Hanea Mori dies: how her humble beginnings in fashion turned into haute couture brilliance

Known as 'Madame Butterfly', her empire grew to be loved by royalty, film stars and global leaders

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Hanae Mori, the Japanese couturier who helped pioneer the East-West style, has died aged 96.

The designer passed away at her home in Tokyo; no cause of death was revealed by her representative, who announced the news on Thursday.

Her keen eye for fashion revolutionised global styles for decades and counted the rich, famous and global leaders as admirers. She also became the first Asian woman to be admitted to the respected Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.

Here, The National looks back at her glittering career in the industry.

A childhood wracked by war

Born Hanae Fujii on January 8, 1926, in the Shimane Prefecture in south-west Japan, Mori married in 1947, the same year she graduated from Tokyo Woman’s Christian University with a bachelor’s degree in literature.

At just 15, when the Second World War arrived in the Pacific, she witnessed the destruction of her country. Like many women, she spent the war working in factories.

As Tokyo underwent a complete rebuild following extensive bombing, Mori opened an atelier in the district of Shinjuku in 1951. There, she made clothes for Japanese cinema and the wives of American soldiers. Over the next decade, Mori would create looks for hundreds of films, including Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Autumn and Yoshishige Yoshida’s Farewell to the Summer Light.

Following a trip to the Chanel boutique in Paris in 1960, Mori envisioned a future laid in couture. With women rendered virtually invisible in traditional Japanese society, Mori understood she could play into that stereotype by creating deeply feminine clothes.

Mori, left, with a model wearing an outfit from the designer's 1977 collection in Paris. AFP

Success is all part of the design

Discreetly beautiful, her creations became a huge success among Japanese society, and by 1975, she felt confident enough to showcase her creations in New York for the first time. She staged an East Meets West fashion show at the Park Avenue Hotel. It was a roaring success and saw her designs snapped up by the likes of Crown Princess Masako of Japan, Princess Grace of Monaco, Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton and Sophia Loren.

With an eye for creating western-style clothes imbued with Japanese motifs, Mori drew many plaudits for her style. In 1977, her attention to detail, construction and technique meant she was invited to the revered Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, making her the first Japanese designer to join.

There, she joined powerhouse brands such as Christian Dior, Chanel, Givenchy, Armani, Versace, and Valentino at the Paris shows. Her first couture collection dazzled the crowd, as a parade of gowns embellished with traditional Japanese motifs such as cherry blossoms, calligraphy and butterflies, which would become her signature.

A dress from Mori's spring/summer collection in 1978. AP

Conversely, much of Mori’s success has been down to the innate conservatism of her clothes, unlike other Japanese designers such as Kenzo Takada, Issey Miyake (who also died earlier this month) and Rei Kawakubo, who all won fame for their avant-garde approach.

Mixing western codes with Japanese sensibilities, the resulting clothes were elegant and beautiful, but not, as Vogue magazine pointed out, “for women who wanted to make an entrance”. Instead, Mori’s gift was dressing women who preferred to savour the quiet delight of a silk cocktail dress finished with an obi, a dress printed with soft clouds and petals, or a diaphanous chiffon gown in subtle colours.

During the 1970s, Mori expanded her offering, adding daywear and workwear, as well as lines for men and children. Perfume quickly followed, as did homeware and traditional lacquerware.

By 1980, Mori was considered among one of the many success stories coming out of Japan, with The Times reporting “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”. That year alone, she racked up close to $100 million in sales.

In 1989, French president Francois Mitterrand awarded Mori the Legion of Honour, the nation's highest award, for her service to haute couture.

Away from fashion

Mori also created uniforms for Japan Airlines and a version of Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly in Milan, Italy, in 1985. Over the next two years, she designed the outfits for Rudolf Nureyev’s Paris and New York opera ballet shows of Cinderella. Mori also created the looks for Elektra at the Salzburg Music Festival in 1996.

By the 1990s, however, as the world economy slumped, so too did haute couture sales. Customers began to turn away from $9,000 day suits and $26,000 evening gowns. Like many couture houses during this period, Mori was forced to shut her atelier.

Mori at the end of her autumn/winter haute couture show in Paris in 2004. AFP

However, she continued to work. She created the uniform for the Japanese team at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, followed by the uniforms for the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, Norway, two years later.

After more than five decades in the industry, she formally retired in 2004, holding an emotionally charged farewell show in Paris.

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

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Updated: October 13, 2022, 10:16 AM