NEW YORK – The word "geisha" may conjure up images of beautiful Japanese courtesans, but for American retailers it means only one thing: ka-ching!
Sony, whose new movie "Memoirs of a Geisha" is based on Arthur Golden's best-selling novel of the same title, has managed to turn geisha chic into a key holiday look, thanks to high profile tie-in partners like Banana Republic and Fresh cosmetics.
"I think people have a long fascination with Asian culture," said Fresh co-founder Alina Roytberg, whose company began selling its "Memoirs of a Geisha" line back in September. "What we wanted to sell is not just a beauty product, but the process that a geisha must undergo before she can go out."
And the full process is just what Fresh offers: Geisha Rice Face Wash, $32, Geisha Bath with Sake, $42, Flower Petal Face Mask, $35, eau de parfum, $48, and Geisha Beauty Face Palette, $38, were all inspired by actual products mentioned in Golden's book.
"The fragrance is probably the No. 1 seller and then comes the Beauty Palette," Roytberg said.
Companies like Banana Republic and luxury alchemy company D.L. & Co. are also profiting from their official tie-ins to the movie.
From black kimono dresses and wrap tops to Asian-inspired quilted bags, Banana Republic has put a modern — and commercial — twist on geisha style, giving Americans the allure minus the full-on geisha regalia.
"People want to adapt just a touch [of this look] to update their style," said C Magazine features director Nathan Cooper. "The underlying drive behind this new style is that it offers a wide range of women a simple and flattering way to add a little flair to their holiday looks."
Shoppers agree that there is something very enchanting about this sumptuous style.
"I think people love it because there is a sense of fantasy. It's like voyeurism into a closed society and anything forbidden is always sexy," said New York City resident Julie Leong.
Geisha, however, are not just sexy. They are also looked upon as artists, trained from girlhood in talents such as dancing, tea pouring, playing musical instruments, floral arrangement, engaging conversation and poetry, mostly to entertain at gatherings of men.
"A lot of people don't understand that a geisha is a woman who has built herself up externally and internally," Roytberg said.
In addition to their lifestyle, the geisha look is also misunderstood.
"A full-fledged geisha only wears her makeup for formal events," Golden said at a recent book reading. "The back of the neck is also really sexy for Japanese men, because that was the only thing a woman exposed. Geisha exaggerate that by having their kimonos farther down the back," he added.
The less-is-more approach taken by geisha makes even their wrists an erogenous zone. Sometimes, while pouring a gentleman his tea, a geisha will flip her wrist ever so slightly to reveal a demure patch of skin.
"There is something really gorgeous about restriction and things we can't really see," said Doug Little, founder of D.L. & Co., which is currently selling exotic "Memoirs of a Geisha" candles. "That was one of the reasons I was so drawn to this project. It's so rich and beautiful without being garish, which is something unusual for American culture, because we are all about loud, bright and intense.
"Their culture is about soft and subtle," added Little, whose "Memoirs of a Geisha" candles have already been re-ordered twice.
People aren't just stocking up on high-end candles and makeup. They are also going after pricey "Memoirs of a Geisha" inspired shoes and leather goods.
ICON, a shoe, handbag and leather goods company, is selling up a storm with their Rain Dance medium-sized leather cosmetic case, $85, which features a thermally transferred image of a memorable scene from the movie. Other hot geisha items include: kimono fabric ballet slippers, $295, wedges, $285, and sandals, $195.
But not everyone is going ga-ga for geisha. Savvy shoppers will recall that this is not the first time they've seen Asian-inspired blouses, dresses and shoes at their favorite stores in the mall.
"This look is so played out. Its just so commercial," said Mordechai Rubenstein, a spokesman for fashion company Jack Spade. "The whole sweeping hems, white makeup and long sleeves are just not practical."
Rubenstein's gripe with geisha mania extends beyond fashion. He also feels it's exploitive of Japanese culture.
"We shouldn't rob [Japan] of their culture. They are masters of it. We should just leave it there and stick to the classics here."
Despite Rubenstein's concerns about unoriginality and the merchandising of a culture many Americans know little about, others feel the feminine geisha look will come back again and again.
"This is a trend that will always be in the mix," Cooper said.