Not long after it was created 30 years ago, Japan’s ubiquitous cartoon feline Hello Kitty was almost dead.
“About five years after its birth, everyone came to dislike Kitty. Consumers got bored with the character and no one volunteered to become a new designer,” recalls Yuko Yamaguchi, Hello Kitty’s third designer at Sanrio Co.
Yamaguchi, an art college graduate, said she was “forced” to become a Kitty designer in 1980 as the company tried to prevent the brand created in 1974 from dying out.
When she took the job, the character had always worn the same clothing and had relatively few posture variations.
“I myself did not like Kitty very much at that time, so I decided to eliminate the previous images and do a complete makeover.”
But with her predecessor having already left the company, Yamaguchi had no one to turn to on the design, so she proceeded by trial and error.
“For example, I removed the black outline of the character to help soften its overall image. Gradually, I saw the number of fans attending my autograph sessions increasing,” she said.
Her efforts bore fruit by 1985. After studying art design in San Francisco for a year, Yamaguchi released a Hello Kitty holding a teddy bear in 1985. The series became a big hit, making the new Kitty Sanrio’s best-selling brand.
“I owe Kitty’s success to fans. New ideas came to me as I heard their opinions. The company was rather conservative and reluctant to make radical changes to the character, but I believe constant reforms prolonged its life,” she notes.
The brand, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of its creation in November, has now spread to 60 countries with some 50,000 products marketed globally, ranging from stationery to taxis. A ski area and karaoke rooms also feature Kitty.
For the anniversary year, unprecedented products, including coins, tiaras and even robots featuring the feline, have or are scheduled to hit the market.
Kitty’s popularity transcends age and national boundaries. Celebrities in many countries, including Mariah Carey, Cameron Diaz and Britney Spears, have publicly shown their affection for the cat.
In the United States, actresses, musicians and fashion designers love the feline, calling it “cool,” according to Sanrio.
Yamaguchi first created the black and white Kitty series in 1987 for high school girls. “It was the first attempt by Sanrio to target teens, but the products proved popular among working women and housewives as well,” she said.
“Nowadays, fans in their 70s come to my autograph sessions. I’m surprised to see sometimes that girls, their mothers and grandmothers all come together and buy goods separately.”
Yamaguchi says girls or women try to project themselves into the character and consider Kitty their alter ego. “They yearn to be Kitty. I guess they can put themselves into the character all the more because the cat has no facial expressions, with its mouth not drawn,” she said.
The designer always tried to reflect trends of the times when she created new products. In the late 1990s, for example, she released pearl pink quilted goods featuring Hello Kitty.
At the time, Japanese high school girls were making money as prostitutes to buy designer bags. “I created quilted Kitties to shift their interests from brand bags,” she said.
She later created Kitty’s boyfriend Daniel as Japanese celebrities became more open in publicly announcing whom they’re dating. This year, Yamaguchi released Kitty’s pets — a Persian cat named Charmmy and a hamster called Sugar — based on the recent pet boom in Japan.
Yamaguchi said she never expected to continue working on Hello Kitty for such a long time.
But new ideas keep coming. “Although I will never create such Kitty goods as condoms, lighters and cigarettes, new products will always be born as we enter new ages,” she said.
The designer hopes Kitty fans all over the world cherish the goods and pass them on to their children. “It is heartwarming to see daughters using Kitty products once used by mothers,” she said.
To mark the 30th anniversary of its creation, an exhibition of contemporary artwork featuring Hello Kitty is being held in Tokyo through Sunday. The event will move on to other cities, including Osaka and Sapporo, later this year, and then overseas next year.
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