Updated: Mar 10
Hanae Mori was a Japanese fashion designer, and in 1977 was the first Asian person to be recognized as an official haute couture designer by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture guild in Paris, the peak of the fashion world. Mori designed and showed clothes worldwide and was known for blending eastern and western styles.
Mori was born in Shimane prefecture in 1926. She worked in a factory during WWII and received her Literature degree from Tokyo Woman’s Christian University in 1947. After graduating, she attended dressmaking school in Tokyo. With an aspiration to make clothes for a large number of women, she opened her first atelier, or fashion house, in Shinjuku in 1951.
During the “golden age of Japanese cinema” in the 1950s and early 1960s, Mori created costumes for hundreds of Japanese movies after a film producer discovered her shop. At the same time, she worked to build her experience and expand her brand.
Mori hit a turning point in her fashion career after a visit to Coco Chanel's salon in Paris in 1960. She is quoted in the Washington Post as saying,
"The whole Japanese concept of beauty is based on concealment. [...] I suddenly realized that I should change my approach and make my dresses help a woman stand out."
which the New York Times described as “a revolutionary notion in a culture that for centuries had rendered women all but invisible." It was with this idea that Mori ventured into the realm of haute couture.
Mori's first overseas fashion show, "East Meets West," was held in New York in 1965 to great success. Her fashion empire expanded from there as she started selling ready-to-wear clothes in America and eventually opened a fashion house in Paris. Mori presented new haute couture creations at Paris fashion shows every year from 1977 through 2004.
Mori’s fashion designs are myriad and iconic. Some highlights include the opening ceremony outfits for Japan’s Olympic Team in 1992 and 1994 and several uniforms for Japan Airlines flight attendants, most notably the 5th generation design in 1970,which drew controversy for incorporating a miniskirt. Her extensive private client list included actresses, the wives of numerous world leaders, and political figures such as Hillary Clinton and Japanese Empress Masako.
Mori’s accomplishments are especially noteworthy because the field of fashion, as well as Japanese business in general, are heavily male-dominated. Mori’s textile executive husband, Ken Mori, was her business manager, but Ms. Mori still made the final decisions. In a 1990 interview with the Washington Post, Mori is described as follows:
“Mori is an approachable woman, low-key, gracious and restrained -- a manner that is the result of her conservative upbringing, and crucial to her success in Japan.
In Tokyo's male-dominated business culture, a more overtly hard-driving woman would have been shunned. "It's the combination of her aggressive business sense enveloped by this elegant aura that has attracted so many people in Japan," says [Mori's] friend Yoshiharu Fukuhara, the president of Shiseido, [...] one of the largest cosmetics companies in the world.”
Mori found uncommon success as a businesswoman, and in 1986 the Japan Association of Corporate Executives invited her to be their first female member.
The success of Mori’s brand hit its peak in the early 1990s with her global annual sales reaching $500 million. The New York Times reported that, “in the mid-’90s, her sales began to decline steadily, dragged down by a long economic slump and changing tastes.” In 2002 she sold her business and filed for bankruptcy, although she continued designing.
Mori officially retired after a final glowing Paris fashion show in 2004. She worked through the 2010s, designing costumes for opera and theater, before passing away in August 2022 at age 96. She died with numerous awards, the most prestigious being the Order of Culture, as given to her by the Japanese Emperor in 1996, and being named an Officer of France's Legion of Honor in 2002.
The New York Times sums up Hanae Mori’s influence well, saying, “Ms. Mori did not try to break Western fashion molds. Instead, by combining Western designs with Japanese touches, she challenged stereotypes and influenced a generation of designers in both cultures.”
The Iwami Art Museum in Japan is hosting an exhibit on Hanae Mori through January 29, 2023. Link here (Japanese)
Bumiller, Elisabeth. "Japan's Madame Couturier". Washington Post, 28 Feb. 1990, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1990/02/28/japans-madame-couturier/99b6f381-acbf-4448-87d6-6f8646a48316/.
“Brand History｜Hanae Mori Official Site ｜ ハナエモリ公式サイト.” n.d. Hanae Mori Online Store. https://www.hanae-mori.com/history_en.
Holland, Oscar; Ogura, Junko. "Hanae Mori, pioneering Japanese fashion designer, dies aged 96". CNN, 18 Aug. 2022, https://www.cnn.com/style/article/hanae-mori-fashion-designer-obit/index.html.
Horwell, Veronica. "Hanae Mori obituary". The Guardian, 23 Aug. 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2022/aug/23/hanae-mori-obituary.
McFadden, Robert D. "Hanae Mori, Japanese Couturier Who Melded East-West Styles, Dies at 96." The New York Times, 18 Aug. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/18/obituaries/hanae-mori-dead.html.
Miyachi, Izumi. "From miniskirt to mass consumption". The Nation Thailand, 14 Jan. 2014, https://www.nationthailand.com/art/30251891.
News, Kyodo. “Hanae Mori, Renowned Japanese Fashion Designer, Dies at 96.” Kyodo News+, 18 Aug. 2022, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2022/08/cdf1ce027b53-urgent-hanae-mori-renowned-japanese-fashion-designer-dies-at-96.html.