TOKYO -- The first thing to know about Hanae Mori is never call her "Mrs.," always "Madame." She herself is not sure how "Madame Mori" started, but thinks it may have been coined 25 years ago by her old friend Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus, the Dallas department store that was the first in America to sell her silks and chiffons printed with butterflies and cherry blossoms, to the wives of rich Texas executives and oil men. In any case, it fits.

The second thing to know is that Mme. Mori's story parallels the rise of postwar Japan. It is the tale of a young dressmaker with a small shop above a noodle restaurant in a bombed-out section of Tokyo who used what she had -- talent, guts and her husband's money and indulgence -- to become the premier costume designer during the "golden age" of the Japanese film industry, and then the country's first high fashion designer to break into the overseas market. Today she is one of the most powerful businesswomen in Japan. Through it all, Mori did not so much rebel against the conventions of her culture as ignore them.

Today, at 63, Mme. Mori is a queen bee of Tokyo's establishment society -- a safe, gray-suited amalgam of presidents from Japan's leading companies and ambassadors from large Western nations, with a sprinkling of creative personalities of acceptable stature. Hers is definitely not the world of avant-garde Japanese designer Issey Miyake, the upstart of the 1970s, with whom she has attained a peaceful coexistence.

Mori knows and likes the international power elite. She has designed for Japan's royal family, and publicly defended former Japanese prime minister Sosuke Uno during the scandal last year over his extramarital affair with a geisha. "Just when a man is ready to take up very challenging work, a woman comes up with this kind of expose'," she said. "I feel this treatment is a little unfair. Of course, if my husband did it, I might get a little upset."

During one recent week, Mori threw a party in the French restaurant she owns for her good friend, conductor Seiji Ozawa, along with his visiting Boston Symphony Orchestra. The waiters passed flutes of champagne as another good friend, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, the Barbara Walters of Japan, made a brief speech in Mori's honor. A few days before, Mori had lunched with her Danish furrier, Birger Christensen, who had flown in from Copenhagen to consult with her on the latest designs that will appear under her label. In the midst of this, she played hostess all week to designers Donna Karan, Claude Montana, Slava Zaitsev (said to be Raisa Gorbachev's couturier) and Alan Cleaver and Keith Varty of Byblos, the Milan-based ready-to-wear firm. The five were in town to show their collections at Mori's annual "Fashion Summit."

At the end of the week, Mori showed her own collection of spring 1990 ready-to-wear, based on her trademark ladylike suits and romantic, feminine evening gowns, to 1,000 people in an enormous tent set up in the Outer Garden of Tokyo's Meiji Shrine. The crowd was heavily larded with the working fashion press, but Sachiyo Kaifu, the wife of the Japanese prime minister, could be spotted in a choice seat. "Madame Mori is dressing her," explained Yasuko Suita, Mori's longtime right-hand woman. Mori has in fact designed clothes for every Japanese prime minister's wife since 1967. Over the years, her other clients have included Nancy Reagan, Imelda Marcos, Princess Grace of Monaco and Princess Shams Pahlavi, the twin sister of the former shah of Iran.

Back home in Tokyo, the city's Old Guard views at least one Hanae Mori in the closet as de rigueur. "Anybody who is anybody would want to be married in a Hanae Mori wedding dress," decrees Ise Togo, the wife of the late Fumihiko Togo, the former Japanese ambassador to the United States.

Mori's haute couture daytime suits sell for $9,000; an evening gown goes for $26,000. In Tokyo, she lives in a modern five-story home of marble floors and coromandel screens designed by her friend Kenzo Tange, considered by many to be Japan's finest architect. She also has homes in New York and Paris, where she likes to entertain. For important parties, she has taken along the chef -- Japanese-born but French-trained -- from her restaurant in Tokyo. His specialty is roasted snapper with caviar d'aubergine.

Four decades ago, just after the war, the newly married Hanae Mori, a doctor's daughter from a conservative family in the mountains near Hiroshima in southwestern Japan, found herself facing the rest of her life as a housewife. Her husband, Ken Mori, a textile executive, was consumed by his work; she was wildly bored by what was, and still is, the expected role of most women in Japan.

"I would make my husband some warm, delicious soup," she says, "and suddenly he would phone and say an appointment had come up, and that he couldn't take dinner at home that night. That kind of thing happened many times." She was never invited out with her husband's friends -- "Japan was a gentlemen's country," she says -- and when her husband brought associates home, she stayed in the kitchen to cook.

