Hanae Mori’s Butterfly Effect

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Hanae Mori, the first Japanese designer to make it in the elite world of French couture, has died at age 96.

Mori, who attended dressmaking school and opened her first Tokyo studio in 1951, got her start costuming films. Set against what was considered the golden age of Japanese cinema, she worked on hundreds of titles, dressing big screen stars including Yujiro Ishihara, Mariko Okada, and Ruriko Asaoka.

While Mori, once described by The Newsweek Service as “the Edith Head of the Japanese film industry,” made a name for herself in Japan, her sights were set on global success. Trips to Paris and New York during the ’60s only fueled her desire to expand.

“It helped move the scales from my eyes,” Mori said of her travels in a 1990 interview with the Washington Post. “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.”

In 1965, she became the first Japanese designer to show in New York. Merging Eastern motifs with Western silhouettes, her inaugural overseas collection was a critical and commercial success.

From there, Hanae Mori — the brand and the woman — took off. In 1973, she opened a New York showroom. Next came a Paris atelier located on Avenue Montaigne, the city’s “Golden Triangle” home to houses including Chanel and Dior.

In 1977, she became the first Asian woman admitted to the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, rendering her one of few designers permitted to describe her garments as “haute couture.”

Enchanted by her butterfly-adorned designs (the winged insect was a recurring motif throughout Mori’s collections), a slew of high-profile clients flocked to the designer: Grace Kelly, Bianca Jagger, and Crown Princess Michiko are among those who have worn Hanae Mori originals.

In addition to its couture and off-the-rack collections, the brand’s beauty division — launched in 1995 — also made waves. Hanae Mori Butterfly, a fruity floral perfume, was a smash success. In fact, Mori’s fragrance division still lives on, despite her couture business shuttering in 2004.

Mori’s passing follows the death of another Japanese fashion icon, Issey Miyake, who frequented Mori’s studio when he was studying design.

A trailblazer in an industry dominated by white men, Mori helped introduce Western consumers to Eastern fashion, and vice versa, setting the stage for Japanese talents such as Miyake and Rei Kawakubo to climb the ranks of Europe’s exclusive fashion system.

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

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