With over 50,000 pieces of merchandise and a new cafe just opened in the UK, Hello Kitty is a cultural phenomenon. And it’s not just children that love her…
Words: Jess Spiring
Photography: Mark Harrison
Let’s start by setting the record straight. Hello Kitty is not a cat. She is actually, according to Sanrio, the company behind the global mega brand, a girl named Kitty White. Kitty’s not even from Japan, despite being appointed an ambassador of tourism by the Japanese government in 2008. Apparently, she grew up just outside London, with her parents George and Mary and twin sister Mimmy (you can tell them apart by their hair bows, by the way – Mimmy’s is yellow, Kitty’s is pink). And that mega brand? It now has an annual turnover of an eye popping £4.7billion. Not bad for an innocently drawn cartoon character that probably triggers fond memories of your childhood sticker collection or primary school lunch box.
Such is the crazy world of Hello Kitty. But when the UK’s first Hello Kitty cafe opened in London bakery Cutter & Squidge last week, it revealed perhaps the most extraordinary fact of all. Of the 3,500 advanced bookings, almost all were for groups of adult women. Rather than young girls driving the Forbes-worthy Hello Kitty empire, it’s now increasingly grown women who are fuelling the phenomenon. And for many, spending £40 on the themed afternoon tea with cakes and pastries served up in bamboo steamers is just the tip of the iceberg. Just take a look at the conversations on Hello Kitty’s English-speaking Facebook page with a staggering 13,700,000 followers (69% of which are 18-34 years old) or on sites like Hello Kitty Junkie where news of brand endorsements trigger a flood of excited posts.
No kidding around
And there’s an endless array of them; some 50,000 franchised products at the last count, most endorsed by Sanrio, some created by counterfeiters, with adult-only novelties ranging from the curious – Hello Kitty sparkling wine – to the curiouser – a branded tombstone, a rifle and even, astoundingly, a vibrator.
Indeed, the adult market has become a huge part of Hello Kitty’s strategy. Originally conceived by illustrator Yuko Shimizu in 1974 at Sanrio, a Japanese company that specialised in adding cute characters to low-cost goods such as stationery, executives soon recognised that Kitty had potential beyond the pocket-money of preteens. “By the Noughties, the core customer for Hello Kitty had become adult women aged 18 to 40,” says Christine Yano, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii who wrote Pink Globalisation: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across The Pacific.
“Part of the appeal is that Hello Kitty designers are incredibly creative,” says Yano. “They launch new iterations every month and they’re never far behind the curve, responding to cultural changes very quickly. They even released a ‘hipster’ Hello Kitty, with glasses and a bike, a few years ago. It means even as an adult, it’s almost impossible to go into a Hello Kitty store [there are 367 worldwide] and not find something you want to buy.”
Timing has also played a part in Sanrio’s success. “Hello Kitty’s ascendancy tallied with a growing culture that encouraged Japanese women to embrace ‘kawaii’ [meaning ‘cute’] ideas as a style statement and life philosophy,” says Yano. “It’s a concept that has been successfully exported to the west, part of an increasingly fashionable ‘J-culture’ that celebrates the kitsch side of Japanese style from anime and manga to harajuku fashion and cosplay [costume roleplay].”
This trend explains why the fashion world has so enthusiastically embraced Kitty as the queen of cute-cool – earning her covers on leading fashion magazines and lucrative collaborations from cosmetics collections with Anna Sui and Mac to footwear lines with Vans and Adidas and, most recently, a range of retro handbags by London-based designer Olympia Le-Tan. Celebrity endorsements have been equally high profile – Lady Gaga wore a gown made of Kitty cuddly toys to celebrate the brand’s 35th anniversary, Katy Perry has a Kitty tattoo on her middle finger, while Rihanna celebrated her 27th birthday last year with a Hello Kitty-topped birthday cake.
But aggressive franchising and good timing alone don’t entirely explain the fanaticism of her adult fans. “There’s a simplicity about her,” says Yano, “a blankness which never dates.”
Psychologist Anjula Mutanda agrees. “By being fairly neutral without a mouth or language, you can project onto Hello Kitty whatever you are feeling, be it anger, loneliness or fear. In a world that seems increasingly intimidating and dangerous, Hello Kitty has a benign, cute image that triggers a warm, nurturing feeling from childhood. It allows us to regress to a safe nostalgic space, taking you back to a time when you had no fears or worries.”
There’s a fun side, too. “Hello Kitty represents a heady blend of the naivety of childhood with the sexiness of adulthood,” says psychologist Emma Kenny. “Harajuku fashion gives these women permission to be cute and sexy all at the same time. It’s playful and intoxicating.”
