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House of Mori, the Next Generation

Daughter-in-law of founder slowly inserts a youthful look into the line.

May 14, 1999|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — A Valley girl is shaking up one of Japan's most tradition-bound fashion houses.

She is Pamela Mori, the daughter-in-law of preeminent designer Hanae Mori.

As the newly named creative director of Hanae Mori's ready-to-wear line, Pamela Mori--who left California shortly after graduating from Chatsworth High in 1975--is slowly, very slowly, ushering in a more youthful look to extend the designer's appeal beyond society women and royalty.

"I want to make it young and funky," says Pamela, 41, grimacing as she eyes floral print blouses and bright pastel jackets hanging in the company's showcase store at its Tokyo headquarters.

The transition won't be easy. "Funky" is about the last adjective that comes to mind in describing Hanae Mori's lineup.

Whereas Hanae Mori favors the elegant, the feminine, the fancy and the colorful, her daughter-in-law's anthem is "I love simple." Pamela Mori's spare lines are instantly discernible from the elder Mori's--much as a black dress with a simple something stands apart from a brocade ball gown.

Hanae Mori is known for creating memorable clothes, but Pamela Mori is pushing practicality.

"The last thing I want is for someone to remember what I'm wearing," she says. "I want to be able to wear the same thing five different ways and not be remembered."

But Hanae Mori, known as Madame Mori, isn't keen to deviate from the bright colors, signature prints and feminine patterns that have made her one of the bestselling designers in brand-conscious Japan. Moreover, her traditional haute couture designs have earned her the only place awarded an Asian designer in the prestigious La Chambre Syndicale de la Couture in Paris, the French governmental organization that oversees all high fashion.

Still vigorous at 73 despite a seemingly exhausting travel schedule that took her to Turkey last week and brings her to Los Angeles on Saturday (for a benefit fashion show at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel for the Japanese American National Museum), Madame Mori remains intimately involved in the business, with no plans to retire.

The elder Mori retains responsibility for the couture line. She also will continue to oversee the higher-end off-the-rack clothes that are popular with wives of well-heeled dignitaries.

Nevertheless, new energy and broader appeal were needed to revive the fashion house's sales amid a withering recession in Japan, its largest market, and to expand internationally.

Madame Mori and her two sons--Akira, who succeeded his late father as company president in 1996, and Kei, who heads the Paris business--wanted to keep the business in the family. So they turned to Pamela, who married into the family at 19 after meeting Aki while modeling in Japan. She inspired the company's new "Studio Line," aimed at the daughters of many Hanae Mori customers.

Pamela has brought a fresh approach, says Nao Oishi, a Tokyo-based fashion writer who has known the Mori family for years.

"Pamela's never afraid and never hesitates," Oishi says. "She is California open-minded, and she used to be a model and likes the fashion business."

In many ways, however, Pamela was an odd choice for such a tradition-bound company. She is as different from her mother-in-law as the cars they drive: Pamela tools around Tokyo in a hunter green Toyota RAV4, while Madame Mori is chauffeured in a black BMW sedan with an interior speckled with her signature red butterflies.

And it isn't just Pamela's nearly 6-foot height that makes her stand out in Japan. She is vibrant and outspoken in a culture of deference, reserve and respect for elders.

Unlike her refined mother-in-law, who studied Japanese classics in college and sometimes incorporates traditional kanji characters into her designs, Pamela spent a few weeks in junior college, breezed into modeling and married Aki. She became a full-time mom raising five children. She made her kids' bento box lunches, chauffeured them to traditional Japanese academies and after-school cram courses. Gradually she became fluent in Japanese.

While her mother-in-law, whose first tiny design shop over a ramen stand blossomed into a $400-million empire, has been traveling to Paris several times a year for decades, Pamela made her first foray to the fashion capital just two years ago.

"Pamela didn't study art or fashion, but her teacher is Hanae Mori," says fashion writer Oishi.

As her children left home to attend U.S. high schools and colleges, Pamela gradually got involved in the business, first making jewelry pieces. Then she started a successful line of economically priced cashmere separates, which the company produces at a fraction of other designers' costs at its joint-venture cashmere-spinning plant in China. The separates are the only Hanae Mori products sold in U.S. department stores--Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman).

Pamela shocked her mother-in-law at a recent fashion show with models who went braless under the cashmere. One even exposed a navel.

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