Touching episodes from the life of Japanese designer Hanae Mori

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Hanae Mori smiles during the fitting of a costume for a play at Hanae Mori Building in Minato Ward, Tokyo, in February 2000.

During my 30 years of reporting on designer Hanae Mori, I only ever saw her shed tears once: While giving an interview about receiving the Order of Culture in 1996, she touched upon her husband, Ken Mori, who had died shortly before she received the honor. “When you work outside, you have many enemies, and there are hard times, too,” she said. “But my husband was my comrade in arms. He always trusted me, which gave me psychological support,” she added, as her words trailed off.

Mori was determined to make Japan — a war-defeated country — globally competitive. Her achievements were always accompanied by such phrases as “the first Japanese to do this” and “the first woman to do that,” which must have caused her to feel immeasurable torment and pressure. But she never mentioned such things, making me realize that I’d had a glimpse of the steely determination required to carve new paths as a pioneer.

Mori often wondered how far a Japanese female designer could go. To rise to this challenge, she chose the arena of Paris haute couture. Under the theme of “East meets West,” she designed outfits with Japanese materials and motifs, such as kabuki and cranes. Her inch-perfect designs and needlework, grabbed the attention of the fashion world, which acknowledged the beauty of her creations.

“Fashion sometimes gives you courage to become adventurous,” she would say, giving hope to Japanese women in the years following the end of World War II. She was quick to detect changes in people’s lifestyles and crafted ready-made clothes that were easy to wear and made people feel good.

In December, Mori was featured in a series of Yomiuri Shimbun autobiographic articles about famous people. Many women who read the articles send in letters and photographs of their outfits, with some saying they still treasured the attire.

Mori’s burial outfit, which was chosen by members of her family, included a white blouse with a stand collar — one of her favorite styles — and a black jacket.

Even at the very end, she remained Hanae Mori — fashion designer.