Hello Kitty, the global Japanese phenomenon that encourages grown women to remain little girls at heart, is 35 this year. The brand's designer visited the UAE.
It's a cute, cute world
Were aliens to visit the earth, they could be forgiven for thinking that the planet was in the grip of a feline takeover. The leader's calling card: a small, white cartoon cat with button eyes, a cute pink bow over her left ear, and no mouth. The aliens want a toaster? She's on it. Or a pair of shoes? They are covered in her likeness. She is on laptops, telephones, stationery, food, clothes, beauty products, cleaning products, heavy machinery and credit cards. In Tokyo, Harajuku girls dressed in her style roam the streets. In fact, pick any item, and there will almost certainly be a version with her little round face on it, blinking out at you (literally, should you choose to invest in Hello Kitty contact lenses).
It has taken 35 years for Hello Kitty's influence to reach such proportions. Created in 1974 by Sanrio, a Japanese social communications company that stumbled across the idea of adorning blank stationery with cute images, Hello Kitty was immediately a schoolgirl sensation. It met with similar enthusiasm in the West when it launched there in 1976. By the 1980s, legions of seven-year-olds were refusing to leave the house without their Hello Kitty lunch boxes.
It is these children, says Yuko Yamaguchi, the brand's designer, who is visiting Dubai as part of Hello Kitty's 35th birthday celebrations, who are responsible for its current cult appeal among adults (the Sanrio store in Dubai's Times Square Mall receives more grown-up customers than children, the shop assistant there tells me). "One day I met an American woman who was a Hello Kitty fan," says Yamaguchi, speaking through an interpreter. "I asked her how long she had liked Hello Kitty for, and she said, 'I don't remember, but when I look at her it reminds me of childhood. It brings back memories. It makes me feel good.'" With adults, she explains, Hello Kitty taps into their nostalgia.
Yamaguchi is exactly what you would expect from the person who has created around 50,000 items of pink, plastic kitsch. Her long, lightened hair is wound into two girlish plaits. A black, printed baby-doll dress swings around her small frame. She has, with her black and white stripy leggings and gold platforms, that sense of cute goth for which modern Japanese girls have become known. I am pleased to note that on her left braid sits a small, glittery bow - just likes Kitty's. I nearly fall off my chair, though, when I am told that she is just north of 70. She doesn't look a day over 50.
Born in Kochi Prefecture, Yamaguchi studied at the Joshibi University of Art & Design in Sagamihara. Although not Hello Kitty's creator - that honour goes to Ikuko Shimizu - she was brought on board in 1980 as the brand's third designer, just as sales were starting to fall away. Yamaguchi has seen Hello Kitty change from a range of little girl's stationery, through a reinvigorated period in the 1990s when its retro credentials made it the ultimate celebrity accessory, seen on everyone from Paris Hilton to Mariah Carey, to its current status as a global mega-brand.
Recent tie-ups with MAC, Anna Sui and Christian Dior have sealed its iconic status as Japan's second most prolific export after sushi. Hello Kitty has been a United States children's ambassador for Unicef since 1983. And in 2008 the Japanese tourism board named her their official tourism ambassador to China and Hong Kong. There is, it seems, no mountain too high for Kitty. Over the way in Taiwan, Kitty has even been incorporated into the local infrastructure. In 2007 a Hello Kitty-themed maternity hospital opened, furnished with Hello Kitty blankets, cots, staff uniforms and birth certificates. "Mothers- can get medical care while seeing these kitties and bring a smile to their faces, helping forget about discomfort and recover faster," said the hospital's director at the time.
The same year saw one of the country's airlines deck out a passenger plane in Hello Kitty livery. And the Hello Kitty Sweets restaurant in Taipei does a brisk trade in Hello Kitty-themed food. It is ironic, then, that Kitty herself has no mouth, a move that Sanrio says was intentional, to make her a kind of everygirl, on to whom any emotion can be projected. "She speaks from the heart," says Sanrio. "She isn't bound by any particular language."