“We’re living in an age where this sense of playfulness has never been more acceptable,” says Esther Lutman, curator at the V&A Museum of Childhood. “The idea of childhood has changed. It used to be only sports that you carried on past adolescence, but we have more freedom than ever to hold onto the things we loved as children – from computer games to fashion and toys. Even big corporations give employees daily opportunities to play because it’s considered a pathway to creativity [Google has famously led the work-play revolution with slides between floors, games rooms, Lego stations and scavenger hunts all said to boost workplace productivity]. While Hello Kitty isn’t the only toy that’s been successful in an adult world, she’s certainly been the most consistent.”
Now in her 40s, Kitty’s showing no signs of slowing down – indeed, the last few years have seen the brand aggressively extend into the entertainment and travel sphere. A £210million theme park opened in China last summer (adding to the existing two in Japan), Taiwanese airline EVA Air currently runs Hello Kitty-themed flights (colourful jets adorned with Hello Kitty images, with themed menus, luggage tags and crew uniforms), and a Hello Kitty spa recently opened in Dubai.
A bright future
And, of course, London now has its own piece of Hello Kitty history too – a pop-up cafe where even the topiary features Kitty’s inscrutable face. “The buzz among the fans has been crazy,” says owner Annabel Lui. “One woman told me she’d waited her whole life for an experience like this.”
With emotional attachments like that, it’s unlikely Kitty will be retiring anytime soon. In fact, she’s already hard at work on her next project – a movie, slated for release in 2019. “We’re a few years out from pre-production,” says Sandrine de Raspide, COO for Sanrio. “But what a way to celebrate her 45th birthday!”
With Hollywood on the horizon and Kitty’s star still on the rise, the future seems brighter than ever for Japan’s most famous export. Scroll down to meet the super fans who worship the girl known as Hello Kitty…
Amy Allen, 31, shoe designer
“My first Hello Kitty item was a small soft toy. I was 11 and it was love at first sight. Looking back, I think the fact that she has no mouth subconsciously chimed with me. It felt as though she was always feeling what I was feeling – if I was sad or confused, so was she.
From then on, every Christmas and birthday was a tidal wave of Hello Kitty merchandise, accessories and clothes. I had always wanted to build some kind of collection, so I managed to persuade my mum to buy me two of every HK Easter egg or advent calendar so I’d always have one in pristine condition. I’ve actually just had to throw a bunch of them out as mice had started to eat the chocolate. I was heartbroken.
I still buy two of everything and that’s a stupid amount of money when you’re talking about a £150 neon pink Hello Kitty Zatchel. My collection of handbags is probably worth the most – I have at least 120, all in mint condition in their dust covers.
I’m always on the lookout for new and rare things, especially on eBay. Right now, I’ve got my eye on a Seventies battery-operated handheld fan but it’s £500. In total, I’ve probably spent around £25,000 on my collection.
My wardrobe is wall to wall Hello Kitty too. When I was 15, I got my first ever Saturday job in Claire’s Accessories just so I could get a discount and dress up as a Kitty princess every weekend. I haven’t stopped wearing HK items since, although my style has evolved to be more harajuku, which I wear every day without exception. A typical outfit would be pink Lolita platforms, knee-high socks, several tutus and a pink pinafore. I always wear a tiara, bunny ears or a bow (on the left, of course – the same as Hello Kitty).
My friends and family are totally used to my style, but when I worked for an insurance company, they asked me to tone it down. They wanted me to stop wearing my HK glasses but I refused. I didn’t stay in that job long!
In January, I went on a Kitty pilgrimage to Japan to mark 20 years of me loving her. I pretty much sobbed with joy every day – there was so much merchandise! I pocketed every single straw, packet of salt and napkin that had her face on it. Even little things like that become treasures in my collection. A friend of mine recently ripped open one of the straws before I could stop him and I just lost it. I had to superglue the packaging back together before asking him to leave.
My crockery collection is just as precious. It’s adult-sized, real china that came free with a Hello Kitty magazine, one item per month. It took me three years and about £800 to complete the set. And of course my bedroom is awash with Hello Kitty stuff, from my pink four-poster bed to the life-size Hello Kitty toys. Some people think it’s weird when they see it, but most boyfriends don’t seem to mind. My ex, Chris, learned to tolerate it but when we split earlier this year he told me he couldn’t bear the thought of eating another meal off Hello Kitty crockery.
Part of my obsession might be a reaction to my teenage years. Despite dressing in Hello Kitty clothes, I was really mature and by the age of 19, I had a good job running my own business and working for British Gas. I had a mortgage and was engaged. But at 21, I realised I wasn’t happy. I hadn’t done anything with my life but it already felt over. I split up with my fiancé, sold the house and moved to London to discover who I really was. Of course, Kitty was there through it all.
She takes me back to a happy time when I didn’t have to think about work and paying bills. But there are times when people stare at me that I wish I could love her in private. They’ll shout, ‘Why are you dressed like a child?’ or try to take sneaky pictures.
