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Hanae Mori, Japanese couturier who melded east-west styles, dies at 96

Hanae Mori, the Japanese couturier who emerged from the ruins of World War II and built a $500 million fashion house that popularized East-West styles and symbolized the rise of postwar Japan, died on Aug. 11 at her home in Tokyo. She was 96.

The Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported her death on Thursday. NHK did not cite a cause of death, but said she had fallen ill two days earlier.

From a dressmaking shop catering to the wives of American G.I.s in what had been a bombed-out section of Tokyo, Hanae Mori (pronounced HA-na-eh MO-ree), the daughter of a surgeon, climbed to global fame in a 50-year career that brought fabulous wealth; 20 companies; palatial homes in Paris, New York and Tokyo; and remarkable standing for a woman in a male-dominated profession and society.

After decades of struggle to refine and market her styles, she was admitted in 1977 to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the first Asian woman to join the Paris guild of the world’s top designers. She was also the first Asian woman to join the ranks of Christian Dior, Chanel, Givenchy, Armani, Versace, Valentino and Karl Lagerfeld in Paris shows, where the competition and the stakes were as high as they get in fashion.

Her collection that year was a stunning array of gowns and other garments with her distinctive blend of Western-style designs in silk and chiffon, imprinted with Japanese blossoms, seascapes, calligraphy and her trademark butterfly. The New York Times fashion critic Bernadine Morris declared that the industry had a new star in the making.

“Paris still has its classics,” Ms. Morris wrote in 1977, “Chanel, who established her style in the 1920s and hasn’t changed much since, and Grès, who came along a decade later. They were joined this time by Hanae Mori, who may in time become a classic.”

She was right. In succeeding years, Ms. Mori’s haute couture charmed the runways of Paris and New York and was hailed by the fashion press. In turn, as she became well known and as her exported ready-to-wear styles became widely available, she won the allegiance of millions of buyers around the world.

Hanae Mori Ms. Mori in her workshop in Tokyo in 1970. (Credit: Mario De Biasi/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
Her designs were actually quite conservative. Unlike her Japanese contemporary Issey Miyake, who died on Aug. 5, and other avant-garde couturiers who used unconventional styles and fabrics, 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.

Her creations were not for women who wanted to make an entrance, as a Vogue editor put it. They were for a majority of women who did not seek the limelight, only the quiet pleasures of dressing in subtle colors and patterns: silk cocktail dresses with obi sashes; chiffon gowns afloat with purple-orange mists; and skirts and dresses printed with rose petals, reeds or wispy clouds.

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With her textile-executive husband, Ken Mori, as her business manager, Ms. Mori developed lines of evening gowns; daywear; business attire; men’s and children’s clothing; and collections of shoes, handbags, gloves and scarves. She later produced lacquerware, fragrances for women and men, and even home furnishings.

As Japan recovered from the destruction of wartime bombing and regained its economic footing with a rush of exuberance, women once confined to kitchens and limited to wearing traditional kimonos joined the work force in droves, and bought Ms. Mori’s jackets, slacks, sweaters and skirts. Many also learned new ways of dressing for evening, and for weddings and other formal occasions, with Mori creations.

Hanae Mori Models showcasing the Hanae Mori Kimono Collection at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in 1973. (Credit: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
And as Ms. Mori’s off-the-rack collections expanded to worldwide markets, her private client list grew to include Princess Grace of Monaco; Crown Princess Masako of Japan; Lady Bird Johnson; Nancy Reagan; Hillary Clinton; Sophia Loren; Renata Tebaldi; the wives of national leaders in Europe and Asia; and society figures in New York, Paris, London and Tokyo.

“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,” The Times reported from Tokyo in 1980 after a banner Mori year that racked up global sales of $100 million.

With fame came contracts. Having previously designed costumes for Japanese films and uniforms for flight attendants of Japan Air Lines, she created costumes for the opera “Madama Butterfly” at La Scala in Milan in 1985; for Rudolf Nureyev’s Paris Opera Ballet “Cinderella” in 1986 (and its New York production in 1987), and for the opera “Elektra” at the Salzburg Music Festival in 1996.

By the 1990s, Ms. Mori was one of the most powerful business executives in Japan and the toast of Tokyo society. She was a charity fund-raiser befriended by ambassadors, entertainment stars and corporate leaders whose wives had at least one Mori creation in their closets: daytime suits that sold for $9,000 and evening gowns that went for $26,000.

Ms. Mori’s international headquarters, the Hanae Mori Building, was a glass and steel landmark in central Tokyo. She owned a French restaurant nearby, and mansions in New York and Paris, where she threw dinner parties for as many as 250 guests. Her Tokyo home was a modern five-story residence; like her office building, it was designed by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange.

