Hanae Mori, Japanese Couturier Who Melded East-West Styles, Dies at 96

Hanae Mori, Japanese Couturier Who Melded East-West Styles, Dies at 96

Hanae Mori was a Japanese couturier who rose from the ashes after World War II and built a fashion house valued at $500 million. This house became a symbol of the rise of postwar Japan. She was 96.

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Her office confirmed her death on Thursday without naming a cause. She had been ill for two days prior to her death, according to the office.

Hanae Mori, the daughter of a surgeon and a dressmaker who served American G.I. wives in a bombed out section of Tokyo, rose to global fame in a 50 year career that brought her incredible wealth, 20 companies, palatial homes in Paris and New York, and remarkable standing as a woman in a male-dominated field and society.

After decades of struggle to refine and market her styles, she was admitted in 1977 to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the first Asian woman to join the Paris guild of the world’s top designers. She was also first Asian woman to join Christian Dior and Chanel, Givenchy and Versace, Versace and Valentino in Paris shows. This is where the competition and stakes are as high as fashion gets.

Her collection was a stunning array, including gowns and other garments, that featured her unique blend of Western-style designs in silk & chiffon. It was imprinted with Japanese flowers, seascapes, calligraphy, and her signature butterfly. Bernadine, New York Times fashion critic, said that the industry had a new star.

“Paris still has its classics,”Ms. Morris wrote in 1977. “Chanel, who established her style in the 1920s and hasn’t changed much since, and Grès, who came along a decade later. They were joined this time by Hanae Mori, who may in time become a classic.”

She was right. In succeeding years, Ms. Mori’s haute couture charmed the runways of Paris and New York and was hailed by the fashion press. She gained millions of admirers around the world as she became well-known and her ready-to wear styles were widely available.

Her designs were quite conservative. Ms. Mori was not attempting to break Western fashion norms, unlike her Japanese contemporary Issey Mikae, who passed away on Aug. 5. She challenged Western fashion stereotypes by combining Japanese elements with Western designs. This led to her influence on a generation of designers from both cultures.

According to a Vogue editor, her creations were not made for women who wanted to make an impression. They were made for the majority of women who didn’t seek the spotlight, but the quiet pleasures that come with dressing in subtle colors or patterns. These included silk cocktail dresses with obi sashes, chiffon gowns with purple-orange mists, chiffon gowns with afloat with chiffon, and skirts and dresses with rose petals, reeds, and wispy clouds.

With her textile-executive husband, Ken Mori, as her business manager, Ms. Mori developed lines of evening gowns; daywear; business attire; men’s and children’s clothing; and collections of shoes, handbags, gloves and scarves. She also produced lacquerware, home furnishings, and fragrances for both men and women.

As Japan recovered from the destruction of wartime bombing and regained its economic footing with a rush of exuberance, women once confined to kitchens and limited to wearing traditional kimonos joined the work force in droves, and bought Ms. Mori’s jackets, slacks, sweaters and skirts. Many learned new ways to dress for evening and weddings with Mori creations.

And as Ms. Mori’s off-the-rack collections expanded to worldwide markets, her private client list grew to include Princess Grace of Monaco; Crown Princess Masako of Japan; Lady Bird Johnson; Nancy Reagan; Hillary Clinton; Sophia Loren; Renata Tebaldi; the wives of national leaders in Europe and Asia; and society figures in New York, Paris, London and Tokyo.

“The name Hanae Mori has become synonymous with Japan in women’s clothing, like Toyota in automobiles, Sony in tape recorders and Nikon in cameras,”The Times reported in Tokyo in 1980 following a Mori year of record sales that saw global sales reach $100 million.

Contracts followed fame. After designing costumes for Japanese films and uniforms to Japan Air Lines flight attendants, she was able to create costumes for the opera. “Madama Butterfly” at La Scala in Milan in 1985; for Rudolf Nureyev’s Paris Opera Ballet “Cinderella”In 1986 (and its New York production, 1987), and for the opera “Elektra”1996 Salzburg Music Festival

In the 1990s, Ms. Mori had become a top Japanese business executive and was the toast of Tokyo society. She was a charity fund-raiser who was befriended and admired by ambassadors, entertainment stars, and corporate leaders whose wives owned at least one Mori creation: daytime suits that retailed for $9,000 and evening dresses that retailed for $26,000.

