Japanese couturier Hanae Mori, who built a multimillion-dollar fashion business and was the first female Asian designer to join the ranks of haute couture in Paris, died at her home in Tokyo on Aug. 11 at age 96.
Her death was revealed on Thursday by Japanese broadcaster NHK. A funeral was held with close relatives, and a farewell party will be held in the coming days.
Mori founded her brand in 1951 in Tokyo and began showing couture in Paris two decades later, becoming the first female Asian designer to join the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
Her work became synonymous with upscale subtle designs that blended traditional Japanese fabrics with Western-style clothing, attracting a conservative client base spanning from ambassadors’ wives to Japan’s Empress Masako, then the crown princess, who wore a Hanae Mori gown for her 1993 wedding to then-Crown Prince Naruhito.
The butterfly became the symbol of the house, garnering her the nickname “Madame Butterfly” in Western media.
At its height the Hanae Mori brand spanned couture, with a studio in Paris; ready-to-wear for women, men and children; accessories; eyewear, and home furnishings.
She also launched a perfume line in the U.S. in 1996 through International Cosmetics & Perfumes Inc., which holds the worldwide license to her scents.
Widely remembered as a woman determined and able to make her mark in male-dominated post-war Japan, the designer also was a talented business person. In the late ’70s, the family signed a license with Fairchild to launch WWD Japan, which continues to publish.
After news of Mori’s death broke on Thursday, the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode paid homage to the late couturier on Instagram, lauding her emphasis on transmission of handcraft and handwork to younger generations, as well as her role as “a pioneer in the emancipation of women in her country.”
Former president Ralph Toledano described her as a “great lady,” and remembered being “tremendously impressed by her presence and influence” after visiting Japan.
“Ms. Hanae Mori was an incredible woman who will always be remembered for her contributions to the world of Paris couture fashion. We at International Cosmetics & Perfumes will forever be indebted to her trust in our company to launch her signature fragrance Butterfly over 25 years ago, which is still beloved to this day,” said Thomas Saujet, chief executive officer of International Cosmetics & Perfumes.
Mori remained a mainstay on the Paris couture calendar until 2004, when she retreated from the scene after staging a final show, with one of her granddaughters taking to the runway. Even after retiring she continued to design stage costumes, however.
Born Hanae Fujii in 1926 to an affluent family in southwest Japan, Mori studied literature at Tokyo Women’s University before veering toward dressmaking after her 1947 marriage to Ken Mori, a textile executive in Aishi who later became chairman of her eponymous fashion group.
She opened her first boutique in 1951 in Tokyo’s main shopping area Hiyoshiya, which rapidly became popular with Japanese women looking to dress up again after the end of World War II.
Japan’s film industry also was blossoming at that time, and Mori created costumes for hundreds of movies, including “Season of Violence” and “Crazed Fruit.” This work helped influence her haute couture designs and she launched her fashion business in 1963.
Two years later, the brand debuted in New York, where it immediately gained popularity among American department stores.
Before her New York show, WWD wrote that Japan was a “man’s country” and that Mori believed “women’s fashions, to be successful, must be designed not for the women who wear them, but for the men who behold them.”
Her goal was to bring “Miyahiyaka” to the U.S., a hard-to-translate Japanese word that references beauty, graciousness, elegance, orderliness and, mainly, femininity. It was the theme of Mori’s show, which took its inspiration from Japan’s Heian Era in the eighth to 12th centuries, one of the most peaceful in its early history.
“As a young girl, I was brought up during the turbulence and ugliness of the war and the post-war confusion,” she told WWD in June 1965. “I have always yearned for ‘Miyahiyaka.'”
She said then that her favorite designers were Chanel and Pierre Cardin; she had “huge respect” for Courreges even though is designs were only for the young, but that Balenciaga was number one and Norman Norell was “the American Balenciaga.”
Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus were reported by WWD as her best customers after her first show, with the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and Bonwit Teller following soon after. Vogue described Mori’s success as “East Meets West.”
