She calls herself "a pillar" of Japanese fashion, an unexpected admission from this reserved, gentle designer. But it's true. And "it gives the other Japanese designers the chance to do all the crazy things and antifashion things against me," she says, smiling.
Hanae Mori is seated on a banquette at the Madison Hotel, wearing a nearly classic, precisely tailored black velvet-trimmed jacket, a tartan skirt and a pleated blouse. She is clearly enjoying the comparisons, made often, with the controversial new wave designers, particularly Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto.
"I am the only one to make Western fashion with a Japanese style," she says. "They are against all Western design -- anti-Western, you could say -- and against me. They are sophisticated and . . . even decadent. And I like it."
She draws on the Edo period, a peaceful time of considerable cultural growth in Japan, when the Kabuki and wood print were developed, which shows in her patterns and use of color. "I have the atmosphere of the bright period in Japanese civilization," she says. Others are building on an earlier period of civil wars, "a dark period and time of spiritual and religious discipline. People dressed in dark clothes then."
There is room for both, says Mori, and "women who wear my clothes can also wear these freer styles." To encourage this fomenting of Japanese fashion, she recently provided a showcase in Tokyo for 12 new Japanese designers and 20 young designers from London in a presentation she called, appropriately, "The Third Wave." "They are so free and almost comical."
Her son, Kei, who manages her business in New York, says proudly that compared with Japanese fashion's new wave, "my mother is the big wave, the tidal wave." Indeed, Hanae Mori, one of the rare female business tycoons in Japan, heads an organization that generates more than $200 million a year from her couture and ready-to-wear designs, and $1 billion when her licensees (from scarves to sheets to menswear) are included (80 percent of her business is in Japan). She has also created uniforms for Japan Air Lines staff and Kyoto taxi drivers.
The designer -- in Washington recently to show a retrospective collection of her couture designs, shown with millions of dollars worth of Harry Winston jewels, for a Friends of the National Arboretum benefit, and to appear at Garfinckel's with her ready-to-wear line -- hasn't always been such a pillar of fashion. In fact, she almost wasn't a designer.
She wanted to be an artist, a profession considered unworthy by her father, who hoped his daughter would become a doctor, as he was. As a compromise, she studied Japanese literature at the Tokyo Women's Christian College. Then "I married my husband and got my freedom," she says.
Bored with household chores, she thought it too late to launch a career in art, and opted instead to study fashion, which was enjoying great popularity in postwar Japan. "In fashion you are always moving on to new things," she says. She liked the sense of "putting ideas into concrete forms."
In 1955 her husband's family, which ran a textile business, encouraged her to open a showroom displaying her creations made with their fabrics. This made-to-order business was a huge success, and among the visitors to the tiny space above a noodle shop was a film producer who asked her to design for movies. In seven years she created costumes for more than 1,000 films, all the while continuing her private business, now expanded to include many of the actresses whose costumes she had made.
"It gave me a chance to really study these working women, how they felt about themselves, about their clothing needs," she says. To help out with his wife's quickly expanding business, Ken Mori -- who publishes several fashion magazines as well as the Japanese editions of Women's Wear Daily -- took over the financial direction. Hanae Mori told Fortune magazine in 1976, "He is one of those tough Japanese businessmen who works hard, but has no sense of design. We're a good combination."
With the advent of television, however, the Japanese film industry abruptly declined, and filmmakers tried to recoup their profits with pornographic movies. "For that they didn't need me," Mori laughs. Discouraged at the prospect of refocusing on clothes for private clients, she thought about quitting the fashion business entirely, but her husband insisted she visit Paris and New York. In Paris she was excited by a meeting with Coco Chanel, whom she met when being fitted for a suit at the couture house. In New York she was impressed that she could walk into Saks Fifth Avenue and "buy an evening dress and wear it the same evening."
"This was a kind of turning point for me," she says. "I thought this was something that could work in Japan, and when I returned I began to work on developing these new ideas."
She returned to Japan with new enthusiasm, and in 1963 opened a three-story couture house on the Ginza, Tokyo's Fifth Avenue. "Very small, very small," she says firmly, no doubt comparing it in her mind with the gleaming five-story Hanae Mori building designed by Kenzo Tange, an internationally regarded architect, that now houses her empire.
Two years later she opened a ready-to-wear business in New York that attracted such prestige stores as Neiman-Marcus, I. Magnin and Bergdorf Goodman. When Neiman-Marcus honored Mori in 1977 with its first award to a Japanese designer, then-chairman Stanley Marcus said: "During the recent period of fashion anarchy, Hanae Mori clung tenaciously to the simple concept that her role was to design clothes which enhanced the beauty and femininity of her patrons. While others experimented with unisex, she remained convinced that her customers, at least, were solely concerned with those females who from the time of Eve have put a premium on the quality of 'becomingness.' "
"I'm an easy person -- I'm not working against things," Mori says of her own style. "I'm adaptable, and try to express myself within the system. It is best that I be accepted in France as a Parisian, in New York as a New Yorker, in Tokyo as Japanese." She has indeed been accepted, her success in each fashion capital documented by the many awards she has received.
Soon after opening her couture house on the avenue Montaigne in Paris in 1977, she became the first Japanese member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. "I needed to be in Paris to get fresh ideas, and it worked," she says. While the then-young upstart Japanese designers such as Kenzo and Issey Miyake were showing collections in Paris to boost acceptance at home, Mori needed the couture house, she says, to serve an increasing international clientele. Grace Kelly, whose first Hanae Mori dress was purchased for her by her husband at Neiman-Marcus, soon became a regular customer in Paris.
At first Mori created separate collections for her varied clientele, but today she sells the same designs the world over. "Except the Arab women," she adds quickly. "They never want to show any skin. For them I always add sleeves."
Her clothes not only have international appeal, but they survive well with time. Her benefit show here ("it is a retrospective, not the retrospective," said son Kei) included couture designs from the last 14 years, yet it was not possible to date the dresses.
Mori agrees, modestly. "I was so happy to see that myself," she says. "High-quality things do not change. In ready-to-wear they must change to encourage sales, but couture must be to wear for a long time."
She was particularly pleased as she saw again the black dresses she has designed over the years, always her favorites. "It is far more difficult to work in black than other colors," she explains. "I need more energy." For this reason, she always begins with black when designing a collection. "When I feel exhausted I move to color, and then return to black dresses." They are, she says, "like a frame of a beautiful painting. All of the old black dresses never get old."
She fears that as she gets older -- she is now in her mid-fifties -- it will become more difficult for her to create black dresses. "So I try to make a lot of them now, while I am full of energy."
Now she is also producing a great number of extraordinary beaded gowns. "Each year there are fewer artisans to do beading, so I try to employ them while they exist," she says. Some of her dresses, for which she has the beads dyed, take two months to make, and cost up to $20,000, occasionally $40,000.
She ended her show at the Madison Hotel with a group of jewel-toned bias-cut silk satin gowns ("now people want to see color"), and dressed New York model Diane DeWitt as a bride, with a headdress seemingly made of fluttering jeweled butterflies.
Butterflies are her signature, appearing frequently in her prints and bead-embroidered designs and accessories. "It's because I grew up in the country," she says, "in Shimane Prefecture, and played with butterflies in the mountains, around the rivers. I love their shape, their color, the lightness." The music accompanying the finale of her show was a pop version of an aria from "Madama Butterfly."
"I'm a wife, a mother, a grandmother. I have had all the experiences for a woman," said the designer as she finished breakfast at the Madison. But there will be one more. When the La Scala opera season opens in Milan next December with "Madama Butterfly," the costumes, appropriately, will be by Hanae Mori.