Ms. Mori’s international headquarters, the Hanae Mori Building, was a glass and steel landmark in central Tokyo. She owned a French restaurant in the area, as well as mansions in New York City and Paris where she hosted dinner parties for up to 250 guests. Her Tokyo home was a five-story modern residence designed by Kenzo Tange, a Japanese architect.

Ms. Mori traveled the world in her own jetliner and dined with chief executives and royalty. She was also a popular Japanese newsreader. Small and thin, she has a heart-shaped smile, large round glasses, and a soft voice. Western correspondents interviewed her often, stating that she radiated calm confidence and an innate kindness.

“For all her success, Mori is an approachable woman, low-key, gracious and restrained — a manner that is the result of a conservative upbringing, and crucial to her success in Japan,”The Washington Post stated in a 1990 profile. “In Tokyo’s male-dominated business culture, a more overtly hard-driving woman would have been shunned.”

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Though no one knew it at the time, Ms. Mori’s global annual sales had reached a peak of about $500 million. In the mid-’90s, her sales began to steadily decline, dragged down by a long economic slump and changing tastes that forced many haute couture designers, including Ms. Mori, to retrench.

Ms. Mori sold her ready to wear retail outlets and licensed apparel businesses in 2002 to an investment group consisting of Rothschild of Britain, and Mitsui from Japan. Hanae Mori International filed in Japan for bankruptcy protection that same year, with liabilities totaling $94 million. Hanae Moribi survived in a few Tokyo shops and her name is still associated with her fragrance lines.

Japan’s foremost female fashion designer was born Hanae Fujii on Jan. 8, 1926, in Muikaichi (now Yoshika), in Shimane Prefecture in southwestern Japan. She was the only child of six children from a surgeon.

Hanae was just 15 when the war on the Pacific began. She worked in a factory, just like many young Japanese women. When the war was over, she resumed studies at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University and graduated in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in literature.

In 1947, she was married to Mr. Mori. Akira and Kei had two sons together, and they both helped her with her business ventures as adults. In 1996, her husband died. Her survivors include her two sons as well as eight grandchildren.

She was eager to find a career in dressmaking, so she opened her own atelier in Shinjuku in 1951. This is a shopping district in Tokyo. After a film producer spotted her work, she made costumes for hundreds of Japanese movies in the ’50s and ’60s, including Yasujiro Ozu’s “Early Autumn” and Yoshida’s “Farewell to the Summer Light.”Film stars became their clients. She wrote columns for a fashion magazine, and opened boutiques in Tokyo, among other cities.

She had a life-altering event in 1960. Visiting Coco Chanel’s Paris salon, she emerged with an idea that inspired her to try haute couture. Conceiving that feminine beauty in Japan was based on a mystique of concealment, she resolved to make garments that revealed women’s natural femininity — a revolutionary notion in a culture that for centuries had rendered women all but invisible.

Her idea was put into practice and her business thrived in Japan. In 1975, she traveled to New York with invitations made of rice-paper for 300 American V.I.P.s in fashion, including designers and critics. “East Meets West”Perform at a Park Avenue hotel. It was a huge success.

“Works of art they definitely are,”Ms. Morris, fashion critic for the Times, wrote. “Landscapes, butterflies, fans and flowers are beautifully colored on silk crepe and chiffon in the Japanese manner.

“But there are definite signs that Hanae Mori, the Japanese designer, is going Western,”She added. “The mingling of Western design and Japanese prints is a happy one.”

Neiman Marcus in Dallas was the first American department store to sell her products. Soon, Saks Fifth Avenue joined the party, as did Bonwit Teller (Bergdorf Goodman), Henri Bendel, and Bonwit Teller (Bonwit Teller). Two years later she was able to achieve greatness in Paris and settled on Avenue Montaigne.

Ms. Mori was responsible for designing the official uniform for both the Japanese delegation at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and two years later for the Lillehammer Olympics.

Ms. Mori was showered with accolades and prizes, notably the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, which was given to her in 1989 by President François Mitterrand. Her books include “Designing for Tomorrow” (1978), “A Glass Butterfly”(1984) “Hanae Mori: 1960-1989” (1989).

She continued to host fashion shows after declaring bankruptcy until 2004 when she retired at the age of 78. She called it a tribute to the East-West fusion she had pioneered.

“A cascade of applause greeted Hanae Mori as the audience rose to its feet to salute the great Japanese couturier’s final Paris show,”2004 report by the International Herald Tribune “Visibly overwhelmed, the designer was surrounded by models wearing the finale dresses exquisitely embroidered with butterflies — the symbol of the house.”

Hikari HidaContributed reporting from Tokyo

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