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Hanae Mori Ms. Mori with the model Izumi Mori, her granddaughter, in Paris in 2004. (Credit: Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Traveling the world in her own jetliner, dining with royalty and chief executives, Ms. Mori was often as popular as the stars she dressed and appeared frequently in the news in Japan. Small and slender, with a heart-shaped smile, big round glasses and a soft voice, she was interviewed often by Western correspondents, who said she radiated quiet confidence and an innate gentleness.

“For all her success, Mori is an approachable woman, low-key, gracious and restrained — a manner that is the result of a conservative upbringing, and crucial to her success in Japan,” The Washington Post said in a 1990 profile. “In Tokyo’s male-dominated business culture, a more overtly hard-driving woman would have been shunned.”

Though no one knew it at the time, Ms. Mori’s global annual sales had reached a peak of about $500 million. In the mid-’90s, her sales began to steadily decline, dragged down by a long economic slump and changing tastes that forced many haute couture designers, including Ms. Mori, to retrench.

In 2002, Ms. Mori sold her ready-to-wear retail outlets and licensed apparel businesses to an investment group composed of Rothschild of Britain and Mitsui of Japan. Later that year, Hanae Mori International filed for bankruptcy protection in Japan, with liabilities of $94 million. The Hanae Mori name survived on a few Tokyo boutiques and still lingers today on her lines of fragrance.

Hanae Mori Ms. Mori designed the official uniform for the Japanese delegation to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. (Credits: David Madison/Getty Images)
Japan’s foremost female fashion designer was born Hanae Fujii on Jan. 8, 1926, in Muikaichi (now Yoshika), in Shimane Prefecture in southwestern Japan. She was the only daughter among the six children of a surgeon.

Hanae was 15 when the war in the Pacific began. Like many young Japanese women, she worked in a factory. When the war was over, she resumed studies at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University and graduated in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in literature.

In 1947, she married Mr. Mori. They had two sons, Akira and Kei, who as adults helped run her businesses. Her husband died in 1996.

Eager for a career, she studied dressmaking and in 1951 opened her atelier in Shinjuku, a shopping hub in Tokyo. After a film producer spotted her work, she made costumes for hundreds of Japanese movies in the ’50s and ’60s, including Yasujiro Ozu’s “Early Autumn” and Yoshida’s “Farewell to the Summer Light.” Film stars became clients. She wrote columns for a fashion magazine and opened boutiques in Tokyo and other cities.

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In 1960, she had a life-altering experience. Visiting Coco Chanel’s Paris salon, she emerged with an idea that inspired her to try haute couture. Conceiving that feminine beauty in Japan was based on a mystique of concealment, she resolved to make garments that revealed women’s natural femininity — a revolutionary notion in a culture that for centuries had rendered women all but invisible.

Putting her idea into practice, her business flourished in Japan. In 1975, she ventured into New York with rice-paper invitations for 300 American V.I.P.s of fashion, including critics, designers and department store reps, to her “East Meets West” show at a Park Avenue hotel. It was a huge hit.

Hanae Mori Ms. Mori with her designs at Iwami Art Museum in Hamada, Japan, in 2015. (Credits: The Yomiuri Shimbun)
“Works of art they definitely are,” Ms. Morris, the Times fashion critic, wrote. “Landscapes, butterflies, fans and flowers are beautifully colored on silk crepe and chiffon in the Japanese manner.

“But there are definite signs that Hanae Mori, the Japanese designer, is going Western,” she added. “The mingling of Western design and Japanese prints is a happy one.”

Neiman Marcus, the Dallas department store, was the first to market her wares in America. Bergdorf Goodman, Bonwit Teller, Henri Bendel and Saks Fifth Avenue soon joined the party. Two years later, she reached for greatness in Paris, settling on that street of fashion dreams: the Avenue Montaigne.

Ms. Mori designed the official uniform for the Japanese delegation to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and two years later the uniform for the Lillehammer Olympics.

Ms. Mori was showered with accolades and prizes, notably the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, which was given to her in 1989 by President François Mitterrand. Her books included “Designing for Tomorrow” (1978), “A Glass Butterfly” (1984) and “Hanae Mori: 1960-1989” (1989).

After declaring bankruptcy, she continued to mount fashion shows until 2004, when she retired at age 78 and held a valedictory in Paris, calling it an homage to the East-West fusion that she had pioneered.

“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 in 2004. “Visibly overwhelmed, the designer was surrounded by models wearing the finale dresses exquisitely embroidered with butterflies — the symbol of the house.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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