Sasa Shutters Soon

The Hong Kong-based multi-brand beauty store will leave our shores, taking with them their staggering array of sheet masks and to-be-expected all-year discounts

 

Sasa P1.jpg

By Mao Shan Wang

They have been here for 22 years and 41 in Hong Kong; their moniker, shorthand for brand-name beauty products uncommonly discounted. The news that spread like a Kalimantan wild fire this morning was that Sasa (莎莎) will close all 22 stores here. After 22 years! Okay, I repeat. Anyway, a friend had messaged me about the announcement, but I already heard it and was not surprised. Since their very first store here in Wisma Atria in 1997, the year Hong Kong returned to China, Causeway Bay-born Sasa has not made a dent in the local beauty retail scene, arousing less interest when Sephora opened 11 years later. Its destiny seemed set even back then.

Reported to be the SAR’s biggest cosmetics retailer, the HKEX-listed (1997) company is more associated with marked–downs on some popular brands than as a forward retailer associated with trending brands such as Fenty Beauty or Drunk Elephant. It’s tempting to assume that the troubles afflicting Hong Kong for the past six months gave cause to Sasa’s leaving the SG market. Although that is likely part of the reasons (Sasa depends mostly on the massive tourist arrivals from China for its success in HK—last year, 70% of total sales, and is understandably now under operating pressure), it may be worth noting that they pulled out of Taiwan—in a similarly surprising move— last year, way before the woes of their home city.

Sasa P2.jpgThe first Sasa store in the basement of a Causeway Bay mall in 1978. Photo: Sasa

Sasa was founded in 1978 by a former parking meter repairman Simon Kwok Siu Ming (郭少明) and his wife Eleanor Law Kwai Chun (羅桂珍), a self-professed business novice. The first store was a modest basement space in a nondescript, now-nobody-knows-nobody-goes building, President Shopping Centre, on Jaffe Road, a back street in Causeway Bay, two blocks behind Sogo Department Store, the belly button of the shopping district considered in this decade to be the world’s most expensive. Sasa then would remind you of Swanston (or Ocean Cosmetics) on the upper levels of People’s Park Food Centre in Chinatown, only smaller.

According to the Kwoks, the missus was, at first, working in the store selling Kanebo cosmetics. When a takeover offer became available, the couple, who had the advantage of living in an apartment above, decided to buy the business after Mrs Kwok was able to secure a loan from her mother. Both born sales people, the Kwoks did so well that in six years, they were able to rent all the shop lots in the basement of President Shopping Centre to house Sasa. In 1989, following a massive rent hike, they decided to move to a street-level space in Causeway Bay for the first time. Today, in this area alone, there are nine Sasa stores, with Sasa Supreme in Leighton Centre being the swankiest.

Sasa P3Sasa on Granville Road in Tsim Sha Tsui in the mid-1990s. Photo: Sasa

But swank has not really been part of the Sasa image. Sure, through the years they’ve tried cosmetic improvements (that corporate pink), but have never quite shaken off their bargain-basement profile. I remember my first visit, in 1998, to Sasa’s first store in Tsim Sha Tsui.  It was on Granville Road, then a riot of hipster shops and outlets selling overruns, and, past midnight, push-carts galore hawking anything and everything. The store front was flanked by about a metre-and-half-in-length windows that ran parallel and reminded me of shops in the still-seedy Wan Chai of the ’90s. Back then, there weren’t many mainland Chinese tourists. Transactions and inquiries were done over glass-topped counters, back-dropped by, on each side, a wall full of products that never enjoyed an iota of visual merchandising—it was like a medical hall of the past. You were served by indifferent staff who spoke only Cantonese (nope, no putonghua yet). As I was not a customer who would be spending thousands of Hong Kong dollars, the staff paid little attention to me. When they did, they tried to get me into buying complete sets of skincare products. All I wanted was a lip balm (it was winter).

