Hanae Mori

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Chapter 2: Hanae Mori

‘I entered a world, the world of fashion, where women had little place.’

Hanae Mori

One afternoon in 1961, a young Japanese woman called Hanae Mori arrived at the offices of the great fashion designer Coco Chanel, in Paris. Hanae was nervous. She had always admired the pictures of Chanels clothes that she had seen in fashion magazines at home in Japan. She had also read a lot about Chanel and knew that she was a person with very strong opinions. Now Hanae was going to ask Chanel to design a suit for her. As she sat and waited for her meeting, Hanae watched the women in the office come and go. Some wore stylish Chanel suits; others wore skirts and loose blouses with lots of beautiful jewellery.

‘What kind of clothes will Chanel suggest for me?’ Hanae wondered.

At last, Chanel’s door opened and Hanae went in to meet the great designer. Hanae was surprised when she first saw her. Chanel was much smaller than she had expected. And although she was now an old woman in her seventies, Hanae could easily imagine her as a beautiful young woman many years before.

Chanel looked at Hanae carefully and then said, ‘You have wonderful black hair. We must dress you in orange like the sun.’ Hanae thought for a moment. She didn’t want to be rude to such an important woman, but she didn’t agree with her at all. ‘I’m not sure about that,’ she said. ‘I like quiet colours.’

The two women discussed it for a few minutes and then decided that Chanel would make Hanae a black suit with orange at the edges.

When Hanae left Chanel’s offices, she knew that she had bought a suit that was just right for her character. But she had also got something much more important from her meeting with Chanel. Hanae had realized that she wanted to be a designer like Coco Chanel. Before she met Chanel, she had always thought that designer fashion was a man’s world. Now she knew that if Coco Chanel could succeed, then she could too.

Hanae went back to Tokyo and two years later started her own design company. Within thirty years, it had grown into a five-billion-dollar business.

When Hanae met Coco Chanel in 1961, she already had a lot of experience of the clothes business, although she had never worked in designer fashion before. Her interest in clothes had started when she was a child in a small village in Shimane in the south-west of Japan. Her family was traditional in many ways, but her rich father liked his children to be dressed in the latest European styles. Little Hanae always felt very different from the other village children, who arrived at school in their simple Japanese clothes while she wore an expensive suit from Paris or London.

As she grew up, Hanae often argued with her father about her future. He wanted her to be like him and to become a doctor, but Hanae wanted to study art.

‘Art?’ her father used to say. ‘Art is a wonderful hobby, but it’s not a real subject to study.’

In the end they agreed that Hanae would study literature, and so she left her family and started a course in Japanese literature at university in Tokyo. But before she could finish her studies, the Second World War started. Like many other women students, Hanae had to stop studying and go to work in a factory. Soon she realized that the war was going badly for Japan. Every night she heard the American planes above Tokyo and she listened for the sound of the explosions as the bombs fell on the city around her.

When the war ended in 1946, Japan had a lot of problems. Many of its cities had been destroyed, and millions of its people had been killed. But Hanae wanted to return to normal as quickly as possible. So she went back to university and finished her studies in 1947. At that time there seemed little chance that she would go into business.

The year before, Hanae had fallen in love with a rich young man called Ken Mori, whose family owned a factory that made cloth. They were soon married and it seemed that Hanae would become a housewife. Until the end of the Second World War, Japan had been a very traditional society and a woman was simply expected to be a good wife and a wise mother. At first, Hanae was ready to accept this situation.

‘I had no problem with becoming a housewife,’ she said. But it was soon clear that a life at home, looking after her husband and her family, was not for her. After just a few months, Hanae was bored. She started looking around for something to keep her busy.

In the late 1940s, Japanese society was slowly changing. In 1946, Japanese women had been allowed to vote for the first time and a few women had become politicians in Japan’s parliament. There were still very few Japanese businesswomen, but if women could become politicians, why couldn’t they also become successful in other areas? Hanae decided to try business.

She had always been interested in clothes, she loved art and she was married to a man who owned a cloth factory. So the clothes business was the obvious choice for her. Over the next two years, she learnt about designing clothes, cutting cloth, selling clothes and running a business. By 1951, she felt that she was ready to make and sell her own clothes. She started in a small way, making clothes for a few people, but then she had a piece of luck. An important Japanese film producer saw one of her designs and loved it. He called Hanae.

