful about how you do it, in a way that is respectful and honoring of them in order for it to be OK.

PS: Have there been any products that you were jazzed about that ultimately did not pass the test and move forward into production?
VT: No, because we would never even start developing a formula unless it's anchored in truth. It wouldn't see the light of day if it's not anchored in something. Our product development process is really different. We don't benchmark competition. I don't look at NPD [new product development]. I don't buy trend reports. I don't look in beauty magazines or with our retailers about anything that's going on in beauty, because I don't want to know. We do have an amazing product marketing team, but their job is to bring the truth to life.

"We would never even start developing a formula unless it's anchored in truth."

An example of that would be the Silk Canvas, which I believe is one of the leading primers in the country. Nobody said to us, "You know what Tatcha? The next thing you need to do, we really need a primer." Nobody wanted a primer from us, but when Nami and I would go [to Japan], we would study with geisha, and we would have a geisha on our team. We would always say, "What's the most important part of your beauty ritual, your skin-care ritual?" And they would always say bintsuke, which is this wax. After they put it on, they seal in moisture and they prevent anything from getting into their skin. So makeup can not get into their skin, pollution cannot get into their skin, and then they put on that white oshiroi, that white base, and that's like SPF 100%. When you look at a geisha who's 70 and she still has the skin of someone who you would think would be much younger, it's because they've never seen sun.

PS: The dream.
VT: It's virgin skin. What I said to our scientist is, "I want that." 'Cause what's the point of doing all the skin care if I'm just going to assault it with irritants? Including pollution and blue light. So that's when we sat there and we said, "How do we make this accessible to the modern woman who doesn't want to wear a wax mask all day?" The new Silk Powder that we just launched is an extension of that concept, but we added in blue light protection because we are constantly on screens, and it doesn't feel so good when it's humid under your mask.

So that's our product development process. It's pretty different than the rest of the world. Because we develop everything in house and we don't do stock formulas or stock packaging, we have the ability to create things that feel really right for us and for our clients.

PS: Let's do a skin-care speed round! First up, for someone who's never tried Tatcha before, which product would you recommend they use first?
VT: If you start anywhere, start with The Essence.

PS: Why is that?
VT: There's a couple of things: it's green tea, rice, and seaweed that's twice fermented. Each one of those ingredients has their own incredibly beneficial properties to the skin. Rice is moisturizing and brightening, seaweed is ultramoisturizing, and green tea is a super effective antioxidant against UV-induced oxidative damage. When you add all three of them up, they basically do all the basic things you need to protect and nurture the health of your skin.

Then beyond that, it opens up what we call aquaporin channels into the skin. So when you put on any treatment afterward, the active ingredients — instead of getting stuck on top of dead skin — the active ingredients can basically ride the water channels down into the areas of the skin where they can be most effective. The original formula increase the hydration of skin by 197 percent instantly. The new formula, which is even more concentrated, is a 576 percent increase in hydration in seven seconds.

PS: Which product are you proudest of?
VT: I love all my babies, but if I have to pick one, I would say the Silk Canvas because it was so hard to make. We had to delay the launch on that twice. My scientists were about to fire me over that one because it's such a weirdo, but it works.

PS: What is the most underrated Tatcha product?
VT: Oh, the Camellia Lip Balm without any question. I have five on me at any given time. I don't talk about it much, but if somebody is taking it away from me, I'm going to start throwing hands.

PS: What is a recent skin-care trend that you wouldn't endorse?
VT: Anything that punishes the skin makes me sad. Because I think of skin as your best friend. Right? So anything that makes it burn, anything that makes it peel, anything that you feel the burn, those things make me very scared as someone who's given myself acute dermatitis, contact dermatitis. You don't want that.

PS: How would you like skin-care trends and routines to look in 10, or 50, years?
VT: Overall I would love us to walk away from fear-based marketing. That's not in service to the clients, or honest. Our consumers or clients are sophisticated, intelligent, increasingly well-informed because of the internet, and so as beauty brands and as marketers, we don't have to scare you or make you feel bad about yourself to sell you things.

I'm really sick of the traditional approach to beauty and skin care, where we're creating insecurities and monetizing them. The beauty industry has done a great deal of damage to women and their sense of self-worth. I would like all of us to do a very purposeful shift to thinking about how can I make clients today feel more beautiful, more whole, more worthwhile as they are, and support them in their journey in life, instead of making them feel that they're not pretty enough, that they're not young enough, that they're not pale enough. We have a lot of work to do as an industry.