Cut to Wisma Atria in 1997. I remember I was surprised to see Sasa here and had ventured in to see if it was anything like what I had, till then, experienced in Hong Kong—bad, to say the least. As it happened, I did have something I needed to get—a cleanser. A salesgirl was quick to receive me, but her insistence on showing me something when I told her I was only browsing reminded me why I had, after so many years, avoided Sasa in Hong Kong (to be honest, I did visit the stores, but bought nothing and, to be sure, I was not expecting Joyce Beauty). To meet the woman’s eagerness, I told her I was looking for cleansers. She immediately showed me one from Suisse Programme (Sasa is the distributor) and then proceeded to try to sell me four additional products from the brand despite my visible—verbal, too—lack of interest. The store’s pushy ways seem to have remained with them till this day. I often wonder if Eleanor Law Kwai Chun was similarly persistent in her selling.

Sasa P4A typical, packed-to-the-rafters Sasa store today

Despite parent company Sa Sa International Holdings (the name is spelled as two words) achieving the status of a HK$14.7 billion cosmetics empire (2018), selling a staggering 17,000 plus products in Hong Kong, Macau, the major cities in China, Malaysia, and Singapore, Sasa the retail outfit never became an Asian Sephora that it could have been. Although they were initially associated with Japanese brands Kanebo, Kose, and Shiseido, they took a different route in the 2000s, offering cheap Korean brands to which similarly-positioned Chinese and Taiwanese names were added. Sure, they still keep ‘prestige’ Northern European brands such as Methode Swiss, La Colline, Collistar, and Suisse Programme (and Procter & Gamble-owned Japanese skincare line SKII, which once attracted shoppers to Sasa because of the discount offered—reported to be up to 30 percent), but those are usually overshadowed by cheaper offerings strategically placed in the front of the shops. Yet, they are never really considered a bargain store. Prices are not that cheap. In fact, I was often told, some products are better priced in Hong Kong.

I am no business analyst, so I can’t offer a definitive on what went wrong with Sasa. But I can say from my own experience in the stores in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and, of course, here on home turf that Sasa feels like, operationally, they have never left their early years. In the mean time, chain stores such as Mannings and Watson were improving by leaps and bounds. What, for me, continued to be a non-lure is Sasa’s service. It never quite met expectations, especially in the face of e-commerce competition or, worse, Sephora’s very appealing “assisted self-service”. To catch up, they launched Sasa Click & Collect app in June, but that meant, to receive my orders, I would still need to go into the physical store that I want to avoid.

Sasa P5.jpgThe mind-boggling array of sheet masks, now very much associated with Sasa

On-line chatter took the news of Sasa’s closure as opportunity to bitch about the retailer (read the posts on the forum page of hardwarezone.com.sg, for example). Sure, there are always haters in every industry, but not all of the complains are invalid. I am astonished that Sasa has not taken into consideration consumer sentiment in their earlier internal revamp. According to a company statement released to the media, Sasa said, “In order to improve the performance of the Singapore market, the group had taken measures in recent years to restructure the local management team and to enhance store display and product mix with a view to driving sales. Regrettably, the results were far from satisfactory.”

Driving sales without first bringing in customers is, of course, challenging and can show results that are divorced from satisfactory. And enhanced store display that takes after those of stores with five-foot-way frontage (or shops such as Beauty Language) and product mix that is too jumbled to be of appeal to the discerning beauty consumer seem to be stepping away from what is considered shopper-savvy selling. A hodgepodge, of course, can be fun—look at Japan’s largest drugstore chain Matsumoto Kiyoshi or the cooler and younger Cosme Kitchen. I don’t know about you, but stepping into Sasa has been, for me, mostly a bewildering, near headache-inducing affair, whether in Hong Kong or right here.

Photos (except indicated): Zhao Xiangji

Go East For A Feast For The Skin

Beauty | Jyunka, Singapore’s premier skincare brand, launches its third concept centre in Bedok

 

Jyunka @ Bedok Point P1B

Singapore skincare label Jyunka has always been somewhat of a secret among those who use their products. Their efficacy—underscored by their marketing tag “we can change your skin”—is something users understandably want to keep to themselves. But despite their relatively off-the-radar standing, Jyunka is picking up a following large and fast enough that the brand has recently opened their third concept centre in a year. This pace is not inconsistent with market trends. Figures on the Singapore market at the time of this post isn’t immediately available (although analysts suggested at least 5% growth through 2025), but published reports suggests that the global beauty and anti-ageing segment of the wellness industry presently exceeds USD1 trillion.