“Neiman Marcus has a storied history with the remarkable Hanae Mori,” said Geoffroy van Raemdonck, chief executive officer of Neiman Marcus Group. “Madame Mori leaves a lasting legacy in the world of luxury fashion as the first Asian woman with a prominent role in French haute couture. In the 1960s Stanley Marcus, president of Neiman Marcus, introduced the luxury house to the United States as the first multibrand retailer to sell her collections. As part of our longstanding relationship with Ms. Mori, she was the recipient of the Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion in 1973. Throughout the years, Ms. Mori’s silks and chiffons printed with butterflies and cherry blossoms were incredibly popular with our discerning customers.”
British designer Zandra Rhodes said, “Hanae Mori formed a bridge between the east and west. Together with her husband they created ‘The Best 5’ where WWD (U.S. and Japan) chose the best five designer shows of the year and these were then shown in Tokyo. I was honored to be one of them in 1981 together with Perry Ellis, Karl Lagerfeld, Armani and Hanae Mori. Just like her designs, Hanae was always charming and elegant – she lit up the room with her Japanese hospitality and kindness. Mori was a breakthrough designer, at the time being one of only a handful of designers to showcase in Paris and New York. Her legacy and designs will be remembered and referenced for centuries to come.”
Japanese actress Tetsuko Kuroyanagi recalled in the book “Hanae Mori: Her Work and Life” that when Emperor Showa visited Washington, D.C., in 1975, many women who were invited to the party were wearing Mori’s dress, which made her “really proud of her work.”
Mori’s work was described as “styled in Western style, but it flattered as a kimono,” with the overall design representing the Japanese aesthetic and showing the world the beauty of its culture.
Her brand grew rapidly even before she launched couture and so did the pressures of running an international company. In September 1970, just before opening her first store in New York in the Waldorf Astoria, she joked to WWD that she wouldn’t mind retiring, but then added, “Oh, no, I can’t really retire…I haven’t finished my work.”
At that time her brand had about 30 boutiques in Japan, a wholesale line called Vivid was carried in 100 Japanese stores and she had Ban-Lon designs for Joseph Bancroft, towels and sheets with West Point-Pepperell and packaging for what was then Shiseido’s Hanae Mori fragrance line.
“My inspiration comes from everything,” she told WWD in that interview. “It can be beautiful food, people I see at such places as Byblos [Tokyo’s then-hot nightspot], movies…everything.”
Although she said during prior to her second American show that “the days of Paris [were] running out [as] the couture is getting smaller in numbers and too high priced,” with the success and marketing sense she gained in New York, she went to Paris and opened a maison on Avenue Montaigne in 1977. At the time the brand had global sales of $70 million.
“While working in New York with the department stores, the bespoke work she did there eventually convinced her that she needed to open her own couture house in Paris,” remembered Henry Berghauer, a former Pierre Cardin and Emmanuel Ungaro executive who became the first chief executive officer of her Paris-based business.
By that time her clients included Princess Grace of Monaco, Sophia Loren and former first lady Nancy Reagan.
Revealing her plans to open a maison in Paris, Mori told WWD, “Ready-to-wear is like bread and butter to a designer. But a designer is also an artist, and I would like to do more art.”
Berghauer said that Mori’s couture success hinged on her ability to give “a Japanese climate” to collections in step with their time, blending textiles and motifs from her homeland with Western silhouettes.
Pierre Cardin is said to have played a pivotal role in her induction into the Chambre Syndicale, according to filmmakers Todd Hughes and P. David Ebersole, who interviewed the Japanese designer for the 2019 “House of Cardin” documentary.
Cardin and Mori first met when the French designer visited Japan in 1957. “[She] introduced him to many aspects of Japanese culture and most importantly to Hiroko Matsumoto, the model who would become his muse and the face synonymous with his house. They remained friends for the rest of his life,” they said.
By 1986, the Hanae Mori International company’s sales were between $250 million and $300 million internationally, between its wholesale business and its network of 60 boutiques globally, according to a WWD feature.
