A few years ago, pink barrettes and a kitty cat lunchbox wrapped up as a holiday present would have caused any teen worth her attitude to roll eyes and groan. Cuteness was then an abomination and embarrassment to the cool crowd.
Today's hip youth, however, is likely to be tickled pink with cutesy-poo kiddie gifts. Hello Kitty! She's the too-cute icon of a new generation of young women who don't seem to see contradiction in replacing the Harley logo of a black biker jacket with a chubby white kitty sporting a big bow in her ear. And it isn't just Hello (the hello is obligatory) Kitty who's the trendy 'toon. There are Kitty's friends: Keroppi the frog, Spottie Dottie the fashionable Dalmatian, Pochacco the dog, Pippo the pink pig, Miffy the bunny and a host of other critters created by the hundreds of artists of the Sanrio Co., the Japanese character novelty and accessories purveyor.
The company, founded in 1959, has grown into a cuteness industry of global proportions. A staple of kiddie chic of Japan and girly play here for 10 years, Sanrio's two-year sales spurt among the high school, college and club and rave crowds is a baffler. While little brothers and sisters hanker after more worldly and anatomically correct characters like Pocahontas, Barbie and Power Rangers, their cool older siblings put fluffy-cutesy figures on their college notes, carrying froggie pencils and toting kitty suitcases instead of bookbags.
Both the college preps and the nose ring set cruise the F.A.O. pTC Schwarz toy store in Towson Town Center for Kitty cult trappings. Manager Lori McDermott says teeny coin purses and miniature backpacks are popular and beeper cases are really moving.
Sales clerk Craig Jakubowski says there's a race out there to see who will get what new stuff and how soon. "Last month, I got my girlfriend $120 worth of stuff. If you don't get it when it comes in, it's gone," he says. Among her treasures are a Keroppi frog ring watch and her character stationery. Mr. Jakubowksi attributes the Hello Kitty rage to little girls grown up, who have missed her since Nickelodeon canceled the cartoon.
"It's a rather wonderful thing from a marketer's perspective," says Bill Hensley, marketing manager for Sanrio in the United States. "We've been covered in teen magazines like Seventeen, Sassy and React. Cute is trendy now."
Kitty culture has even carried over into the Internet. The interest seems to be coeducational, with some young men just as keen to share Kitty lore with friends in cyberspace. We won't even consider the page on Kitty's alternative lifestyle. There are at least a dozen sites where fans can peruse pictures and biographies of a scattered cast of more than 3,000 characters. It seems that inquiring young minds want to know that Ahiru no Pekkle, or Pekkle the Duck, was born in Cairns, Australia, where he hangs out on the beach with his girlfriend Ruby, and his duck pals, Carl and Boot. Pekkle's birthday is July 27. Hello Kitty's is Nov. 1, when she will be 20. All characters have birth dates.
Sanrio products have held their kid appeal for more than a decade, mostly because of their price points and variety. The company motto is "Small gift, Big smile" and the products run true to the motto with everything from erasers and candy to bigger-ticket items, such as backpacks. Average price is $4.
"It's such cute stuff," says Holly Lim, a Hopkins senior majoring in natural sciences. "I've been exposed to it since kindergarten. It goes in cycles. This year, people seem to be going goo-goo ga-ga over it. And people get it for their friends, especially last-minute gifts like little pencils.
"Girls carry makeup in little pouch bags, the guys like ball caps and lunchboxes. Even some adults I know have the characters in bathroom cups and toothbrushes," says Ms. Lim. "Guys seem to like the frog, duck and pig."
Cute chic tends to mystify parents who only recently were debating the merits of multiple ear-piercing and other teen style aberrations. "Moms who come here buying gifts for college-age kids say, 'I can't believe I'm doing this!' " says Beth Green, manager of Patowmack Toys in Columbia Mall. "They used to buy the characters as inexpensive little Saturday morning birthday party favors for their tots."
She reports that Keroppi the frog is becoming the favorite, edging out Hello Kitty.
Beyond the cute products, the young have embraced cuteness as a philosophical statement. It is not a philosophy of sweetness and light, however. On the music scene they call it cuddle-core, espoused by bands that marry girlishness to hard-core punk. Courtney Love is one of the more visible exponents of the genre, with her cute barrettes and her pout only underscoring a style of sullied innocence. Some young women call it Girl Power, with trappings of in-your-face, offensive cuteness that scream to the next generation of feminists in training bras.