Jyunka’s trio of centres (quartet, if you consider one in Bangkok that opened a couple of months back) is indication that beauty services that reply on effective therapies and, crucially, no sign-ups are scoring with customers. Their latest is a boon to those who live in the east. Although housed away from the obvious choice of Bedok Mall, Jyunka’s siting in the less buzzy, 8-year-old Bedok Point suits the quiet environs that such a face spa needs. Its neighbours are eateries, but you don’t sense that this is a foodie haven where makan (or unwelcome smells) will somehow stand in the way of treatment that enhances beauty.

The rather compact size of 494-square-foot (or 46m²), with three treatment cabins, belies the thoroughness and luxury of its new signature therapy, the Jyunka V Ageless Treatment. Jyunka has always taken pride of place in the skincare business with their strength of product offerings, but in their own therapy centres, their conceived-in-house, anti-aging and skin-rejuvenation treatments have won them not only accolades among Industry watchers, but also die-hard fans.

Jyunka mottoThe Jyunka motto, seen on the side wall of the concept centre

The Jyunka V Ageless Treatment is a facial that is built on the brand’s Five-Step Treatment. Interestingly, the ‘V’ does not stand for V-shape, as one may be tempted to assume, but the roman numeral five, alluding to their signature facial of five separate components involving hands and machine. Jyunka’s menu of treatments basically comprises Expert (those that are offered using only the facialist’s hands) and Technology (those that are administered by using advanced tools imported from Korea). The V Ageless Treatment involves both, and comes with an extra constituent part: a Stimulation Massage, which is described as “quick pinching motions to physically engage muscle movement”. All in all, its like a string quintet with an added piano!

In many salon treatments, facial muscles are often neglected, according to Jennifer Leng, Jyunka’s founder and the brand’s technical director. “It’s like an old person,” Ms Leng explained further. “When he doesn’t exercise, his muscle slacks. When he does, he gets his muscles back.” There is a misconception among both customers and facialists that working on facial muscles means tugging at the skin. “It doesn’t involve any stretching of the skin if you do it correctly,” assured Ms Leng. “The firmness of the skin is also depended on the quality of your facial muscle. Lifting—real lifting—requires physical work, not just the products.”

The thing about multi-step facial treatment is that experiencing it is more pleasurable than reading about it. Without going into details may, in fact, arouse your curiosity. From deep cleansing to the massage, the Jyunka V Ageless Treatment’s use of both the fingers and tools are calming and bliss-inducing, with the result palpable and visible. The skin is refreshed, rejuvenated, and re-energised.


Two facial junkies share their experience of trying the Jyunka V Ageless Treatment

Perhaps, only one question matters: Was it good?

Lauren Ng

“Frankly, I fell asleep the minute the facialist started cleansing my face. I have to say she is skilled and has talented fingers, if I can describe her digits as such. When I woke up, it was to her telling me she was going to apply the mask—a thick gooey paste that I can’t see, but can feel: senses-awakening cold. It was as if she was applying some precious volcanic clay on my face. It felt good. The rest of the treatment passed too quickly. I like it that she asked me if I needed a sunblock before the session ended. Thoughtful, I thought.”

Immediate result: “The result, I have to say, was very noticeable. I thought it was someone else when I looked into the mirror. No kidding! Before the treatment, my skin looked kind of grey-ish, as though my face was shrouded in a permanent shadow. After the 2-hour session (can be longer!!!), I was convinced my complexion looked brighter and my pores seemed to have looked less visible. This was the face I want to bring along when I meet my Tinder date!”

A week later: “You wouldn’t think it’d last beyond three days, but even 10 days after, I felt my skin remained clear, so much so that my boss asked me if I had secretly gone to to Seoul over the weekend!”

