LOS ANGELES — Few youth icons grow old gracefully, let alone keep their cool.
There’s Barbie, but at 40-something, even she appears more like mom or an older sister than a genuine trendsetter.
Then there’s Hello Kitty, on the eve of her 30th anniversary, reveling in greater popularity and profits. With the patina of Japanese pop culture and strategic collaborations with edgy fashion designers, the snow-white, bubblehead cat introduced in Japan in 1974 by Tokyo-based Sanrio and two years later to the U.S., is now a $1 billion global brand phenomenon that’s been built with scarcely any advertising, claiming fans from the cradle to the office and beyond.
A red-carpet favorite without ever appearing on the silver screen, her A-list fans include Sarah Jessica Parker and Drew Barrymore. She’s charmed retailers as disparate as Henri Bendel and Target into prime space for a generous sampling of the more than 10,000 products bearing her puss.
Hello Kitty is just one in Sanrio’s stable of successful characters, but it’s the most recognizable and collected figure. Created by Ikuko Shimizu, who no longer works for the company, Hello Kitty and her pals emerged in Japan as the people were embracing an American-influenced consumerism that included casual birthday gifts and collecting. Not since Barbie has a character manifested itself in more roles: From bandages to backpacks, microwaves to Macintoshes, no slice of life has been left unconsidered. See Hello Kitty surf, play guitar, don a bridal gown or step out in a hot pink flip ’do.
“She’s endlessly young. She’s timeless,” observed Bill Hensley, marketing director for Sanrio Inc. “That’s probably why we’re talking in terms of anniversary instead of a birthday.”
Yet, where that flaxen-haired plastic trophy female Barbie is relegated to toy sports cars and dream houses, Tokyo locals can hail life-sized Hello Kitty cabs, dine at Hello Kitty cafes serving Kitty-shaped food and sleep in Hello Kitty suites at the Daiwa Hotels. There are also Hello Kitty theme parks: Puroland Tokyo and Harmonyland on the island of Kyushu.
Cat fever is no less intense elsewhere. In the U.S., where Sanrio products sell in more than 115 signature shops in malls nationwide, and thousands of specialty and department stores, singer Lisa Loeb and the kitty appeared on her 2002 album, “Hello Lisa.” Heidi Klum was caught looking into a Hello Kitty compact while curling her lashes backstage at the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. The star treatment has been as much a case of genuine fanfare as Hello Kitty’s keepers ensuring her swag is ready to go at VIP suites like the one at the 2002 Golden Globes, where Debra Messing trotted off with no fewer than three Hello Kitty toasters.“She’s this iconic creature that for me wasn’t limited to seven-year-old girls,” said Richie Rich of New York-based Heatherette, among a handful of coveted brands that collaborated with Hello Kitty in recent seasons, including Paul Frank Industries, accessories designer Tarina Tarantino, T-shirt artist Doe and intimate maker Samantha Chang.
Heatherette is reprising its partnership with a second spring collection and expects to continue co-branding product for several more seasons, including custom offerings such as the dress sold at a charity auction last year for $50,000.
“She’s almost an extension of the Warholian idea of fame,” Rich added, although going way past Warhol’s “15 minutes.”
It has been Hello Kitty’s realization as a kind of anti-fashion statement that has been driving her burgeoning appeal in the last decade. Although the core target remains girls ages five to 15, a generation brought up on Sanrio has been reluctant to leave Kitty and her crew behind simply because they’re now old enough to introduce her to their daughters. Purchases for personal and gift reasons are equally split, and of all consumer buys, about a third are for those 18 and over, according to Hensley.
For the Kittyphile with digs of her own, there are TVs, barstools, coffee makers, vacuums, cell phones and car mats. There were even vibrators for a brief time, which became a coveted kitsch adult party gift, but those disappeared off domestic retail shelves when they were deemed inappropriate. In Asia, there were even protective face masks introduced during the SARS scare of early 2003.
The bulk of design for the brand continues to come out of the Tokyo headquarters. A second design team, wholly owned by the parent company, is based in San Francisco generates 4,000 stockkeeping units annually for the Western Hemisphere.
An additional operating and licensing office in Los Angeles oversees the design of an additional 4,000-plus sku’s through some 80 licensees in North America. Asia has several hundred of its own.
“What’s really fun is we’re bringing out 200 to 300 new items at any time and they sell out,” said Sanrio’s Hensley. “The key is doing them in low quantities. That’s a big part of the success.”Distribution is another key. In the U.S., Sanrio and its licensees ship to some 14,000 doors, from Mervyn’s to specialty boutiques and departments. It owns and operates 35 Sanrio doors in the U.S, most averaging about 1,200 square feet, and licenses another 80 Sanrio stores. Another 200 Sanrio shops are scattered throughout Canada and South and Central America.
Among Sanrio’s latest and largest — at 2,000 square feet — is the company-run flagship in Las Vegas Fashion Square, which opened this month and will eventually stock exclusive Vegas-themed Hello Kitty product, similar to its approach in its New York and Hawaii flagships.
Western Hemisphere retail revenues for Hello Kitty are $500 million.
That’s Godzilla-size business for a company founded in 1960 on the slogan “small gift, big smile” (odd, given Sanrio’s feline superstar has no mouth). Founding chairman Shintaro Tsuji remains on the board of the publicly traded company. His son, Kunihiko Tsuji serves as president of Sanrio Inc. North America.
A pregnant Tarina Tarantino was in the midst of appointing the nursery with her own vintage Hello Kitty collectibles when the call came from Sanrio in 2001 asking if she would collaborate.
“I was completely excited because I’ve always been a Hello Kitty freak,” Tarantino said. “I’ve been buying the stuff since 1976, when I was six. I still check Ebay for stuff. But there’s every kind of Hello Kitty jewelry imaginable. It was a challenge coming up with something that they haven’t already made.”
The designer, known forher Swarovski-speckled jewelry and quirky accessories, proposed an altered version of the icon sporting a hot pink flip ’do inspired by Tarantino’s own signature pink tresses.
“The idea was, ‘What if Hello Kitty is as obsessed with me the way I am with her?’” she said.
Initially, the powers at Sanrio balked at the idea. Though Hello Kitty has undergone slight transformations over three decades, this went further. With designers in Sanrio’s U.S. office campaigning for approval of Tarantino’s idea, the Hello Kitty Pink Head Collection by Tarina Tarantino was given the green light in 2002. The debut collection of 50 items, including jewelry, handbags, hair accessories and belts, wholesaling from $15 to $120, launched at market this summer.Cameron Diaz wore a cameo pendant from the collection to the Kid’s Choice Awards and Nikki Hilton picked up a necklace for the Video Music Awards at Ice Accessories here.
“The Hilton sisters are like rock stars in Japan, so the heads at Sanrio are really excited about that scoop,” remarked Tarantino, who was extended an open-ended contract with a one-year renewable clause for Pink Head.
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