PARIS — A $15 Mickey Mouse T-shirt may not be a very novel idea, but what about a $1,700 Dino cashmere sweater or a $15,000 diamond-encrusted Hello Kitty necklace?
Animated characters — from Tom and Jerry to Snoopy — are one of fashion’s hot topics, and they are entering a more sophisticated orbit by getting a modern luxury spin.
Lucien Pellat-Finet, for example, who is known for his costly cashmere sweaters, has signed a license for fall to use Flintstones characters; jewelry designer Victoria Casal last fall launched a line of Tinker Bell diamond bijoux, following up on a successful venture with Hello Kitty, and shoppers this season can find D&G confections emblazoned with playful Tom and Jerry vignettes.
Not so long ago, even the experimental Comme des Garçons label plastered the Pink Panther on its men’s wear.
Warner Brothers has moved to capitalize on the fad by signing four consultants — Robert Burke, Mary Alice Stephenson, Adam Lippes and Lisa Block — to trawl through the company’s massive repertoire of characters to determine which could translate into fashion.
Burke, who runs Robert Burke Associates in New York, said the idea is commensurate with luxury’s current personalized mood, from the customization of accessories to the high prices commanded for top-shelf vintage designs.
“Part of [the phenomenon] is explained by self-expression by the consumer,” reasoned Burke. “There’s an element to animated characters that evokes a familiar feeling. It makes fashion not so serious and less intimidating.”
Burke said while he is in the early stages of pondering how Warner’s characters could fit with fashion, he already sees possible tie-ups, especially in luxury.
“I see this as a long-term venture,” he said, adding that he feels attracted instinctively to “edgy” characters in Warner’s stable, like the Jetsons or Speedy Gonzales.
What draws sophisticated designers to childlike cartoon personages? Many said their link was sentimental, a dream of their youth expressed in an adult vocabulary. But they acknowledged that a licensing agreement to use the likes of Snoopy could be lucrative, too.
“It’s about individuality,” said Casal, who is extending her Hello Kitty license to cashmere sweaters for fall. Retail prices for Hello Kitty cashmere sweaters will range from $229 to $1,811. Hello Kitty jewelry retails from $350 to $91,739, while Tinker Bell jewelry goes from $833 to $27,770.
“Cartoons are a pressure reliever. In our world today, there is little room for mistakes. So people, especially women, want to smile,” said Casal.
That cartoons are coming in expensive incarnations is symptomatic of a generation of consumers who consider luxury their daily manna, she said, adding, “Luxury is what my generation expects.”
The characters often command wider recognition than any one designer, meaning a cartoon can introduce a fashion brand to a bigger audience.
“I’ve profited from the association,” said Casal, who declined to divulge how much volume she expects to do, but said it’s become an “important” part of her business. “Customers that come in for Kitty are led to discover the rest of my universe.”
“The characters are often bigger than fashion labels,” Burke agreed.
Pellat-Finet said he equates the popularity of cartoons with a resurgence in pop art, a movement away from minimalism and pared-down design and the need for a lighthearted approach to a world rife with violence.
“It’s fresh and droll,” he said. “Right now, I wouldn’t do a sexually crazed, violent manga [character] on a sweater. That’s evident. We want cuter things.”
The designer’s Flintstones sweaters will retail from $1,087 to $2,173.
Cartoons are by no means new to luxury. Cartier, for example, created jewelry with Disney in the Thirties, including charm bracelets with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, according to Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of strategy and patrimony. In the Seventies, the exclusive Paris jeweler reprised the cartoon theme, creating Snoopy pendants.
And Paris designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, who is experiencing something of a renaissance, especially on the London club scene where DJs sport his vintage Snoopy sweaters, has toyed with cartoons for decades.
“It’s the opposite of the less-is-more aesthetic,” he said. “Fashion is more joyful, because everything is so difficult at the moment.”
But cartoons also can be subversive, he said. “I’d put Snoopy on a sweater, but the text coming out of his mouth expressed ecological or political concerns,” said de Castelbajac. “It can be an effective way to tackle difficult issues.”