"Like a maid," she says, speaking softly, but pointedly. "I wanted to be different."

Hanae Mori strides into a beige-and-cream-colored meeting room on the fourth floor of the Hanae Mori Building, her international headquarters, a glass and steel complex designed by Kenzo Tange that sits on Omotesando, Tokyo's boutique-saturated shopping street. It is a crisp winter Saturday, not a bad day for shopping, and beneath Mori, tourists and Tokyo's rich browse through the merchandise on the first floor of her building. What they find is a sampler of her empire, produced either by one of her 20 companies or under a licensing agreement: dresses, scarves, men's ties, jewelry, handbags, perfume, golf clothes, children's clothes, umbrellas, belts, shoes. In department stores there are also Hanae Mori futons, carpets, towels and sheets. Her holdings include a publishing house, run by her son, Akira, that puts out the Japanese versions of Women's Wear Daily and W, as well as a glossy high fashion magazine and Voice, a magazine modeled after Andy Warhol's Interview. In Paris, she has an haute couture house on the Avenue Montaigne and a shop on the Rue du Faubourg-Saint Honore; in New York, her ready-to-wear business operates out of a town house on East 79th Street off Madison Avenue. Last year, the Hanae Mori group of companies had global sales of $350 million.

Mori takes a seat, apologizes for arriving a few minutes late -- no one is ever late in Japan -- and then crosses her legs, encased today in opaque black stockings worn with high black heels. She is in a conservative black wool suit with a printed silk blouse; a front section of her chin-length black hair is pulled up in a barrette away from her face, like a busy working woman who has not had time to fuss with her hair in the morning. She wears big round glasses and minimal jewelry. The look is not drop-dead chic, but accessible elegance. One of the first things Mori does, after inquiring warmly about the health of her interviewer, is to apologize again, this time for her need to have Yasuko Suita, her longtime associate, serve as interpreter. "My English is not very good," she says, in English.

For all her success, Mori is an approachable woman, low-key, gracious and restrained -- a manner that is the result of her conservative upbringing, and crucial to her success in Japan. In Tokyo's male-dominated business culture, a more overtly hard-driving woman would have been shunned. "It's the combination of her aggressive business sense enveloped by this elegant aura that has attracted so many people in Japan," says her friend Yoshiharu Fukuhara, the president of Shiseido, Japan's largest beauty products company and one of the largest cosmetics companies in the world. Mori, in fact, still claims to get stage fright when speaking in public. Last year she asked an audience of foreign correspondents in Tokyo to bear with her "if I do clumsily as a public speaker" and requested that she be allowed to remain seated "so that I will feel less tension."

Mori's husband runs her fashion empire, and like a good Japanese wife, she defers in public to his business skills. "I can't count money, so I let him do it," she likes to say. In reality, friends say she is the driving force. "Her husband runs the whole business, and is very tight with the budget," says her friend Bernard Krisher, a former Newsweek correspondent in Tokyo and now an adviser to a Japanese publishing company. "But what she says goes." As Mori's son Kei told a magazine interviewer in 1985: "Mother thinks of herself as Art. Father thinks of himself as Commerce. In the Tokyo building, they demanded that the architect place their respective offices as far away as possible from each other. Still, they manage to have some rip-roaring arguments. 'You know nothing of beauty,' she accuses him. 'You are a totally impractical woman,' he tells her."

The Moris are said to have a close marriage; it is simply that of the two, Hanae Mori is the disciplined perfectionist, the wife who insists upon doing the seating arrangements herself for a dinner for 250, or the boss who instructs Yasuko Suita to straighten a painting that is hanging slightly askew in one of the Hanae Mori Building meeting rooms. "She is really a strong person," Suita says. "So she never plays. She doesn't do things to enjoy herself. If she sees a movie, of course, it's enjoyment, but she needs it to change her mood, or her ideas."

