Hanae Mori: The living legend of Japanese fashion

Hanae Mori’s creativity is best described by a fairly bland word: "femininity." In her case, however, the word doesn't mean "girly ribbons-laces-flowers", but rather something much more subtle and complex.


It's incredible that she is still with us. The woman who in 1956 was making costumes for “Early Spring,” a film directed by the prominent Japanese film-maker Yasujirō Ozu, while already a famous designer with a shop in Ginza and clientele consisting of the richest wives of the Tokyo bourgeoisie. Hanae Mori is now 88 years old. She lives in Japan, has her own fund that supports young designers and craftsmen, and her Tokyo boutiques are still operational. It is as if, for example, Madame Gres or Madame Lanvin were still alive, because based on the nature of her talent and the way she sees the female form and clothing, Hanae Mori is quite akin to these most respected ladies.

Hanae Mori was born in provincial Japan in 1926. Her father was a surgeon and her mother was of course a housewife as was common among the middle class of that time both in Japan and elsewhere. Hanae remembers her mother’s passion for dressing up and how her mother used to catalogue-order garments from Tokyo and Osaka. She became more deeply involved in fashion herself after the war during the occupation period when she saw how the wives of American military officers dressed and how dresses were tailored for them. She was struck by the difference between the two concepts of fashion: Japanese clothes were flat and two-dimensional, while Western clothes were loose-fitting and three-dimensional. In 1947 she graduated from Tokyo Woman’s Christian University with a major in Japanese literature, and then married, and entered a sewing school all within a few short years. She finished the school in April 1951, and in May of the same year she launched her own tailoring studio, before giving birth to her fist son soon in June.

Early Spring, 1956.

This is how the legend of Hanae Mori began. One must understand that in the post-war Japanese culture, a young married woman from a well-off family choosing to have a career was an outrage; in fact this applies not only to Japan, but any country of that era. Just imagine that you're working on your final thesis on literature, planning your wedding, acquiring another degree, starting your own business, and giving birth to a child, all practically at the same time. Today that sounds like an article  from the "People magazine’s 100 most influential businesswomen” list; whose biography becomes a best seller, who's invited to lecture at major international universities and to write a column in Vogue on “How to have it all: a brilliant career and an ideal family.” Hanae Mori achieved everything for which modern feminist icons encourage us to aim, only 50 years earlier and without much ado.

It should be mentioned that her husband Ken Mori also breached the gender stereotypes of his time. Rather than returning home from his office job to his wife who would be waiting for him with his slippers and supper, the son of a textile plant owner actively supported her. He managed the financial side of her company, and would later become its CEO. Thanks to his constant support and his management skills, the company evolved from its beginnings as a small Tokyo tailoring studio above a noodle parlor,  into a boutique in Ginza, one Tokyo's most expensive districts, until finally becoming an international luxury brand.

Vogue, 1972.

In the 1950s, anyone with a serious ambition in fashion had to conquer Paris, the couture capital of the postwar world. Hanae Mori was able to achieve this in an extraordinary way. Hanae went to Paris not as a candidate competing for the couturier title, but as a customer of the French fashion houses. She recalls how she visited Hubert de Givenchy, Marc Bohan of Dior, Pierre Cardin, and Coco Chanel to order dresses and suits.
She watched how they worked with fabric, how they did their fittings, how they pictured their clients' image, and tried to meet their customers' needs. She made an observation that in the eyes of all these great couturiers, the way the women dressed had to reflect their men’s social status; with sole the exception of Coco Chanel, who didn't care who her client’s companion was (or if she indeed had a companion) and who was instead interested in the women themselves and created clothes that made women feel safe and free at the same time. These observations were essential for Hanae Mori’s future career.

These observations helped Hanae develop her future strategy. She left Paris to begin conquering the West from the other side, from America. In 1965 she arranged her first fashion show in New York,, and her clothes went on sale in Neiman Marcus. Her signature design, butterflies on kimono dress, made its first appearance in American Vogue, and in 1969 together with Shiseido she launched Hanae Mori Fragrances also mentioned in Vogue. In 1970 she launched her first American boutique in the New York Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

Her next step on the way to Paris was Monaco, where in 1975 she introduced her collection in  presence of Princess Grace, her future loyal client. She would eventually revisit to Paris in 1977, but no longer as a rich Japanese client, but instead as an established and famous fashion designer. She opened her own fashion house on the most attractive of addresses, the Avenue Montaigne, 

Hanae Mori's portret

One must however be able to picture the Parisian fashion scene in the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s. Paris surged with a wave of Japanese avant-garde: in 1981 it hosted Yohji Yamamoto’s debut, the same year that Rei Kawakubo’s opened his Comme des Garçons. These extreme deconstructionist designers approached Paris with the Japanese style that was totally different from the European view on clothes and the human body who wears them. They loved working with the elements of traditional Japanese costume: the kimono, geta, obi, yukata; with their flat geometrical forms that emphasized asexuality and androgyny. Hanae Mori also used the traditional Japanese style as an inspiration though but in a totally different way. She took the traditional Japanese textiles, the classical prints of the silk kimonos, and became the queen of flowers and butterflies. These feminine symbols became her trademark appearing on everything from handkerchiefs to perfume boxes. There was nothing radical or avant-garde about it, just very soft, exquisite and fairly conservative things of great beauty. This is how she distinguished herself from yet another Japanese in Paris, Kenzo Takada, who designed bright, lively, and absolutely European-looking clothes without any hint of avant-garde or revolutionary style.

Модель в цветочном платье Hanae Mori

Hanae Mori’s creativity is best described by a fairly bland word: "femininity". In her case the word doesn't mean "girly ribbons-laces-flowers", but rather something much more subtle and complex.  She had a perfectly refined sense of colour; no one else had such an exquisite colour palette as she did. She had another even rarer quality: the ability to work with design patterns, which was the reason her butterflies and flowers became so famous. She could create pieces that would both highlight and conceal at the same time. From the late 1970’s to the early 1990s, she made the finest silk dresses in the world, light, extremely exquisite, with a minimum of decorative elements, but with majestic and beautiful print patterns. To this day it is still impossible to look away from them, and to find and wear such things at least once in a life time is sheer bliss.

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Author: Elena Stafyeva


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Hanae Mori: The living legend of Japanese fashion


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