Born: Josie Cruz in Manila, Philippines, 9 May 1947. Education: Studied at Manhattanville College, Bronxville, New York, 1964-68, B.A., Economics. Family: Married Ken Natori, 1973; son: Kenneth. Career: Piano soloist, Manila Philharmonic Orchestra, 1956; stockbroker, Bache Securities, New York, Manila, 1968-71; investment banker, vice president, Merrill Lynch, New York, 1971-77; founder/president and designer, Natori Company, women's lingerie and daywear, from 1977; introduced at-homewear, 1983; introduced boudoir accessories and footwear lines, 1984; introduced bed and bath collections, 1991; delegate, Clinton Economic Summit Conference, and commissioner, White House Conference on Small Business, 1990s; Manhattanville College Board of Trustees; numerous licenses, including Avon, Bestform Foundations. Exhibitions: Asia Society's Philippine Style, New York, 2000. Awards: Harriet Alger award, 1987; Girls' Clubs of America award, 1990; Laboratory Institute of Merchandising award, 1990; National Organization of Women Legal Defense and Education Fund Buddy award, 1990; Philippine Independence Ball award, 1999. Address: 40 East 34th Street, New York, NY 10016, USA.
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"I never think of men when I design my lingerie or my fragrances. My desire is to encourage women to appreciate and pamper themselves," Josie Cruz Natori told the Fragrance Foundation. The tiny Filipino-American designer has created a new model in the business of fashion. Founder and chief executive officer of the Natori Company, Natori eschews the designation "designer," though others have described her as an "international fashion magnate." It is not surprising, considering the unprecedented degree of her vision and tenacity.
Battling puritanism and body reticence, which stifled the concept of fashion developing from the inside out, Natori has taken lingerie from a barely visible inner layer of fashion to the entirety of fashion and, in the process, built a multimillion-dollar worldwide business, featuring numerous major international licenses. To build a major fashion house from the base of lingerie is unparalleled, visionary, and a sign of the very late 20th century in its ambition and success. Yet contemporary culture has taken to Natori's vision of exposing the beautiful details of lingerie within a fashion vocabulary, which previously denied such ornamentation.
The stunning growth of Natori's empire is due to her vision. In the 1980s, she realized her lingerie was increasingly exposed by the women who purchased it, so she created publicly wearable garments inspired by her lingerie. The resulting neologist crossover category "innerwear-as-outerwear" was never her corporate slogan, though it might serve. Natori brought boudoir apparel out of the bedroom, perhaps inevitably so at a moment in culture when all heretofore privileged and private matters of the bedroom seemed to become public discourse. As a visionary, she simply answers a client's question of "how or where should I wear this?" with "wherever you want," granting lingerie an opportunity to enter into every aspect of attire. It is an ironic turn of success for Natori since she first approached a Bloomingdale's buyer about making shirts; her destiny was set when the buyer recommended she make them longer to be sold as nightshirts.
Natori brought a richness of detail back to apparel, one she remembered from Philippine embroideries and appliqúes. Natori shrewdly assesses the culture of the body, bringing stretch and bodysuits to the realm of lingerie and back to playwear, as well as the possibilities of feminine self-expression to dress for public circumstances. She neither suppresses nor proposes that the clothing she designs be mistaken for career wear, the operative description for much apparel of the 1980s. Instead she realizes the affiliation between private clothing, body expression, and eveningwear, all committed to comfort and to some degree of seduction and sensual pleasure.
To some, Natori might seem antifeminist; she argues, of course, that she is the true feminist delighting in and extending the category endemic to feminine traits and the female body. Talking with Woody Hochswender of the New York Times in January 1989, Natori said, "It's really a way for a woman to express herself. We've made women feel good without feeling sleazy." Indeed, all apparel addresses wearer and spectator; Natori's reassessment of the innerwear category has been refreshing for both men and women.
"Think of Katherine Hepburn, answering the doorbell," Natori offered to Deborah Hofmann, giving evocative pedigree to the ease-without-sleaze that she makes of her innerwear-as-outerwear. Natori is a perfect example for the woman who asserts authority in contemporary fashion: her first career was in investment banking; she herself wears couture (generally a tailored jacket and skirt) in impeccable taste; and she makes her way and her company's way in the fashion market with unmistakable respect for the women who wear her clothing. Natori's business acumen and design sensibility seem unerringly and culturally right—she created a fashion that satisfies women's feelings and practical needs in a culture and era of precious privacy and of women's expressions of themselves.
By the 1990s, Natori was involved in almost every aspect of fashion. Besides camisoles, thongs, panties, briefs, bras, and other lingerie items, Natori further developed her line of clothing to include chic pajamas, robes, pants, tank tops, tunics, sleepshirts, and more, made in a wide variety of fabrics, from cotton and satin to silk and polyester. Realizing the relationship between the feel of classy lingerie and scents, Natori began designing fragrances to complement her clothing, including her namesakes, Josie and Natori. "When I wear lingerie and fragrance, it's being sexy for me, not for someone else," she commented to the Fragrance Institute. "I never could use the word 'sexy'—for many years I was brought up to think it meant 'dirty,' but I've come to realize…it means feminine and sensual. There's nothing wrong with being both 24 hours a day." The company also manufactures home furnishings, accessories, jewelry, and eveningwear.
As one of the few early Asian designers to attain prominence in the international fashion world, Natori serves in a variety of roles, from businesswoman (in 1999, she was named number 40 in the Goldsea 100, America's 100 Top Asian Entrepreneurs list) to role model, from advocate for women's rights to delegate for business conferences (during the Clinton administration, she served as a delegate to the Economic Summit Conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, and as a commissioner to the White House Conference on Small Business).
updated by Daryl F. Mallett