Yu-Chen Shih of Orcé Cosmetics on colorism in the world of Asian beauty

Los Angeles-based Orcé Cosmetics tackles colorism in the world of beauty through its makeup formulated for Asian skin. Founder Yu-Chen Shih tells Nafeesa Saini how her diverse upbringing drives the brand’s mission to dismantle prejudice.

The beauty industry may be saturated with Asian names, but there remain gaps in representation that Yu-Chen Shih seeks to fill with his brand, Orcé Cosmetics. Born in Taiwan and raised in Singapore, she advocates greater inclusiveness within Asian communities and combats Western stereotypes about Asian women.

Daughter of a Taiwanese mother – who nurtured her whitening treatments as a child – and a Malaysian father from the Melanau Aboriginal tribe, Shih was bullied due to her deeper skin tone growing. These experiences, in addition to never finding an adequate basis, inspired her to create Orcé (pronounced o-say) for Asian skin. The cult favorite of Hollywood makeup artists is now available from Tangs Singapore and currently has two products in its range. Here he tells us more.

Here, Shih explains exactly how Orcé Cosmetics supports Asian skin.

What prompted you to start your own brand?

It was born from feeling neglected for many years.

I was in my last year of college as a major in advertising and marketing and also a second year in an advertising agency in Los Angeles. I was working on behalf of a global Japanese beauty brand.

At the time, the star product was a range of whitening skin care products. I’ve shared tips, including adjusting the product strategy to “lighten” instead of “whiten,” but not all of them were considered. I thought to myself: “What if there was a brand that really spoke to me?” As a beauty consumer, I was always content with what’s out there. I haven’t come across a brand that really makes products for me and supports the things I care about, like the visibility and representation of Asians globally.

It was then that I conceptualized Orcé. It comes from the word “strength” because I want to portray Asian women as a force to be reckoned with. We are confident, strong and beautiful. We come in all kinds of colors and we deserve shades that work for us.

Did this thought also come from your upbringing?

I was mainly raised by my mother and was taught that I would look prettier if I had lighter skin. She made little comments here and there saying it was a shame I inherited tanned skin, or compared my skin to hers and my cousins. She said, “I have to get you off the swim team. You have to use whitening creams. You have to stay out of the sun ”.

I had to do so many things just to get lighter skin to be considered beautiful. This took a toll on my self-esteem as a young woman. Outside of my family, brands are perpetuating it too.

How does your brand break stereotypes about Asian women?

When most people think of Asians, you think of East Asians. What about all Southeast or South Asians, for example?

I wanted to do justice to the colorful diversity within our global community. We are more than Chinese, Japanese or Korean. We are also from Southeast Asia and South Asia. It is about challenging the stereotype that Asians are all fair-skinned and that only fair-skinned is beautiful.

As a young obsessed with makeup, I remember very clearly how fascinated I was by the transformative effect of foundation. I was determined to find one that worked for me. I intuitively went to the Asian brands. What I found is that I was always very far out of their range, and especially at the time because I was part of the swim team. As a young man, I internalized it because I really needed to lighten my skin because I am not accepted within this light to light range.

I also looked to brands and magazines for what was considered beautiful. I have never seen an Asian model with deeper skin, or any model that looked like me.

With Orcé, I also want to get out of this box in which the industry tries to insert Asian brands. Sometimes Asian brands pack themselves in this box with the colors of red, gold and black. I think what some brands do is they fetishize Asian culture. I want to present an elevated experience where you can only focus on the product rather than being distracted by the over-selling of Asian culture.

What problems did Orcé encounter in dealing with colorism?

Today’s ads rarely feature deeper skinned Asian models. I want to show that Asians are multidimensional. My creative team was casting for our photo shoot in New York City and couldn’t find a model with a deep enough complexion, so we flew one from Indonesia. Before that, they suggested hiring a model of a different ethnicity and making her look Asian. I was offended because it is against everything we are doing.

We are trying to encourage representation. I insisted that they find me someone who was an accurate representation of that shadow. I wanted to show people with the models we launched that Asians are multidimensional and we all have different facial features.

When it came to launching the brand, it was really tough for us at first, as we had a lot of setbacks. This was pre-Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate; there has been little conversation about diversity in the b2b space.

We got a lot of comments like, “Why do Asians need their own branding? You can just use products made for Caucasians.”

A lot of education had to be done. Like them, I once believed that everyone had the same skin, just a different color. The industry wants us to think of it so that they can sell one thing to different people without understanding the needs of each group.

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