It also spearheaded ambitious projects like a trinational joint venture, involving the Chinese government, the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the Tokyo-based Mori firm to produce cashmere knits and apparel, involving the construction of factories in Puerto Rico and China that could produce for the brand as well as other clients.
Although it did not come to fruition, the brand launched the Hanae Mori Soft Sports division, which offered a lineup of cashmere separates complemented with leather and silk, all manufactured in China.
There were times of struggle as well. In 2002, the rtw and licensing business was separated from the couture side. The collapse of the bubble economy in Japan hit the company hard, leading it to file for court protection under the Civil Rehabilitation Law. Today, the trademark of “Hanae Mori” is owned by Japan-based textile company MN Interfashion.
Subsequent attempts to revive the fashion brand were made, including the launch of a younger “Manuscrit” line, helmed by Tokyo-based designer Yu Amatsu, who had experience in New York working as a pattern maker for Marc Jacobs and Jen Kao before launching his own brand, and the 2018 appointment of 2014 Hyères Festival winner Kenta Matsushige, a Paris-based graduate of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture school, as artistic director until 2020.
Upon meeting the couturier, then aged 93, Matsushige was “impressed by her sense of challenge and her sense of responsibility as a representative of Japan,” which came across in their conversation.
“She’s a great designer who doesn’t look for a way but creates a way,” he wrote in an email.
Besides creating new collections every season, her passion for design extended to various works, including designing uniforms for Japan Airlines crews, singers’ costumes, the official uniform for the Japanese Olympic team in Barcelona, opera, ballet, Noh, and even kabuki. In 1993, she designed the iconic robe décolleté dress for Princess Masako’s wedding.
Mori received numerous awards, including the Asahi Prize as Pioneer of Japanese Fashion in 1988 and the French Légion d’Honneur in 1989. She was also the subject of the 1989 “Hanae Mori: 35 Years in Fashion” exhibition which traveled from Tokyo to Monaco and Paris in 1990.
Her works were also central to the “Fashion in Japan 1945 –2020” exhibit held at The National Art Center, Tokyo, in 2021, the world’s first large-scale exhibition on the evolution of the Japanese fashion industry. Pieces from her haute couture collections and her cinema costume design were on display. The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City also holds several of her works.
“Mori was a pioneer not only as [a] Japanese fashion designer but also as a[a] Japanese ‘new woman’ after drastic social changes in Japan after World War II,” Said Akiko Fukai, director and curator emeritus of the Kyoto Costume Museum. “She showed [herself to be] a role model for Japanese women [by] establishing her brand stable and [a] big fashion business in the late 20th century; paving the way [to bring] Japanese fashion to the world, by her elegant creation of [a] marriage of the West and the East; and [opening the way to] the next generation of Japanese fashion designers [like] Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto — all renowned in the world. Her legacy is really considerable. So sad!”
In addition to design, Mori was also a keen writer who penned numerous contributions to fashion publications, especially advice columns for readers seeking to polish their style.
She was also the author of several books about fashion, as well as her own autobiography, “Goodbye Butterfly,” which was released in 2010.
Since 2012, Mori had served as the director of the Hakone Open-Air Museum outside of Tokyo, which is home to the country’s most famous sculpture garden featuring works from Joan Miró, Rodin and Picasso.
The Moris had two sons, Akira and Kei, who would join the family business and go on to lead the business in Tokyo and Paris respectively. The elder Ken Mori died in 1996, aged 84.
Mori said in the 1970 interview with WWD that her sons and family were her real joy, along with painting, especially in oils.
Once asked what continued to drive her during her 70-year career, Mori answered simply: “I wanted the world to know that Japan has a wonderful culture and aesthetic.”
Mori’s granddaughter, model Izumi Mori, posted a short video and message on Instagram, stating: “Thank you for all the amazing memories and experiences.”
— With contributions from Rhonda Richford, and Chizuru Muko, WWD Japan, with translation by Maya Elizabeth Thorne