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HELLO KITTY Products find purr-fect niche as collectibles



Published: Sun, February 16, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Adults and children alike are enthralled with the little white kitten.

WASHINGTON POST

Andrea Goldsmith is long past the stuffed animal and doll age, but step inside her DeSales University dorm room in Center Valley, Pa., and it looks like a 7-year-old lives there. The image of a small white kitten is everywhere.

The ubiquitous feline face even adorns the college sophomore's backpack, wristwatch and other articles of clothing.

"She's just so cute," says Goldsmith, 19, of Salisbury Township, Pa. "People look at me, but I don't care."

So why is a grown woman wearing items that seem more suitable for a little girl?

The object of her affection is no ordinary cat. To some, she's a familiar toy from childhood. To others, she's the hottest thing in fashion and collectibles. And those are just the adults. New generations of children are still playing with her.

A legion of fans

Her name is Kitty White, better known by her legions of fans as Hello Kitty, a simply rendered feline whose innocent face adorns a children's product line created in 1974 by a Japanese company.

Fueled by nostalgic feelings for a beloved memento of their 1980s childhood, college women such as Goldsmith and twentysomethings have sparked a Hello Kitty fashion trend in recent years that appeals to an audience well out of elementary school.

"How could you not like her? She's so cute!," says Dayleen Barnowski, 21, an avowed Hello Kitty fan from Nazareth, Pa., who carries a blue Hello Kitty handbag and wallet.

Hello Kitty mania has struck celebrities and ordinary folks alike, from 5-year-olds to 35-year-olds, from Fifth Avenue to MacArthur Road, from Bendel's boutique to Claire's Boutiques.

Hello Kitty has been spotted on celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Drew Barrymore, Tyra Banks, Gwen Stefani, Carmen Electra and singer/songwriter Lisa Loeb, whose latest CD, "Hello Lisa" features an image of the white kitten wearing Loeb's hallmark glasses. Christina Aguilera told Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" she chews Hello Kitty gum. Mariah Carey fessed up to having a Hello Kitty boombox and hair dryer.

All this over a kitten with an oversized face and few details save for black button eyes, a yellow button nose, six straight whiskers and a red bow cocked on her left ear. There are few details, no mouth, claws, paws, stripes, spots or discernible fur. And it all adds up to a cat with a sweet, open expression.

Humble beginnings

Unlike many licensed products, Hello Kitty did not begin life as a television or movie cartoon. In 1974, Sanrio Inc., of Tokyo, launched the character on a plastic coin purse in Japan. Sales took off and Sanrio expanded the Hello Kitty product line, says Bill Hensley, marketing director for the company.

Sanrio created only the thinnest of biographical information for Kitty. She and her twin sister, Mimi (who wears a bow on her right ear) were born Nov. 1, 1974, on the outskirts of London. She weighs as much as three apples and her favorite activity is making friends.

Sanrio expanded her market and brought her to the United States in 1976. She is now sold on every continent except Antarctica.

Global moneymaker

The globalization of Hello Kitty has made her a cash cow for Sanrio. She brought in $1 billion in sales last year, and that was an off year, Hensley says. Sales are strongest in southeast Asia and Japan, where she's a national treasure. Scores of couples get married each year at the Hello Kitty theme park called Puroland outside Tokyo. And for brides-to-be and newlyweds, there's a Hello Kitty wedding line, replete with champagne glasses with a Kitty and her beau, Dear Daniel.

Sales are growing in the United States, where there are about 120 Sanrio stores in addition to 10,000 locations that carry the line, including F.A.O. Schwarz, Claire's Boutiques, Carlton Cards, Target, Zany Brainy and Kohl's. Last year, the Sanrio store in New York's Times Square sold more merchandise than any other store in the world, including the one in Tokyo, the traditional leader.

Since she was first launched, Hello Kitty's sweet visage has been emblazoned on more than 150,000 products -- 200 new items are released every month. "There's always something new. That's part of the big attraction," Hensley says.

Although the color palette, clothes and products change frequently, Hello Kitty's essence remains the same. A baby blue Hello Kitty sprouted wings in the Hello Kitty Angel series, and she turned punk a few years ago, but still remained sweet.

Many products

A sampling of the myriad products on which Hello Kitty appears: purses, pencils, pens, stickers, fingernail clippers, toilet seats, tissue box covers, towels, sheets, stuffed animals, cell phones, bandages, soap, microwaves, wafflemakers, sandwich makers and toasters (which imprint Kitty on the bread), coffeemakers, McDonald's Happy Meal toys, socks, T-shirts, shoes and on and on.




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