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Sunday, March 19, 2000

Well Hello, Kitty! You look swell, Kitty!


Staff writer

Occupation: internationally known idol Age: 25 Born: Nov. 1, 1974, in the suburbs of London Family: Anthony and Margaret (grandparents); George and Mary White (parents); Mimmy (twin sister) Hobbies: Collects teddy bears. Love life: Has been going out with her childhood friend Daniel Star since last year.

Can you guess her identity?

Well, her given name is Kitty White, but you might know her by her other name -- "Hello Kitty," created in 1974 by Sanrio Company Ltd., a Tokyo-based manufacturer and retailer of goods featuring original characters.

Since 1962 Sanrio has created over 400 characters, but Hello Kitty has by far had the longest shelf-life, selling steadily ever since its introduction.

"Hello Kitty is definitely our superstar," says Sanrio spokesman Kazuhide Yoneyama. "Kitty brings us about 50 percent of all our profits. Actually, we're sometimes worried about such a total dependence on one specific character."

No one can say what distinguishes Kitty from other characters, but change is a key ingredient.

"However cute a character may be, it will become outdated and people will get tired of it if you leave it unchanged for more than five years," says Yuko Yamaguchi, the designer currently in charge of Kitty. "You have to keep offering the customers something fresh."

The original creator of Kitty quit the company not long after the cat's debut. Yamaguchi took over the character in 1980 and has been responsible for it ever since.

"Kitty-chan has changed little by little over the years," says Yamaguchi. The first two years after Kitty's debut, she was always depicted in profile, sitting down with legs straight out and head turned toward the viewer. In 1976, she stood up for the first time -- to go to school. When there was a nationwide tennis boom in 1980, she traded in her blue overalls for white tennis wear.

Around the same time, Sanrio gradually introduced a family, friends and even a boyfriend for Kitty.

In 1987 Sanrio made its first effort to extend the appeal of Hello Kitty products, which were previously targeted at elementary school-age students and younger, to a wider age group. The trigger was a letter to Yamaguchi from a high school student, who said she had been a fan from an early age, but that her parents and friends had told her the character was too child-oriented for her to be interested in anymore.

Inspired by the monochrome fashion that dominated the country at the time, Yamaguchi launched a black-and-white Kitty series. Since Kitty had been characterized by vivid colors until then, a colorless Kitty was a risk, but it succeeded in attracting new teenage customers.

Since then Yamaguchi has consciously incorporated recent trends into her Hello Kitty illustrations, especially for merchandise targeted at teenagers. She does not hesitate to use colors unusual for Sanrio characters, such as vivid orange and purple, if they are currently in vogue. When Hawaiian items became popular, she placed hibiscus flowers in the background of a Kitty design.

As a result of these efforts, Kitty became an established idol for teenagers by around 1994, and a nationwide Kitty boom began around 1996.

Many teenage celebrities openly admitted to liking Hello Kitty items, further fueling popularity. In 1997 many high school girls in the Shibuya area who liked the Kitty look of having a flower in the hair instead of a red ribbon, imitated the cat and tucked a fake flower behind the ear, spawning a trend that swept the country.

By the end of last year, Kitty character could be seen everywhere -- even on Yamaha motorbikes, Daihatsu cars and Apollo electric pianos.

Kitty has many fans abroad, too, especially in such Asian countries as Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore, Yoneyama says. This January, for instance, McDonald's stores in Singapore sold stuffed Kitty and Daniel toys in wedding costumes to customers who ordered certain set meals. The offer attracted unexpected hoards of people, thronging outside stores before they opened.

On the domestic market, however, the Hello Kitty craze may have already passed its peak. But there is still room for growth, Yamaguchi says.

"Mothers around 35, who liked Hello Kitty when they were little girls, now buy Kitty products for their children and use them together," says Yamaguchi. "My next goal is to create family-oriented products that even fathers could use without hesitation."



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