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Hello Kitty: A cool cat turns 35

The 1970s Japanese cartoon character has her paws in many enterprises all over the world.

November 01, 2009|Sophia Kercher

Hello Kitty is all grown up.

The docile little creature with red bow and yellow button nose turns 35 today. And just look at her now! At her inception in the 1970s, few could have known that the cute cartoon would become a global phenom complete with a theme park, TV series and restaurant featuring an image of her sweet whiskered face baked into bread.

Indeed, Ms. Kitty has come a long way from her Japanese homeland. Christian Dior, Cynthia Rowley, Betsey Johnson and Kimora Lee Simmons have all hopped on the Hello Kitty pop icon bandwagon over the years, whisking the kitten around the world in high style.

But back to the beginning: Hello Kitty was created in Japan, in 1974, by Shintaro Tsuji as part of his greeting card company Sanrio. After an in-house design contest, the little Sanrio kitten was born, and Hello Kitty quickly became popular, boosting Sanrio's sales in just two years and bringing her cute "kawaii" style to coin purses, diaries, stationery and notebooks. The childlike Sanrio cat quietly made its way to the United States in 1976, only two years after she was invented, and remained relatively dormant until the 1990s. As Hello Kitty matured into her late teens she was given her first boyfriend, Dear Daniel, an equally enigmatic fellow kitten with a spiky pompadour. Daniel tends to wear blue and, like Hello Kitty, he embodies the Sanrio values of sharing and friendship.

By 1995, the Sanrio star's fans were growing up along with the fetching feline, and not without frisky behavior: The New York Times that year noted that the kitty was popular in the rave scene. Hello Kitty fans in their late teens and early 20s took to wearing such Hello Kitty merchandise as barrettes, watches and backpacks equipped with supplies for all-night parties. In 1997, Hello Kitty was suspected of having a naughty streak -- going feral, maybe? -- when a licensee introduced a Hello Kitty shoulder massager that ended up being a popular item on adult store shelves. The massager was taken off the market after a couple of years, but Hello Kitty's introduction into sexuality was born. By this time, Hello Kitty had blown up in the U.S. with the help of Grammy-winning darling Mariah Carey and other seductive celebrities who were captivated by the critter.

At the start of the millennium, Hello Kitty pitter-pattered into adulthood with an assist from top designers, who helped her develop into a regal, elegant icon while keeping her youthful charm. For Kitty's 30th anniversary, the bouncy Betsey Johnson designed a flashy, three-tiered pink dress in honor of the kitten, while the chic Cynthia Rowley created a simple yet classic Hello Kitty design for an Airstream trailer. But nowhere has Hello Kitty's foray into adulthood been more present than in her collaboration with Kimora Lee Simmons, which began in 2004.

"I thought how can we make this bigger and better than just some little notepad?" Simmons says.

Simmons, designer for Baby Phat and Simmons Jewelry Co., crafted a line of high-end jewelry featuring Hello Kitty's face plated in diamonds and platinum, selling the top-dollar designs at tony stores such as Neiman Marcus. To those unfamiliar with the lure of the brand, the success of the jewelry has been surprising, but not for the model-mom-mogul.

"Who doesn't love Kitty? Everyone from Paris Hilton to me, to Kelly Ripa, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Tyra Banks, Iman. I mean everybody loves Kitty," Simmon says. She adds that though she is a woman in her 30s she adores the timeless inner youth that the Sanrio icon represents. Simmons even designed a blue pendant of the kitten for Vogue's editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley.

This isn't the first time the moon-faced creature has made an impression on Vogue. Christian Dior featured his collection in Japanese Vogue in 2008 with the stubby white feline as a model for his designs. Further confirming Dior and Simmons' view of the pop icon as fit for grown-ups, a Hello Kitty-themed maternity hospital recently opened its doors in Taiwan. The hospital chose the cartoon theme hoping to ease the stress of childbirth and increase business. The facility features Hello Kitty baby blankets and nurses in pink uniforms with kitten-themed aprons, proof that a whimsical world follows the feline along with her maturing fans.

In Los Angeles, Hello Kitty's birthday is being celebrated with a multi-week extravaganza. A birthday party today takes place at the site of a multidimensional exhibit titled "Three Apples" -- in the lore, Hello Kitty weighs as much as three apples -- which opened Oct. 23 and runs through Nov.15. The exhibit at Culver City's Royal/T cafe and art space, features more than 80 pop artists and designers including Amanda Visell, Frank Kozik, Natalia Fabia and Simone Legno showcasing their interpretations of the feline. Several other fashion-infused events are planned as well. (See details in accompanying story.)

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