In fact, she is half Japanese and half English, a quirk that was imagined at a time when the Japanese did not travel much but were intrigued by the thought of England, having grown up on books like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Experts will know about Kitty's twin sister Mimmy; that among her favourite hobbies are eating yummy cookies and making new friends; and that she weighs the same as three apples.
But not everyone has fallen under Kitty's spell. In his blog, Hello Kitty Hell: One Man's Life with Cute Overload, the husband of a Hello Kitty obsessive in the US documents the developments of the Hello Kitty phenomenon, including some of her stranger product lines (recent posts include the Hello Kitty chainsaw and the Hello Kitty beehive). "Now that we're back in the US," he moans, "my wife is dutifully trying to Hello Kittify our new place like in Japan. One would think that I would be safe now that I am not in the land of the evil feline, but that would be greatly underestimating Hello Kitty's will to make my life hell."
Much more numerous, though, are her fans. On websites such as hellokittyfan.com, fanpop.com and hellokittysworld.com, adults swap information on new and hard-to-find items, and plan trips together to Sanrio Puroland in Tokyo, the Hello Kitty theme park. Despite the brand's international appeal, the concentration of adult fans is still highest in the Far East. Hello Kitty, says Yamaguchi, is now embedded in Japanese culture.
"Hello Kitty is not the only character who is very popular among adults there," she says. "Harajuku fashion had already been born before Hello Kitty arrived." For the uninitiated, Harajuku refers to the neighbourhood around Harajuku station in Tokyo, which has become a fashion hotspot for teenagers and young adults, who use the area's boutiques to cultivate an eccentric, often girlish sense of style.
One of the most popular looks was "kawaii" which translated as "cuteness", and linked in to a wider cultural wave that included brands like Hello Kitty. That these looks began to be exported overseas, says Yamaguchi, tied in with the increasing global popularity of Hello Kitty. "Now pop culture is admired by a lot of countries, which is why Hello Kitty also became very popular," she says. Yamaguchi is keen to keep Kitty moving with the times. In 1999 she was given a boyfriend, Dear Daniel. At the time, Japanese celebrities were just starting to admit that they had boyfriends and girlfriends, a subject that had previously been taboo. "As humans developed, so Kitty developed as well," says Yamaguchi.
An easy way to do this was through fashion. "For example," she says, "in Japan last spring, celebrities started to wear fake glasses as a fashion. By autumn ordinary people were starting do it. So I made Kitty wear them, too." When it comes to her own sense of style, Yamaguchi has a clear-cut philosophy: never forget your inner girl. It is one she learnt from her favourite designer, the late Ray Yanagawa, who designed for the Japanese label Milk (one of the original Harajuku labels, famous for its "gothic Lolita" designs).
"He wrote a book," she says, "and in it he said that women should always have a girl's mind, and that they should always wear something cute and they shouldn't forget their fundamental girl's heart." In fact, the dress she is wearing was designed by one of Yanagawa's students. "I really agree with his message, so through Hello Kitty I want to say it to all the people in the world. And of course these designers who used to work under Ray, they designed these cute dresses with this in mind, so we share the same sense of value."
The rise of Hello Kitty looks likely to continue. Yamaguchi tells me she is constantly being approached by fashion designers, artists and musicians who are keen to collaborate. She will not work with just anyone, though. "The most important thing is whether they like Kitty or not," she says. "If they really like her, then the collaboration will be a big success." She gives Anna Sui as an example. "When she first opened her shop in New York City, she wanted to use all Hello Kitty stationery. She did it just because she loved Hello Kitty."
Yamaguchi's pink diamanté Hello Kitty phone is ringing. My time is up. There is, however, a moment to spare for an autograph. She pulls out a square, gold-rimmed board and instead of signing it, starts a drawing just for me. In it, Kitty is carrying a bunch of flowers, which Yamaguchi painstakingly colours in, despite the queues of people waiting to meet her. "Dear Katie," reads the speech bubble. "Hello Dear Friend!" I feel overwhelmed. It's the best thing I've been given in years. I could actually do with some pens, I think, as I stride back into the store. And some stickers. And a diary. And a sewing kit. And some slippers-
Hello Kitty is available from Sanrio, Deira City Centre, Dubai (04 295 0855) and Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi (02 681 8128).