Remembering Hanae Mori, Japan’s pioneering fashion designer who died at age 96: she founded the first Asian haute couture brand, dressed Grace Kelly and was a businesswoman in a ‘gentlemen’s country’

Late Japanese fashion designer Hanae Mori, who cracked the elite world of Parisian haute couture, died at her home in Tokyo aged 96, Japanese media reported on August 18. Photo: Jiji Press/AFP

Over the decades, Hanae Mori’s luxurious creations were worn by Nancy Reagan, Grace Kelly and countless members of high society.

But she was also a pioneer for Japanese women – one of a tiny number to head an international corporation.

An employee at Mori’s office said on Thursday, August 18, that she died at home “of old age” on August 11, and that a private funeral had taken place. She was 96.

The spring/summer high fashion collection by Japanese designer Hanae Mori modelled in 1978, in Paris. Photo: AP Photo
The designer’s trailblazing career took her from Tokyo, where she started out making costumes for cinema, to New York and Paris – and in 1977 her label became the first Asian fashion house to join the rarefied ranks of haute couture.
Japanese fashion designer Hanae Mori (left) with a fashion model wearing clothing from her creations in Paris, 1977. Photo: AFP

The exclusive French club sets exacting standards for their hand-crafted – and extremely expensive – garments.

“When humans work with their hands, their creativity expands,” Mori told AFP during a 2006 retrospective in Tokyo, where a robot modelled a replica of her classic Chrysanthemum Pyjamas, a kimono-like robe made from hot pink chiffon and silk.

Meet Phoebe Gates, the stunning youngest daughter of Bill and Melinda Gates

Chrysanthemum Pajamas by Hanae Mori comprising a twilled silk and silk chiffon kaftan, a twilled satin jump suit and a silk satin belt, displayed at the Iwami Art Museum. Photo: In Pretty Finery/Facebook

In January, the designer summed up her feelings toward the industry in a special column for Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun.

“Fashion is something that pushes you, gives you courage to spread your wings and allows you to have adventures,” she said.

Pioneering Japanese fashion designer Hanae Mori, in Tokyo, in July 2018. Photo: Kyodo

Born in 1926 in a rural corner of western Japan, Mori studied literature at Tokyo Women’s Christian University before turning her hand to design.

She opened her first atelier above a noodle shop in Tokyo, and came to specialise in dressing the stars of the silver screen.

As Japan’s post-war economy grew, so did her business, which she ran with her husband – a textile executive who encouraged her to visit Paris and New York when the arrival of television made the film industry less profitable.

Japanese fashion designer Hanae Mori, centre, is applauded by models after the presentation of her 1997-98 autumn/winter haute couture collection presented in Paris, in 1997. Photo: AP Photo
“This was a kind of turning point for me,” she once said of the trips in the early 1960s, during which she met Coco Chanel in Paris. It turned out to be an inspirational encounter. When she stepped into Chanel’s studio, the iconic designer suggested she wear something in bright orange to contrast with her black hair.

Meet Deacon Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon’s son starring in Never Have I Ever

Japanese designer Hanae Mori after her 2003 autumn/winter haute couture collection in Tokyo. Photo: AFP

Taken aback, it got Mori thinking.

“The whole Japanese concept of beauty is based on concealment … I suddenly realised that I should change my approach and make my dresses help a woman stand out,” she said, according to The Washington Post.

Models wear creations by Japanese designer Hanae Mori during the autumn/winter 2004 haute couture “East Meets West” collection show in 2004, in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Getty Images

In 1965, Mori unveiled her first collection abroad, in New York, under the theme “East Meets West”.

Her designs combined traditional patterns like cranes and cherry blossoms – and her trademark butterflies – with Western styles, from woollen suits to sharp satin tailoring.

A model presents a long lime green evening gown with a black and white butterfly motif as part of Japanese designer Hanae Mori’s 1996-97 autumn/winter haute couture fashion collection in Paris, in 1996. Photo: AP Photo

Mori moved her brand from Tokyo to Paris in the late 1970s and was quickly embraced by fashion insiders.

She saw a distinction between herself and her Japanese peers who later made a global name for themselves – such as Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme Des Garçons fame.

What are the Single’s Inferno cast doing now – and do any couples remain?

“The young Japanese designers who live in Paris are passionately avant-garde,” she told The Washington Post. “I am not. I love to follow the traditional way.”

Hanae Mori’s brand once occupied a whole building in Tokyo. Photo: Stephanie Johannes/Facebook

Mori built her brand into a business empire, which in its heyday occupied a whole building in Tokyo designed by the architect Kenzo Tange – later torn down and replaced with another structure at typical Japanese speed.

From the loss of the building to the retirement of her fashion house from haute couture, “not everything was positive”, she reflected in her Yomiuri column.

“It was like my butterfly wings were torn off. But this butterfly was able to fly all over the world for 70 years, because I loved making clothes.”

Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako on their wedding day after an audience with the emperor and empress at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, in 1993. Photo: Kyodo News Stills via Getty Images)
Mori designed the gown worn by Princess Masako – now empress – at her 1993 wedding, as well as uniforms for Japan Airlines flight attendants.

And in 1985, she created stage costumes for, appropriately, Madame Butterfly performed at La Scala in Milan.

But with growing losses in the early 2000s, her empire was largely sold and she closed her Paris atelier in 2004 after her last couture show there.

Japanese tailor Hanae Mori displaying her creations in one of her many boutiques in Tokyo, in 1970. Photo: Mondadori via Getty Images

Hanae Mori boutiques remain open in Tokyo and her fragrances are still sold worldwide.

As a powerful businesswoman, Mori was a rarity in Japan, where boardrooms are still heavily male-dominated.

What do Princess Diana and Princess Mako have in common?

Hanae Mori with a model donning a satin cocktail dress from her brand, in her boutique on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, in 1991, in Paris, France. Photo: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Speaking of her early married life, she once remarked that she was never invited out with her husband’s friends.

At that time “Japan was a gentlemen’s country”, she said, but “I wanted to be different”.

Want more stories like this? Follow STYLE on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.
  • While Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme Des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo are ‘passionately avant-garde’, Mori loved tradition ... but Coco Chanel inspired her to stand out
  • She started out in cinema, creating film costumes, but soon her fashion empire spread from Tokyo to New York and Paris, with public figures such as Nancy Reagan donning her clothes