❝ You wouldn’t think it’d last beyond three days, but even 10 days after, I felt my skin remained clear, so much so that my boss asked me if I had secretly gone to Seoul over the weekend! ❞

 

Ray Zhang

“It’s what I like in a facial: thorough and methodical. It was also a good mix of hand and machine work, much like the best cakes. It got to a good start with the cleansing and scrubbing, which I later learned is what they call ‘deep cleansing’. The metal-plate ‘scrubber’ they used in the two-part cleanse was surprisingly gentle, not the stuff used for scrapping bumps off walls to prep them for paint work. In fact, I really like the hi-tech aspect of the treatment, which included a warm radio-frequency wand that is supposed to tighten facial contours and the cryotherapy, which consists of a cold tool that help deliver the active ingredients of the cream mask used into the skin. Very shiok!”

Immediate result: “I didn’t think the result would be so noticeable, but it was. Before I looked into the mirror, I thought my skin felt different. Maybe it was a clean that I had not experienced before. When I did get to see my reflection, I saw not only a clean, but really fresh face. It was as if I had slept uninterrupted for days and woke up to new skin.”

A week later: “My skin definitely looked good for the next three days. Beyond that, I think I would need the home care products that the therapist recommended, but I was too cheap to invest.”


The Ageless Series

Jyunka Ageless Emulsion and Eyes P2

Part of the expanding ‘Ageless’ range. the Ageless Emulsion and Ageless Eye

Now in its 10th year, Jyunka has recently added a new product to the slowly expanding Ageless line, part of a 25-product collection that includes the in-demand M+ Fluid (often sold out as only 5,000 bottles are yielded in each production in France). The Ageless Emulsion joins Ageless Eye to offer a pair of preparations that will be easily enjoyed by those who like their skincare routine simple. Simplicity is augmented by the ease of use and the highly spreadable consistency of the two products.

The new Ageless Emulsion, with its gel-cream texture, truly stands out for its viscosity: it flows easily and spreads just as easily too, which means absorption is immediate. What goes into the skin are two proprietary formulas: Senestem and Neroguard. Together, they deliver a cocktail of active ingredients that reduce melanin synthesis (for fairer skin), as well as increase collagen synthesis (for reduced wrinkles). To this, centella asiatica (a culinary and medical herb that’s also known as Asian pennywort or gotu kola) extract is added to improve the overall appearance of the skin. As Jyunka’s business development manager Nora Tien said, “You’ll see the difference.”

Jyunka V Ageless Facial Treatment, SGD380 for 2 hours, is available exclusively at Jyunka Concept Store, Bedok Point. For appointment, call 6214 3025. Ageless Emulsion, SGD298, and Ageless Eye, SGD142, are available at all Jyunka outlets. Photos: Galerie Gombak

High Camp Before Even Higher Camp

Or, this is not how mother would wear it

 

Lush holiday 2018 campaign

It’s way before the first Monday of May, 2019, but Lush is already showing us what camp is about, in case you have you been living under a rock that’s not the sparkly kind. For Christmas, to boot, and before Deepavali! Not long after it was announced that the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s mega fashion exhibition at the Costume Institute next spring will be dedicated to expressions you’ll hold back before mother, pastor, and boss (not necessarily in that order), Britain’s scented-to-death Lush teased with images of their upcoming holiday campaign, featuring some individuals who can naturally out-camp the only cross-dressing person you know, Kumar.

Featuring a trio of stars from Rupaul’s Drag Race, such as Detox (above), Kim Chi, and Shea Couleé, the Lush images are, in fact, to fans of the camp-con-as-reality-TV series that will never air on Channel 5, beyond camp. But, you think Pink Dot is a blemish you see in the mirror in the morning, so as prelude to that event Lady Gaga and Harry Styles will co-chair next year, this is camp!

For all the economic value that it may bring to cosmetic sellers and sequin manufacturers, the Costume Institute’s next exhibition, we think, is somewhat redundant. Modern life is so kohled by campiness that even Lush’s advertising exuberance to get us interested in their bath balls—itself a splashy drop in the tingling tub of camp—is just one selfie-ish visual zeal after another that, in the era of Moshino X H&M’s trying flamboyance, substantiate the belief that anything is possible if you are willing to go above— and over—the top.

