A HIT WITH JUNIORS
Byline: Karen Parr / with contributions from Tsukasa Furakawa, Tokyo
NEW YORK — In 1963, a button-eyed kitten sprang forth from an artist’s pen at the Japanese children’s products firm, Sanrio.
Her name was Hello Kitty, and she soon appeared on a tiny coin purse.
Since then, a coterie of Kitty compadres have followed, from the googly-eyed frog Keroppi to the soccer-playing pup Pochacco to the heavy-lidded penguin Bad Badtz Maru.
And the demand for accessories with the distinct hallmark of Japanese animation, also known as “Anime” or “Japanimation,” goes way beyond the Hello Kitty coin purse.
Other companies are offering accessories inspired by Japanese animation range from the American firms Sears & Robot and Pigpen, which offer Japanimation-style characters, to Japanese firms Shin and Co., which creates accessories featuring the character Astro Boy, and Super Planning Co., which uses the cartoon Mr. Friendly on accessories.
And Hello Kitty keeps proving her meow mettle as Sanrio attracts young and old alike.
Sanrio has a U.S. base in San Francisco and a Japanese base in Tokyo and had worldwide sales of $1.2 billion in 1996, according to Bill Hensley, U.S. marketing manager.
In recent years, Kitty has gone beyond the nine-to-13-year-old core customer, as hip chicks in their teens and 20s have begun toting handbags with the white kitten’s likeness.
And while the company still makes many of its own accessories, it has also licensed some.
New York firm Pyramid Handbags got its Sanrio license last year and will ship luggage, backpacks and handbags aimed at children and teens this July, according to the firm’s licensing coordinator, Stacey Wunsch.
The bags wholesale from $5 to $18.
Kitty remains the most popular character, according to Sanrio’s Hensley.
“Other characters popular with teens and 20-year-olds are Keroppi and Pochacco,” he said. “Badtz Maru is particularly popular with the teens.
“He’s a little edgier than some of our other characters, graphically, with spiked hair.”
Hensley said he feels the appeal with older customers has been building over the last four or five years.
“This is in part because the customer doesn’t want to part with her friend, the Sanrio character,” he said. So the company is designing products with more function, such as day planners, to appeal to a teen customer.
He compares this trend with that of adults who wear Mickey Mouse merchandise.
In answer to increasing zeal for Japanimation-inspired goods, at least two Japanese companies are planning to launch “cartoon character” accessories in overseas markets, initially in the U.S. They will do so by setting up directly run shops or in partnerships with local distributors.
Shin and Co., which makes handbags, watches, wallets and other accessories featuring the character Astro Boy — known in Japan as Mighty Atom — is working on plans to add more directly operated outlets in Japan and possibly set up new ones overseas.
Popular accessories include handbags and purses with three-dimensional reflections.
Shin’s art director, Masahiro Saito, said the company has so far made no real effort to export directly. While his company sells to other countries, including the U.S., it has no American sales agent.
In most cases, buyers travel to Tokyo to take a look at actual samples in Shin’s showroom. Some place orders large enough — roughly $10,000 or more — to pay to have goods shipped home. Others just hand-carry their goods back.
“We understand there are many people from overseas who buy from our wholesalers,” Saito said. “So we simply don’t know how and where our goods are sold.”
One such distributor is Showroom 126 here, where the representatives buy certain Shin merchandise in Japan and then fill orders in the U.S.
Saito said Patricia Field, owner of the Patricia Field’s and Venus boutiques here, was one of the first overseas buyers to take note of Shin’s character goods. The retailer has been selling varieties of Astro Boy accessories for many years.
Shin now does about $8.13 million (1 billion yen) in annual business, half of it in cartoon character accessories.
Another Tokyo company that is getting ready to make an entry in the export market is Super Planning Co., widely known for its Mr. Friendly character here.
Mr. Friendly, unlike Astro Boy or other characters that are based on popular TV cartoon series or movies, is a stand-alone character.
Takahisa Kamiya, the firm’s president, says the company plans to exhibit its line in the forthcoming Gift Show here in July.
“We are looking for possible joint venture partners in the U.S. and other markets,” Kamiya said.
Super Planning now does $24.4 million a year in business, Kamiya said.
In the U.S., Mr. Friendly accessories are sold at the Air Market boutique in Manhattan’s East Village.
Like other character brands, Kamiya noted, many buyers from overseas buy directly from his wholesalers, and as such, he can’t specify what items are sold at how many places in how many countries in how much volume.
A couple of U.S. accessories lines have taken their inspiration from the Japanimation cartoons, like Astro Boy or the Barbie-like heroine Sailor Moon, and have created their own cartoon accessories.
One is Pigpen in Seattle, and the other is Sears & Robot, a small shop here in the East Village.
“Some of the cartoon stuff is super-high-impact and colorful,” said Rick Dunwiddie, designer for Pigpen. “It’s really classic graphics and well drawn. It’s fun to pull out your wallet and have people talk about it.”
The four-year-old Pigpen began manufacturing a variety of Japanimation-inspired accessories about a year ago. These include a range of vinyl accessories, from bowling-ball bag purses with a cartoon girl’s face on the side, to belts and wallets. They wholesale from $8 to $14.
Pigpen merchandise is sold at Antique Boutique here and Delia’s catalog, among other boutiques and specialty shops. The company also makes T-shirts and had net sales of more than $2 million last year, Dunwiddie said.
At Manhattan’s Antique Boutique, buyer Lisa Fogleman said the Japanimation trend has caught on in their accessories department.
“It started out as some underground thing; the people that were into it were into Japanese comics,” she said.
Fogleman noted that trends catch on in their store, which is a forward boutique on the trendy Broadway strip in Greenwich Village, then die out when they move on to the surrounding stores.
She said with the Japanimation-style accessories, they are still reordering, but have noticed that as the market gets more saturated with the merchandise, their customer backs off.
At Sears & Robot here, partners Hushi “Robot” Mortezaie and Michael Sears are banking on the allure of Japanese accessories.
Their store, which opened on Valentine’s Day this year, features a wide array of merchandise they have brought over from Japan.
In addition, they carry and wholesale their own line of Japanimation-inspired accessories, also called Sears & Robot, to forward boutiques like Sharon Segal in Santa Monica, Calif., and to Antique Boutique in New York.
At the store, merchandise ranges from a red patent-leather backpack that Japanese children wear with their school uniforms to the Hello Kitty merchandise brought in from Japan, which has a different color palette than that sold out of the U.S. headquarters.
The Sears & Robot vinyl accessories line includes various original cartoon characters and the firm’s logo and has a wholesale range between $6 and $14.
Mortezaie has taken his love of Japanimation so far that he sometimes wears special contact lenses hand-painted in Italy which have a white star in the corner, to give his eyes that cartoonish glint. But, he said, “It’s not just because I’m obsessed with Japanese animation, it’s the complete look.”
He feels that consumers around his age — 24 — feel nostalgia for the Japanese cartoons they saw as kids.
As for teenagers today, he said they are affected not by nostalgia, but by the design elements integral to Japanimation.
“Japanese animation is very futuristic, and youths today are into that look — very video game-ish, but cute and modern,” he said.
“With Japanese merchandise, we’re getting inspiration from them, just like they got inspiration from us in the Fifties, when [our design] was totally pop.”