“understanding the complexity of producing those great songs adds to the wonder of [the music]”

Antoine Bourgeois

Never just skin deep


Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Kageaki Smith

The great blues, jazz and rock guitarists, such as Albert King, Wes Montgomery and Prince, make their instruments sing — and make it look effortless. When he was in his teens, Antoine Bourgeois, today president of Clarins Japan, wanted to know what made these musicians’ songs so good. So he appropriated his sister’s neglected guitar and taught himself how to play.

“I loved this music and tried to reproduce it,” he says. “It can be technically and artistically marvellous. And understanding the complexity of producing those great songs adds to the wonder of it.”

But Bourgeois’ pursuit of a deeper understanding of how the best music is made didn’t stop with learning how to play the guitar. He decided to build one.

A professional guitar-maker was running a summer camp and Bourgeois enrolled. Every day for two weeks, he sawed, carved and sanded.

“When you arrive the first day, you see the parts and this dirty wood, and you think, okay, we’re really a long way from a guitar,” he said. “We worked from morning to night, getting blisters and aches, but everyone was passionate about it.”

He enjoyed the experience so much that he went back the following summer and made a second guitar. And, Bourgeois insists, both instruments still sound great.

“It was another valuable step in understanding the process of making music,” he states.

Bourgeois, from Paris, comes by this desire to understand how things work honestly. The son of a biology teacher, he developed an interest in science thanks to his mother. The university he attended, AgroParisTech, allowed him to immerse himself in a wide range of science-related topics — including biology research, agriculture and food processing — but also business management, which he ultimately pursued.

A job with the global professional services firm Accenture brought Bourgeois to Japan in 2008. He then headed the Japan branch of a French telecommunications company from 2010 through 2013. At the start of 2014, he was offered the position of CFO at Clarins Japan but, shortly after taking on this role, the then-general manager stepped down and Bourgeois was invited to take over.


Founded in France 63 years ago, Clarins is a family-owned cosmetics company. Its focus is on body care, face care and makeup.

“Everything that is related to skin care, we cover,” says Bourgeois. “We have a lineup that is absolutely unmatched by anyone.”

The Japan subsidiary opened 32 years ago, and today has 80 points of sale across the country. Some of the products created specifically for Japan have gone on to become bestsellers in Asia.

“Jacques Courtin, the founder of the company, was always asking women questions to understand their definition of beauty,” says Bourgeois. “He learned that Japanese women want to have a slimmer face, especially in the cheek area.”

Clarins created Total V Contouring Serum, a slimming product for the face. It reduces fatty tissue in the cheeks.

“You have to understand the skin’s cells, the adipocytes and the physiology of fat tissues to create products like this,” Bourgeois explains. “These are really advanced, complex products with a formula made for a good reason.”

The business trips he often takes give him an opportunity to work on another one of his interests: photography.

“When I first came to Japan, I always had my camera in my pocket,” Bourgeois recalls. “But when I looked back at the pictures, I saw that they were a little blurry or that the colours were burnt.”

He started asking himself how he could improve the photos he took.

“I started playing with my wife’s DSLR camera and discovered more about how to take a picture,” Bourgeois says. “Understanding how the camera works helps you reproduce a place at a certain point in time in the best possible way.”

After learning many of the technical aspects of photography, Bourgeois says that he just has to keep practicing and learning.

“Photography, from the Greek, means writing light,” Bourgeois points out. “In the end, it’s not as easy as it sounds.” 

Do you like natto?


Time spent working in Japan: Ten years.

Career regret (if any): No. I took every opportunity I got, and those opportunities brought me here.

Favourite saying: “Once you stop learning, you start dying.” – Albert Einstein.

Favourite book: Hyperion by Dan Simmons. It’s a masterpiece of science fiction.

Cannot live without: My family, of course. I have two young boys.

Lesson learned in Japan: There is a saying in French that goes, ‘One who does not speak up, agrees’. This is absolutely not true in Japan. Here, someone who doesn’t say ‘yes’ probably disagrees.

Secret of success in business: Adaptation. Evolution. Because nobody knows what the future is going to throw at you.

Favourite place to dine: Les enfants gâtés near Daikanyama. It’s a wonderful French restaurant with a Japanese chef. I’ve never had better pressed terrines anywhere, even in France.

Do you like natto?: To my wife’s dismay, no. She is always saying that, since I love cheese I should love natto, but I don’t think it’s the same.