Although Mori has never had the impact on world fashion that Issey Miyake has, and although she was upstaged in the publicity that five years ago surrounded younger, trendier Japanese designers such as Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, she is seen in Tokyo as the pioneer who has endured. "The young kids have taken over in a way, but she's smart in following her own tempo," says her friend Bernard Krisher. "Some seasons she's out of fashion, and she doesn't get much publicity, but in the end, she'll really be recognized as the person who made fashion in Japan." Polly Mellen, the longtime fashion editor of Vogue in New York, agrees. "Of course everybody would love to be Karl Lagerfeld or Chanel, but I think she cares more about another kind of designing," she says. "She designs for women who don't like making an entrance, women who are quieter women -- not limelight women." Sachiko Oshima, the editor of Katei-Gaho, Japan's leading woman's magazine, says Mori has taught Japanese women, once bound by the kimono, how to dress for evening in the modern world. "Japan didn't have the tradition of formal Western clothes," she says. "But through her fashion, women began to understand what to wear for important occasions." Miyake, who says that Mori often told him in the '70s that "you're doing very influential design, but you have to think more of the business," credits her with clearing the trail to America at a time when the Japanese were humble figures in the West. "The way she went overseas and showed her work, it influenced me," he says. "It was a push for me to do something. She showed the rest of us courage."

Hanae Mori's first dressmaking shop was in Shinjuku, a middle-class shopping area north of the center of Tokyo that had been flattened during the bombing raids. After the war, it became the site of one of Tokyo's biggest black markets, selling imported food and clothing from the West, and also a favorite haunt of the Japanese artists, writers and film directors who liked to drink in the neighborhood's cheap restaurants and bars. Mori's shop was across from a movie house that showed the latest films from America and Europe. Toru Midorikawa -- now president of Japan's most prestigious book publishing house but at that time just a beginning employee -- remembers emerging from a showing of "Stagecoach," starring John Wayne, to notice Mori's window displays up on a second floor. "I saw clothes, I guess, but what I remember were the colors," Midorikawa says. "They were the reds of Bonnard, a very impressive color, but subtle, a Japanese color, but not a traditional Japanese color. It was so beautiful, I couldn't resist. So with my girlfriend, who later became my wife, I walked up this narrow staircase. And there we found so many colorful clothes. Hanae Mori's dresses are too expensive for me now, but at that time I could afford to buy, in a year, two or three suits for my wife."

One day a Japanese movie producer -- en route, perhaps, to a Shinjuku bar -- noticed the same window displays, walked in, and asked Mori to design the costumes for his upcoming film. "I was young enough to accept his proposal right away," Mori recalls. The film was a love story, "Kakute Yume Ari," loosely translated as "A Dream Has Come to an End in This Way," and for the heroine Mori made a big, full, checked skirt, cut on the bias. "When she walked, the skirt would swing," Mori remembers. Until then, the costume departments of the major production companies had made all of the clothes for Japanese films, sometimes using just curtain fabric. But by the '50s the economic recovery of Japan was underway, bringing with it a bright new era of Japanese entertainment and glamorous roles for actresses who needed costumes to match.

Mori was soon the costume designer of choice. Masahiro Shinoda, now one of Japan's leading filmmakers, remembers that it was exciting to work with her on his film "Pale Flower," an allegory about Japan's gangster world based on a novel by Shintaro Ishihara. (Ishihara is better known in the United States these days as the author, along with Sony Chairman Akio Morita, of "The Japan That Can Say No," the controversial book that says Japan should stand up to America.) In "Pale Flower," the female lead was a gangster's girlfriend, vaguely linked with upper-class society, dressed by Mori in one scene in a tight black skirt, a black-and-white-striped blouse, a white sharkskin jacket and a big white bolero. "It was clear that these were expensive clothes, but they were also the clothes of a mysterious woman," Shinoda says. "To me, the dress was like a lotus flower suddenly opening in the darkness."

Ultimately, Hanae Mori designed costumes for 500 movies and worked with every major director of the period, with the exception of Akira Kurosawa, who made few films in contemporary settings. She had become as famous in Japan as some of the stars she dressed. By this time she had opened a salon in the Ginza, Tokyo's expensive shopping district; she shuttled between there and Shinjuku, always careful to avoid fitting the intensely competitive actresses at the same place. "If they saw each other, it would be a disaster," Mori says. Some of the actresses used her shop and salon as hideaways to meet lovers or fiances away from the gossip press; others sought her out as a confidante and mother hen. Many were married in her wedding gowns.

But by the early '60s, with the advent of television, the Japanese film industry was on the edge of collapse. "And me also," says Mori. She knew she would never make costumes at the volume she once had, and realized she had no interest in making clothes for private clients. "When I was working for the movie industry, although it was so busy, it was interesting, because I created characters through the costumes," she says. Exhausted, she decided to quit altogether.