‘Could you make some clothes for my next film?’ he asked.

Hanae said ‘yes’ without even thinking about it.

Over the next six years, she made clothes for many Japanese films and worked with people like Yasujiro Ozu and Nagisa Oshima. In Japan it was a time when people were building the economy again after the war. They had high hopes for the future, and when they went to the cinema they wanted to see film stars who looked bright, strong and confident. Hanae’s clothes for Japan’s stars caught this mood perfectly. Her experience of working in the film industry was very important for her.

‘My eyes were opened to the world,’ she said. ‘I understood that there were many different types of women. I realized how men looked at women and how they loved them.’

By the time she arrived in Paris for her meeting with Coco Chanel, Hanae already knew a lot about the clothes business and had made a lot of money from it. But her move into designer fashion in the early 1960s was something quite new for her.

When Hanae returned from Paris, she travelled to New York to study European and American design. Then in 1965, she opened a shop in Tokyo to sell her own designer clothes. As Hanae’s business grew over the next few years, she noticed that the fashion industry was changing in important ways. Coco Chanel had always designed clothes specially for each customer; when Hanae Mori bought her suit from Chanel in 1961, she knew that she was buying something that had been made just for her. But the younger designers of the late 1960s were more interested in making clothes that were ready to wear. These could be produced in much larger quantities, which allowed fashion designers to expand their businesses. Now they could have many shops in countries all round the world. As a result, designer fashion became much more international.

Hanae was very comfortable with this change, because from the start of her work in designer fashion, she wanted to make sure that her business was international. She had her first fashion show in New York in 1965, and in the 1970s she started to have regular fashion shows in Paris too. The most important part of Hanae’s business was in Japan, where she had over seventy shops. But she also had three shops in Paris, and customers could buy her clothes in over a hundred places in the US.

She always tried to mix Eastern and Western ideas in her designs. She designed long dresses in a Western style which were covered with Japanese writing. She liked to use cloth which was decorated with Eastern pictures of flowers and birds. She made suits in a European style, but with collars like the ones worn by China’s Mao Zedong. In Japan, rich women loved her ideas and found that they could wear her clothes for all occasions: business, sport and parties. One of Hanae s greatest moments was the design of a wedding dress for Masako Owada when she married Prince Naruhito in 1993. But her clothes were popular not just with Japanese women, but with many rich Europeans and Americans as well, including film stars like Grace Kelly and Sharon Stone and presidents’ wives like Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton.

Just like Coco Chanel, Hanae also understood that success in fashion could lead to success in other industries. Chanel had shown that when people bought a bottle of perfume, they were buying more than a liquid with a nice smell. The success of Chanel No. 5 showed that people wanted perfume with a stylish image; they wanted perfume with a special name in a special bottle and they were happy to pay a lot of extra money for this.

When Hanae Mori produced her own perfume, she knew that customers would connect the stylish image of her clothes with the image of the perfume. She also realized that women, especially women in Japan, would trust her.

‘For the first time it’s a Japanese woman talking to Japanese women,’ she said.

But unlike Coco Chanel, Hanae Mori wanted to do more than just sell designer clothes and perfume. She also saw that she could use her name to sell children’s clothes, as well as books and magazines. In fact, Hanae discovered that her famous name and her skill in business could help her in many different areas. When she visited a famous restaurant in Paris, she liked it so much that she decided to start a similar French restaurant in Tokyo. Of course, it was a big success.

At one time, Hanae’s business made over $5 billion a year, and thousands of people worked for her. But her company was also a family business. Her husband, Ken, was involved in the financial side of her business from the early days and her sons and their wives also held important positions in the company.

Hanae is now over eighty years old and she left business life in 2004, but her ideas are remembered not just by her family and colleagues, but also by other successful Japanese designers like Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. They learned a lot from her because, with her mix of East and West, Hanae was the first Japanese designer to become an international success. She is also remembered by other Japanese businesswomen. Japan has changed in many ways since Hanae was a bored housewife in the 1940s, but even today there are fewer women in top jobs in Japan than in other big rich countries. Hanae Mori’s life shows younger businesswomen that it is always possible to reach the top.


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