I’m pretty sure I’ll never grow out of Hello Kitty. Now, my aim is to get a job teaching English in Japan. It’s mainly because I want to live near Kitty in her motherland. I sometimes dream about getting a job with Sanrio and I look at the website occasionally to see if they are recruiting, but I’m afraid it might kill the joy I get from it – this sacred, beautiful thing. To me, she’s like my religion.”
Naomi Shimada, 28, model, film-maker and writer
“There hasn’t been a time in my life when Hello Kitty wasn’t in it. Being half-Japanese, when I was brought home from hospital in Tokyo after being born, I was wrapped in a Hello Kitty blanket. But that’s actually not too surprising – there’s no escaping Hello Kitty in Japan, it’s a HK Mecca. Everything I had as a kid – from stationery to rollerblades and lunchboxes – had her face on it. My first word was even ‘kawaii’ [pronounced like Hawaii], meaning cute, which is heavily associated with Kitty.
Now I live in London, Hello Kitty gives me a real sense of comfort and connection with my Japanese heritage. I’ve lived quite a nomadic life around the world since I was 18, but my Hello Kitty stuff makes wherever I am feel like home.
All my friends know about my obsession and fully support it. They’re always buying me little Hello Kitty gifts and my birthday party in New York last year had a Hello Kitty theme. We had these huge life-sized helium Kitty balloons, a Hello Kitty paddling pool full of bottles of beer, and obviously I had to have a HK cake served on Hello Kitty plates. I’m currently obsessed with my wireless pink Hello Kitty karaoke mic that syncs to my iPhone. Karaoke and Hello Kitty are my two absolute favourite things so it’s a dream!
For me, it’s less about wearing lots of Hello Kitty fashion items and more about the lifestyle stuff; I have a huge Hello Kitty clock, a lamp, two prints of her above my mantelpiece, plus a branded saucepan, toaster, phone case, cosmetics bag and luggage. I even have a Hello Kitty fire extinguisher!
Since I’ve already been to Puroland (it translates as Pureland in English) – the Hello Kitty theme Park in Tokyo – my next plan is to fly on the Hello Kitty jet. One goes from Paris to Taipei in Taiwan and everything about the plane is Hello Kitty-themed, from the rice bowls which are shaped as her head to the handwash in the toilet. I could just fly direct from London, but I’d love to have that whole Hello Kitty experience.
Kitty is a real consistent in my life and she makes me feel so happy. Even now, despite being exposed to so much of the merchandise throughout my life, whenever I see Hello Kitty products, I get as excited about it as I did as a child. I think if you love something when you’re young, you’ll love it always.”
Tete Bang, 25, performer and DJ
“I was 14 when I first got into Hello Kitty, which is I suppose quite late. I was really into Japanese fashion – it made me feel liberated and helped me deal with those painful teenage years when I was feeling alone and exposed as an openly queer girl [Tete identifies as gender fluid] in a small town in Cumbria. It was escapism, I guess.
Fashion with Hello Kitty on was easy to get hold of from high street stores like H&M – although I had to go to the kids’ section. In the beginning, I binged on really cheap accessories, but now I spend a lot more money importing good quality stuff from America, such as Tarina Tarantino jewellery – which costs a few hundred pounds per piece – and knitwear from JapanLA. My flat is a shrine to Kitty with a giant Pez dispenser that I got off eBay, branded bedding, luggage and a pink tented bed. All in all, there’s probably around £20,000 worth of stuff.
Hello Kitty has become part of my personality and I’m almost always wearing something with Kitty on. And even if I’m not, I have two tattoos of her – one on my ribcage and one on my thumb – so she’s always with me.
I’m at my happiest when I’m in the Hello Kitty dress that I made myself. It’s like the one Lady Gaga wore and it’s covered with soft toys. It took 12 hours to sew and cost me quite a bit – the toys alone are worth about £400. And it’s really heavy – it’s like having sandbags around your neck! I wear it out clubbing and people always come up to ask me about it.
Partners never really get my obsession though. One of my exes told me he thought it was really childish and immature. But I managed to persuade him to come to the huge Hyper Japan expo at the Kensington Olympia and seeing loads of other women like me helped him to understand. Being with other Kitty fans gives me validation. We’re a really tight community who are friends on social media. We mostly just share photos of new additions to our collections.
Hello Kitty represents confidence and happiness for me so if I’m feeling a bit low, I’ll pile on tons of Hello Kitty clothes to boost my mood. I guess she is a bit of an emotional crutch. When I split up with my boyfriend recently I booked a solo trip to Japan to cheer myself up. My main aim was to go to Puroland. There were loads of grown women there on their own so I didn’t stick out at all. I loved the parades and shows, and I went totally crazy in the gift store. I bought loads of harajuku fashion in Tokyo too. I don’t like to think about it, but I reckon I spent about £3,000. I wanted to stay in the Hello Kitty Hotel in Tokyo, but it was fully booked for months. I’m now planning a trip to Korea because they’re even more Kitty-crazy there; even the roadworks have her on them. I guess they realise that her face makes everyone happier.”