Soon afterward, a vacation in Paris proved to be a turning point. She arrived dressed as usual, all in black, with her long hair in a bun, but decided for the first time in her life to see what it would be like to be a customer instead of a designer. At the salon of Coco Chanel, Mori tried on a blazing orange suit -- the "color of the sun," as the fitter described it, in "the land of the rising sun." For Mori the suit was much too bright, and she chose only a blouse and an inner lining in the color. And yet she left affected by the experience.

"It helped move the scales from my eyes," Mori said years later, recalling that the suit seemed to make a different statement from the Japanese fashions she knew so well. "In Japan I had been used to designing dresses to hide, to conceal things," she said. "The whole Japanese concept of beauty is based on concealment. If you have a little something to decorate your table or your dress, you make that something suggest many other things not readily visible on the surface. I suddenly realized that I should change my approach and make my dresses help a woman stand out."

She also realized in Paris that she might be able to make a living as a high fashion designer. Returning to Tokyo invigorated, she quickly set about creating her new look for Japan. Four years later, in 1965, she collected her nerve and headed for America, attracting the interest of American fashion writers by sending out hand-written invitations on rice paper to a fashion show at the then-chic Delmonico Hotel on Park Avenue. The New York Times, however, reacted to Mori's arrival with some skepticism, and seemed amused at her presumption. "A Japanese caravan has arrived in New York with the sole purpose of storming the American fashion industry," Marilyn Bender wrote, adding that Hanae Mori "is believed to be the first Japanese designer of consequence to attempt to sell Western-style clothes to American stores."

On Saturday night 300 people had assembled at the Delmonico Hotel for Mori's big debut. She was backstage, and her husband was out with the audience. "I remember how nervous her husband was," recalls Ise Togo, who was then living in New York as the wife of the Japanese consul general, Mori's host for the show. "He was mopping his brow with a handkerchief." But Mori's collection -- centered on simply cut but brightly colored evening dresses printed with cherry blossoms, butterflies and Japanese brush strokes of her own design -- was an instant hit. Stanley Marcus was charmed. "I was fascinated by her selection and by her," he says. "It was one of these things you're constantly searching for. Here was a design source, who seemingly understood how American women were constructed, and what they wanted to wear."

Saturday on Omotesando is drawing to a close as the shoppers in the Hanae Mori Building buy their Hanae Mori scarves and butterfly pins. It is only 3:30 p.m., but the Tokyo winter light is already fading. Hanae Mori has been talking for several hours in the meeting room, and now she seems eager to get back to work. When the interview is over, she quickly heads for her studio, a small room filled with half-finished dresses, rows of shoes in every shade, and several waiting assistants. The January couture shows in France are only two weeks away, and much of Mori's collection is not yet completed. She is booked on a flight to Paris on Monday, less than 48 hours away. She loves going to the city -- in 1977 she became the only Japanese designer to be accepted at the chauvinistically French Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture -- but now the tension of the upcoming trip shows in her face. Wasting no time, she selects an unfinished black and white short evening dress from a rack, waits while her model puts it on, then begins to pin and adjust. She pinches the fabric on a sleeve to make it narrower, then thoughtfully considers the new look in the mirror. Meanwhile, her two assistants make minute adjustments to the fall of the dress across the back. At last satisfied, Mori asks the model to change, then rapidly moves to another dress.

"For this spring, I'm mixing cashmere and silks," she has said earlier. "I also think suits are very good as a style, but they should have a soft touch." Mori, who occasionally wears a skirt or a blouse by Miyake, thinks that he and the other new wave designers who broke into French fashion in the 1970s and '80s "were interesting in their own ways, but to me, those were the days when women were not at their best in terms of beauty." The black, shapeless styles were not for her. "The femininity of clothes," she says, "is very important to me." (In Paris, fashion writers seem to agree. The newspaper Le Figaro called Mori's collection "very feminine" and "well-tailored" with "beautiful draping"; the Associated Press said she showed "the sexiest, youngest fashions she's ever designed" with "siren-like vermilion draped silks, and striking shades like cyclamen purple paired with gold lame'.")

Back at her headquarters in Tokyo, Mori is asked what she thinks has been the most important ingredient to her success. "It was not only one factor," she answers. "It was a combination." But then, the proper Japanese wife in her upbringing takes over.

"Maybe," she says, "it was because of a good husband." In her studio, she says goodbye, then bows.

Washington Post special correspondent Shigehiko Togo contributed to this article.