Hanae Mori, the Japanese fashion designer who broke into the world of French haute couture almost half a century ago, has died aged 96, her office said on Thursday.
Mori, who earned the nickname “Madame Butterfly” for her signature motif, was regarded as a symbol of Japan’s growing status as a modern, fashionable nation, and as a pioneer for the country’s women.
She designed clothes for Grace Kelly and Nancy Reagan, as well as the wedding gown worn by the current Japanese empress, Masako.
Her career took her from Tokyo, where she started out making costumes for cinema, to New York and Paris. In 1977, her label became the first Asian fashion house to join the rarefied ranks of haute couture.
Her global empire expanded to include perfumes, handbags and publishing, and her umbrellas and scarves, often decked with colourful butterflies, became a status symbol with working women.
Mori was born in 1926 in rural Shimane prefecture, western Japan, and studied literature at Tokyo Women’s Christian University before becoming a designer. She started specialising in designs for film actors after she opened her first atelier, above a noodle shop in Tokyo.
Her quickly expanding business mirrored the breakneck pace of Japan’s postwar economic development in the 1960s, when her business partner and husband, a textile executive, encouraged her to try her luck in the fashion capitals of Paris and New York.
“This was a kind of turning point for me,” she said of those visits, which included an encounter with Coco Chanel at her studio in Paris that turned out to be a turning point.
The French designer suggested she wear something in bright orange to contrast with her black hair.
“The whole Japanese concept of beauty is based on concealment,” Mori said of the meeting in an interview with the Washington Post. “I suddenly realised that I should change my approach and make my dresses help a woman stand out.”
In 1965, Mori unveiled her first collection abroad, in New York, under the theme “East Meets West”. Her designs combine traditional patterns such as cranes and cherry blossoms – along with her trademark butterflies – with western styles.
In 1985, she created stage costumes for a performance of “Madame Butterfly” at La Scala in Milan, and showed her collections for decades in Japan and abroad until she retired in 2004.
Fusing traditional Japanese kimono into dresses, Mori designed the uniforms for Japan Airlines flight attendants and the Japanese team for the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Mori’s office said on Thursday she had died on 11 August at her home in Tokyo. No cause of death has been given.
Many in Japan will remember her for the white gown adorned with rose petals she designed for Masako for her marriage to the then crown prince, Naruhito, in 1993. She also created costumes for hundreds of Japanese movies in the 1950s and 60s, and in later years for Noh and Kabuki theatre.
Her designs aside, Mori became a formidable businesswoman – a rarity in Japan – and in 1986, became the first female member of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives.
Looking back at the early years of her marriage, she said that she was never invited out with her husband’s friends. “Japan was a gentlemen’s country,” she said, according to the Kyodo news agency. “I wanted to be different.”
Mori won official recognition for her achievements from the Japanese government, which awarded her the Medal with Purple Ribbon in 1988 in recognition of her contribution to art. In 2002, she was awarded the Legion of Honor, France’s most prestigious decoration, in the rank of officer.
“She was a pioneer of fashion in Japan. At a time when the industry had not been established, she shaped what it meant to work as a designer,” fashion curator and researcher Akiko Fukai told Kyodo.
“Being the first Japanese listed as a haute couture designer in Paris, the highest peak of the fashion world, means that she was recognised on the global stage. She has left a huge imprint.”
Mori is survived by two sons, a daughter, seven grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren, her office said. Her husband Ken Mori died in 1996.