From the pencil-skirt-wearing literature teacher in secondary school who loves Mexican one-act plays too much to private kampong dining, set in kitschy pondan plush to vain-pot Xia Xue’s eye-opening makeup tutorial on Youtube, camp is well and alive and in all its glorified artifice and exaggeration. It is possible familiarity has habituated us to camp. We do, after all, have quite a culture of gregarious OTTness—from Michael Chiang’s cliché-ridden Beauty World to Ovidia Yu’s crime-fighting nonya, Aunty Lee—even if it is, shall we say, not quite lush.

Photo: Lush

Bath Time: Return To Fresh

Is this Nesti Dante soap the best-smelling bar to buy?

 

Nesti Dante Soap Cipresso

By May Goh

I am not a soap user but I do like to use soaps. Does that make sense? The last soap I remember using was a green bar that I recall to be known as Popinjay Soap, but is now, I was told, packaged as Parrot Botanicals (no. 333!), and is still available. Unfortunately for the toilet soap (in case you think I am referring to lubricating grease!), shower gels and creams and a bevy of Dove girls have made the liquid soap the cleanser of choice for our shower.

What got me into soaps again is this giant of a bar (11cm X 6.5cm) by the Florentine company Nesti Soap Works, which markets their soap products under the brand Nesti Dante. A friend gifted it to me and I thought it was a rather unexpected and delightful choice. Eager to try something that I have given up for at least 20 years, I put this irresistible cypress-scented bar to use as soon as I got home that evening. It released its aromatic power even before I could rip it off its paper wrapping. It lathered into a cloud and allowed itself to meander through my body better than a bath sponge.

What I especially like is the solidness of this triple-milled soap (triple-milling yields soaps without impurities and are known to last longer) is its smoothness and hardness. I was told that a Nesti Dante soap used by one can last four months! It is surprisingly non-drying too (and sulphate-free and parabens-free and the rest of it). What some users might find ungainly is the size of the bar. It is huge: larger than a kitchen scrub!

The soap is so well scented that you don’t need an air freshener in the bath room as the fragrance of the soap lingers long after you’ve showered and left the bathroom. Redolent of a cypress forest, this soap smells wonderful on the body and in the air. In the bathroom, I feel I am among conifers as it rains. Outside, I am enveloped by a breeze that is naturally intoxicating. In my bedroom, I feel I am in some highland lodge and the Yuletide season has arrived, and a fire is crackling to warm. Bliss.

Nesti Dante soaps, SGD15.90 each, are available at Robinsons and Tangs. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

They Say M Is Marvelous

Skincare | What has been touted as the first “true anti-ageing serum” by a Singapore-grown beauty brand isn’t mere talk. There’s magic in the M+

 

Jyunka M+ Fluid

If you are a regular duty-free shopper up in the sky with Singapore Airlines, and the KrisShop magazine is your preferred source of reading material and retail therapy, you may remember seeing in the Beauty Hall pages a Japanese-sounding name that offers a potion simply called Jyunka M+ Fluid. In the accompanying caption, KrisShop raved that “many call this the Rolls-Royce of vitamin C treatments”. A possibly Nippon-born name with suggestion of English automobile engineering is intriguing enough until you learn that Jyunka, although a Japanese word (純華or kanji for ‘pure essence’), is, in fact, a Singaporean brand.

What’s also remarkable is that Jyunka products sell in the region of three figures, and sits mere pages away from skincare heavyweights such as Estée Lauder’s Night Repair and SKII’s Facial Treatment Essence. Yet, Jyunka M+ Fluid is able to hold its own, seemingly unperturbed by the presence of the prominent; its handsome little bottle hinting at efficacy and radiating luxury.

The M+ Fluid is Jyunka’s star product and the first in a line of science-based skincare that parent company Laponie, distributor of European heritage and salon brands such as Maria Galland and Filorga, has been developing in the past ten years. M+ Fluid’s debut back in 2007, while relatively quiet, left a deep impression in the business of beauty simply because no one had thought it was possible to capture what it did in a bottle. The selling, too, of the formula under a local brand name by a company—36 years old to date—mainly known as a distributor of skincare brands was considered chancy.

