Hanae Mori is one of the world’s most celebrated fashion designers. A queen of style in France and in Japan, both of whose countries’ governments have awarded her their highest cultural honors: She was given the Order of Legion d’Honneur by Francois Mitterrand in 1989 and received the Order of Culture from Emperor Akihito in 1996. Mori is also the only Asian to have joined La Chambre Syndicate de la Couture Parisienne, an exclusive group of designers who show two haute-couture collections a year in Paris. She’s designed costumes for movie masterpieces by directors Yasujiro Ozu and Kozaburo Yoshimura; outfitted the Japanese Olympic teams and created uniforms for Japan Airlines. Always elegant, the 81-year-old Mori embodies miyabi, the Japanese ideal of dignity that dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185), an era she takes inspiration from by fusing its values into her signature East-meets-West style. Just like her beloved butterflies, which have the broadest visual spectrum of all living things and a sense of taste reportedly 2,400 times more developed than humans, Mori is famous for a vision that transforms women into even more beautiful creatures than they could have ever have dreamed of becoming.

Hanae Mori
Hanae Mori

If you allow yourself to be curious, you open yourself up to whole new worlds that you never imagined. My dad was a doctor and although he was always busy, he had many hobbies. We lived in the countryside in Shimane Prefecture, but he kept up with the latest fashion from Tokyo’s Mitsukoshi department store and from Osaka’s Takashimaya store. He was drawn to unique ideas, which is exactly how I am. When an aluminium version of geta (wooden sandals) came out, we had them right away. They were too light to walk in, but so much fun for us children.

There’s no need to learn accounting if you have a good man to count on. I was busy designing and had no sense for business or money. If I had some cash, I would buy cloth that I could use to make new creations. One day some tax officers came to the studio. I had no idea what they wanted so I called my husband. He got upset because he thought I was doing the accounting for my studio, but I didn’t even know what the word accounting meant. Ken came to my rescue, went through all the paperwork and realized that our design studio could become a business. He became the president and I stayed on as designer.

A lot can be developed in nine months. When I was 26, I graduated sewing school in April, set up my studio after that and then delivered our first child in June.

Ten fingers are five too many for just doing housework. Back in the 1940s, women didn’t work unless they had to, but I kept counting my fingers and thought that they were meant for a lot more than just stirring miso soup. I figured my left hand was more than enough to make me a good wife.

If you want to get attention, you must do something unique. My studio was in a typical wooden building in Shinjuku but I made the whole space glass from floor to ceiling so we could be seen from outside. It was like a fabulous aquarium, with us as tropical fish swimming among silk cloths. I ordered mannequins from the United States, which was a huge investment but paid off as people would stand on the street at night staring at the strange shop where four of us toiled away.

What is worn on the body must be made by hand. Now machines can do most of the work, but the feeling of handmade things is not the same. I want to protect craftspeople, so I set up the Hanae Mori Foundation to support such young people.

Americans’ sense of perspective was huge, but it didn’t quite fit us Japanese. We saw things differently. After World War II, wives of the U.S. occupying forces brought me clothes to sew. I had never seen anything like those American patterns — Japanese used flat patterns, but Americans would take off their clothes and wrap the cloth around themselves, checking their silhouette from far away, and then decided if they liked what they saw. It was a whole new idea of fashion for me. Japanese women would sit dressed up and lift the new silk to their faces to see if the patterns on the fabric suited them. I was working on very different scales and proportions, and my world broadened thanks to those American women.

Once you’re aware of your own value, others will recognize it, too. In 1961, I went to New York and visited some department stores. As I entered the basement floor, I saw it was filled with cheap stuff, such as $1 blouses, all made in Japan. I was shocked. We had such a wonderful culture, yet we were selling really cheap things so far away from home. As I went up to the next floor, the quality and prices increased and by the fifth floor I saw wonderful designer clothes from the United States and Europe. There was nothing from Japan on any of the higher floors. I knew Japanese belonged on the top level, so I promised myself that my clothes would be there soon.

A woman can walk as if she were nude, even if she is fully dressed. Since I was designing for the movies, directors would educate me by taking me to Ginza to see geisha. I was astounded by how erotic they were. Their way of walking was very special. They would put their feet together so they looked shy but also sexy. I was told they wore no panties, just koshimaki, an undergarment wrapped around their hips.

Everyday items should be as beautiful as high fashion. In the 1960s, the home-appliances company National contacted me to design a washing machine for them. I was delighted to create a product that women like myself would use. I made a red washing machine with butterflies on it that sold very well.

Fashion houses used to be famous for their exquisite clothes, but now they just live off their brands. When I received my suit from Coco Chanel in 1961, it was delivered in a beautiful white fabric-covered box. She was just as famous for a great cut and a perfect fit as for her name — the box had only a small stamp, much like a Japanese hanko (seal), that spelled out Chanel.

A great silhouette is about perfect shoulders. In 1961, I traveled to Paris for the first time. I was already working a lot in Japan and had many boutiques, but I was too shy to tell French designers that I was also in the fashion business, so I went as a private client. At that time the fashion houses were headed by men — Dior, Cardin, Givenchy — who all saw women as beautiful but kind of in the service of men, who bought dresses for them to show off their own male prestige. Chanel was different, and by far the best. Her clothes were for women and about women. She said that a jacket’s shoulder was the key element for creating a good bodyline, and that the blouse and the skirt, which are closest to the figure, must be done precisely as they have to only gently touch the body.

Before selling anything, always check the quality yourself. In the 1960s, I was invited to New York to show a collection, and among the audience was Stanley Marcus, the president of the Neiman Marcus department stores. At that time Neiman Marcus didn’t sell anything Japanese. After the show he ordered a few suits, cocktail dresses and evening dresses in size 10 for his wife. I felt very honored. After we made the pieces for her, Neiman Marcus ordered a collection from me. Turns out they asked me to make clothes for Mrs. Marcus first because they wanted to check how good I was at fitting someone.

Be stoic with yourself and generous with others — especially with the people who work with you. They are your greatest assets.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s Out and About. Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/

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