Menswear looks at Balenciaga's spring/summer 2020 runway show were accompanied by a seemingly bizarre accessory aimed at blokes – handbags shaped like Hello Kitty, oversize red bow, pointy ears, whiskers and all. While this may be the most surprising marriage between Hello Kitty and mainstream fashion, it's by no means the first. The kawaii (Japanese word for "cute") character has been a popular collaborator, spanning beauty, homeware, food and electronics. There are Hello Kitty cafes in several countries and even a Hello Kitty-themed maternity hospital in Taiwan.
Contrary to popular belief, Hello Kitty (her "real" name is Kitty White) is not actually a cat – she's a young British schoolgirl conceptualised in 1974 by illustrator Yuko Shimizu for Japanese stationery company Sanrio. Although she was created as a children's character, Hello Kitty was deemed "retro" in the 1990s, and, plastered on clothing and fashion accessories, attracting teenagers and adults alike.
Her appeal remains unabated. Disclaimer: I'm a Hello Kitty superfan myself. Over the years, I've amassed quite a collection, from T-shirts and sweatpants to water bottles and a TY Beanie Baby (a Hello Kitty wrapped in a sushi roll). I even owned a Hello Kitty contact lens case at one point. My baby shower was Hello Kitty-themed, my daughter's wardrobe is brimming with Hello Kitty onesies, and my cat eats and drinks from pink Hello Kitty-patterned bowls.
I'm hardly the only adult with a soft spot for the kawaii character. Dubai resident Hanna Nasser, 30, is so committed, she brings her along on all of her travels in the form of a three-piece themed luggage set – her most memorable splurge on the character. "Hello Kitty caters to all ages," insists Nasser, who would travel to East Asia with her family when she was younger and collect Hello Kitty paraphernalia, mostly stationery.
“Whether it’s an organiser for school, a toaster or just a box of plasters, you can find the cutest Hello Kitty things now,” she says.
November 1 marked Hello Kitty's 45th birthday, prompting a revival of fashion collaborations with the character. Joining labels such as Lazy Oaf, Pinko, Furla, Vans and Converse All Stars, Puma launched its first Hello Kitty collaboration in January 2018 with a red and white, cat-splattered version of its popular Suede Classic sneaker. On November 1, Puma launched a new capsule collection dedicated to the character. Best known to be kitschy and bold, Hello Kitty gets a grown-up, minimalist makeover in these latest pieces, which feature an outline of her trademark bow stamped on to sweatshirts and leggings in monochrome and millennial-pink colourways. The quintessential bow also makes an appearance – on a satin baseball cap, gym bag and backpack, while clunky salmon-toned trainers feature her name lettering across the platform sole.
Denim label Levi's is another brand that collaborated with Hello Kitty this season. Centre tables at the front of its stores in the UAE this month display an array of cotton T-shirts and hoodies with Shimizu's character perched on top of the brand's red and white Levi's logo, while denim jackets and wide-leg jeans feature the trademark bow.
Fashion is just one medium through which Hello Kitty has become accessible to fans. Popular sweets shop Candylicious hosted a Hello Kitty-themed event yesterday to celebrate two joint anniversaries.
"Candylicious turning 10 and Hello Kitty turning 45 – looking at the brand fits, it was a no-brainer," says Rosantina Saraswati, head of confectionery at Alabbar Enterprises, explaining that the Sanrio chief executive paid The Dubai Mall flagship a visit with his team to brainstorm for the collaboration.
"It's a collectibles range that's up for grabs for a limited time only," says Saraswati of the tote bags, tin lunchboxes, stuffed toys and decorated lollipops. "As the totemic Japanese brand enters its fifth decade, the character herself remains ageless," Saraswati adds, emphasising that there are no age constraints to being a Hello Kitty fan.
"In Japan, a former policeman, who is 67 years old, owns the world's largest Hello Kitty collection and has become the envy of little girls everywhere with 30 million yen [Dh1m] worth of moggy-faced memorabilia, and Sanrio Puroland, a theme park in Tokyo, welcomes millions of visitors of all ages every year," she says.
The buzz surrounding the Japanese personality is not bound by time. Collaborations may come and go, but Hello Kitty remains an obsession for many of her fans. In 2012, home-grown concept Hello Kitty Beauty Spa opened in Dubai, and has attracted visitors of all ages, from children having their first haircut to brides-to-be having their hen dos, says its chief wellness officer Rana El Eid, who calls Hello Kitty a "global phenomenon". There are currently two UAE salons – one in Galleria mall in Jumeirah 1, and a second in Sharjah.
Staff members at the spa wear hot-pink bows in their hair, while clients can pick from a range of themed nail art and shop Hello Kitty merchandise. "The retro-chic, bright and elegant environment all work towards giving our guests a warm, fuzzy feeling inside," says El Eid.
"We all grew up with Hello Kitty, and we want to bring back the happy memories of our childhood and share these experiences with our own children. She is an ambassador for cuteness, friendship and positivity all around the world, so not only is she popular with all ages but also across cultures." In September, a 929-square-metre pop-up museum dedicated to Hello Kitty was launched in Los Angeles. There, visitors can "travel" with the character to rooms inspired by different cities, ending up in the "baggage claim" area, where Hello Kitty's various collaborations with other well-known brands are available to buy. This includes the popular Opi x Hello Kitty nail polish collection, complete with Let's be Friends, a soft-pink hue that is reportedly the brand's most coveted shade of all time.
The beauty company has taken its collaboration a step further by launching an advent calendar gift set. Envision counting down to Christmas with a different nail polish each day – the ultimate festive treat for fashion and beauty-loving Hello Kitty fans.