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grande dame of Japanese fashion

Japanese designer Hanae Mori, who cracked the Parisian haute couture world and was dubbed “Madame Butterfly” for her signature motif, has died in Tokyo aged 96, her office told AFP.

Over the decades 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 Thursday that she died at home “of old age” on August 11, and that a private funeral had taken place.

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.

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.

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

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

– Encounter with Chanel –

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 postwar 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.

“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.

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.

– ‘East Meets West’ –

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.

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…

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