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Hello Kitty 50th Anniversary

When: 11/12/2010
Where: Barker Hanger, Santa Monica, CA

Scroll down to see photos from the exhibit:

Hello Kitty brand was launched in 1974 by Sanrio Company, Ltd. Yuko Shimizu is the designer. Kawaii, which means cute, adorable and lovable (1), is an aesthetic which dominates Japanese pop culture. This influence has caught on globally. Today Sanrio earns over $1 billion annually in sales outside of Japan. Perhaps the power of Hello Kitty lies in nostalgia for childhood innocence. The target market, besides little girls, are young women. In an interview, journalists Ken Belson and Brian Bremner, co-authors of the book “Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon” say that some commentators speculate that Hello Kitty is a girl power movement focused on whimsy and consumption, and that it is a by-product of mid-1970s consumerism in Japan and the rise of a class of young people with disposable incomes.(2)

Hello Kitty’s passive expression never changes; she has no mouth and she does not speak. Her gaze is always directed out at the viewer and her face has no profile view. Beneath that gaze, Hello Kitty is either an impenetrable mystery or a blank slate. And so we are able to behold Hello Kitty as a logo and an icon. She can be found on everything from waffle makers to car seat covers to children’s pencil cases. A “classic,” she represents shared female history, from mother to daughter, from girl to girl.

Hello Kitty’s apparel and accoutrements gets a makeover from year to year, and as such, she becomes fashion icon and collectible. Traditionally and a little less so today, Hello Kitty is in limited supply and acquires a high exchange value. On the other hand, contrary to this, over the past ten years, the strength of her brand is somewhat diminished by product licensing to big box retailers like Target whose Hello Kitty products are priced low enough to be on the cheap side. You can pay almost $100 for a Hello Kitty co-branded with Tokidoki t-shirt, or closer to $10 for one sold at Target. And this is the current state and maybe challenge of Hello Kitty. She represents different levels of consumption. It begs the question: Is this closer to a McDonaldization or to a Disneyfication of Hello Kitty (the later being a better outcome)?

1) “Wikipedia,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kawaii (accessed 11/10/2010)

2) Coury Turczyn, PopCult Magazine, http://popcultmag.com/criticalmass/books/kitty/hellokitty1.html (accessed 11/10/2010)

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