Jennifer LengFounder of Jyunka Jennifer Leng

Unlike discoveries of miracle liquids in Japan involving accidental findings in paddy fields, the story of the 10-year-old M+ Fluid and the founding of Jyunka are a lot more prosaic. As the corporate telling goes, founder Jennifer Leng has been on a quest for the ultimate skin-soothing and strengthening formula for her hyper-sensitive and oily skin. Ms Leng’s work brings her into contact with scientists working on the most cutting-edge of research, and one of them is a Japanese individual who had been developing a stable form of vitamin C that, when applied, can reach the basal layers of the skin via an advanced delivery system.

Scientists and dermatologists know that vitamin C is beneficial to the skin, but it is notoriously difficult to stabilise and transport into the deeper layers below the dermis where it can do its regenerative and anti-aging work. Getting deep enough is like going to the centre of the earth: it’s simply hard to make the trek. The Japanese scientist, who is presumably a trade secret and hence remains unnamed, was able to encapsulate l-ascorbic acid, considered to be a superior form of vitamin C, using QuSomes, trade name for a form of liposome that are like a spherical layered cake (kueh lapis?), consisting concentric films of the lipophilic (oil-soluble) and the hydrophilic (water-soluble) active ingredients.  Without getting more scientific, this means nano-sized particles that are supposed to be able to reach further and faster down the skin to make a visible difference on the surface.

The ability to send l-ascorbic acid unadulterated to where it is needed most in the skin led to the formulation of the precursor of M+ Fluid, the Multi-Action Miracle Fluid. So thrilled was Ms Leng with her new product and so unwavering in her trust in its efficacy that she had a small batch produced in Japan—enough to yield 300 7-milliltre bottles. Although commercial packaging was not ready, Ms leng was not willing to hold back the Multi-Action Miracle Fluid and, according to her son Keefe Chie, who joined the family business to expand Jyunka’s reach, availed it in small tinted pharmaceutical bottles, all affixed, by hand, with a hastily printed label. This was sold at S$80 a pop, and it would not be unreasonable to compare the sell-out to hot cakes. “My mom started in this business because she has sensitive skin,” Mr Chie said. “She’s allergic to dust and so she’s always looking for only the best products to use and sell. Junkya is a commitment to that.”

Jyunka M+ Fluid 1st Gen to presentEvolution of Jyunka M+ Fluid

Ten years, three packaging revisions, and one name change later, the formula that Ms Leng brought back from Japan in 2007 to launch Jyunka has not received upgrades that characterise, for example, the tech world: M+ Fluid remains exactly the same colourless and odourless potion that first appeared in those tiny, brown, black-screw-capped bottles. Now a ‘secret’ of aficionados and a fave of (gasp) beauty-bloggers, M+ Fluid is hailed as a Singaporean beauty breakthrough, even if it was conceived in Japan and is now produced in France (Japan became less ideal after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011). Jyunka remains on the firmament of premium skincare lines despite the entrance of newer-comers such as Skin Inc and Dr GL.

What works in M+ Fluid’s favour is its total ease of use. If the texture of any skin treatment determines how it can convince adopters that there is indeed pleasure of use, M+ Fluid wins hands-down with its easy-to-like viscosity and lightness. Once the recommended five to six drops of the clear fluid touch the palm, they feel like oil, but when spread over the face, it has the weightlessness and the lack-of tackiness of water. The absorption of M+ Fluid into the skin is rapid and, surprisingly perhaps, the skin is matte. When a moisturizer is layered over it, the skin remains shine-free. The discernible result, even from first use, is truly rather remarkable, if not describable. After two weeks, the skin appears finer and brighter.

Ms Leng said, via a media release, that “ageing skin is a key concern that everyone faces, and our products are designed to not just heal and restore, but also to prevent and protect from deep within the skin.” While that may be read as PR persuasion, a visit to the newly opened Jyunka Concept Centre—retail space and face spa—in Pacific Plaza could illustrate that Ms Leng wasn’t merely talking. Former model Nora Tien and now Jyunka’s Business Development Manager, who was there when we visited, showed us two photographs on her smartphone. One was of her before she joined the brand and the other a couple of months after she accepted the post. “This is real,” she emphasised, “The ‘after’ is really what I look like now. I never thought this could be possible: believe it.”

Jyunka M+ Fluid, SGD344, is available at Jyunka Concept Centre, Pacific Plaza. Photos (main): Jim Sim; (others): Jyunka