The ‘Hello Kitty’ brand first appeared on a child’s purse in Japan in 1975, but over the next four decades spread to an astonishingly wide range of popular culture. An exhibit at EMP Museum tells the ‘Hello Kitty’ story.
It all began with a purse.
Hello Kitty, the round-headed, mouthless, red bow-attired Japanese character that’s seemingly ubiquitous on everything from pencils to cellphones to golf bags, first appeared on a child’s coin purse released in Japan in 1975. It retailed for less than a dollar.
These days, you can pay upward of $30,000 for a diamond-studded Hello Kitty watch, celebrities flaunt Hello Kitty accessories on the runway, and Kitty’s pop-culture presence is a subject of academic analysis.
‘Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty’
Opening, with fashion parade, trivia contests, games, dance party and more, 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13, EMP Museum, 325 Fifth Ave. N., Seattle; $10-$25; (206-770-2702 or empmuseum.org). Regular run Saturday, Nov. 14, through May 15, 2016, $16-$25 (exhibit included in price of museum admission).
Now she’s the star of her own exhibition, “Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty,” which opens at the EMP Museum on Saturday (Nov. 14), after a record-breaking run at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, where it opened last year.
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It’s an eye-popping show of nearly 600 pieces, featuring an astonishingly wide range of Hello Kitty products, including the expected toys and trinkets, but also a Hello Kitty-branded fencing outfit, motorcycle helmet and can of motor oil.
There’s more than enough to excite Hello Kitty’s legions of fans, but anyone interested in pop culture should find it fascinating to see how Kitty has infiltrated so many different realms. Indeed, says co-curator Dr. Christine Yano in a phone interview, the character’s flexibility is “part of the genius” of Hello Kitty.
“That elegant design can be placed in so many situations, contexts, figures, and still have that recognizability as well as bringing something new to that situation,” explains Yano, author of the book “Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific.”
Fellow curator Jamie Rivadeneira, owner of Japanese pop culture shop Japan LA, agrees: “Hello Kitty fits in everywhere. You can put her anywhere. So any type of person can relate to her.”
Rivadeneira curated the exhibit’s artworks, which were commissioned for the show. That adds a “Hello Kitty as muse” theme, by placing the character in a variety of unexpected settings.
Mark Nagata’s “Hello Kitty Kaiju” sculpture, for example, is a mashup of Kitty and Japan’s most heralded monster, Godzilla. In Scott Scheidly’s painting “Hello Lincoln,” Honest Abe sports a Hello Kitty pin on his purple-checked lapel and purple hat. Simone Legno’s “Kittypatra” sculpture recasts Kitty as the Egyptian queen of legend — the ultimate archaeological artifact.
Also included are Hello Kitty designer dresses worn by the likes of Lady Gaga, Paris Hilton and Katy Perry.
Hello Kitty’s pervasiveness and flexibility have given her cross-generational appeal. (The company markets its fan base as “four to forever.”) An adult who loved Hello Kitty as a child might later purchase a Hello Kitty toaster out of nostalgia. The kitsch factor made Hello Kitty popular among the alternative-usic crowd.
Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was a Hello Kitty fan, and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic loaned EMP his Hello Kitty Fender Squier Stratocaster guitar for the show.
Today, Hello Kitty has an estimated value of $7 billion — just $2 billion less than Donald Trump claims he’s worth — and the brand brings in approximately $759 million a year.
That’s a lot of coin for the little purse that started it all.