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The purrfect world of Hello Kitty

Dubai's first character-branded spa is open in Jumeirah, so Khulekani Madlela checks out all the goodies it has to offer and asks why a cartoon cat has become such a global phenomenon

  • Hello Kitty spa
    Now open in Dubai, the Hello Kitty spa offers treatments to children and adults.Image Credit: Grace Paras/GNM
  • Hello Kitty spa
    The spa can host birthday or even hen parties for Kitty fans.Image Credit: Grace Paras/GNM
  • Hello Kitty spa
    Sanrio's Miyuki Okumura designed the Hello Kitty Spa in Dubai.Image Credit: Grace Paras/GNM and Corbis
  • Hello Kitty spa
    Gwen Stefani loves 'kawaii' (cute) culture, of which Kitty is a part.Image Credit: Getty Images
  • Hello Kitty spa
    The Kitty craze has seen the character appear on the catwalks, children's toys and even on a Taiwanese airImage Credit: Getty, Reuters, Corbis

She was born in London, she’s approaching the big 4-0 and she is taking over the world. Oh, and she’s also a cartoon cat. Meet Kitty White, the cute feline who made her debut on a vinyl coin purse and has featured on everything from children’s pencil cases to Bank of America debit cards, and has now even taken to the skies with EVA Airways – the Taiwanese airline has covered its Airbus with the cartoon motif and even serves food from a Kitty-themed menu, dished up by flight attendants wearing – you guessed it – pink Hello Kitty aprons.

Conceived by Japanese company Sanrio, Hello Kitty is a global phenomenon. Responsible for 80 per cent of Sanrio’s overseas licensing revenues and 60 per cent in Japan, she paws in enough profit to be a truly fat cat – during a peak period in the early noughties Kitty-related products were netting $5 billion (Dh18.4 billion) a year across the world.

Although her popularity is reportedly waning in Japan – she struggled to make it into the lucrative TV animation world when a talking Kitty created for a pilot cartoon series outraged fans loyal to the cat’s mouthless look – she is still loved internationally and continues to evolve into ever-expanding product categories. The latest of these is the world’s first Hello Kitty spa, now open here in the UAE.

“Hello Kitty is very popular – everywhere I go I notice Hello Kitty products, ranging from candy to accessories,” says Miyuki Okumura, senior designer at Sanrio, who designed the Dubai-based Hello Kitty spa.

Ideally placed between East and West, the emirate was a natural launching pad for this new Kitty dimension, but it came with its own challenges, says Miyuki. “The most difficult part was to make the spa look luxurious. When you’re doing work in Dubai you have to make sure that it really looks good – it has to be the best because everyone expects such high standards.”

Kitsch Kitty

Even those who wouldn’t class themselves as Hello Kitty fans cannot help but be impressed by the huge Kitty face and plethora of girly goodies that adorn the reception area and the Kitty Café in the Hello Kitty Spa in Jumeirah, Dubai. As you’d expect, the quirky Kitty branding features prominently, on cushions scattered across white and pink couches and on all of the spa merchandise.

A round pink couch stands in the middle of the party area, frilly lampshades cast a soft glow across the room, while rectangular-shaped mirrors screaming vintage chic beckon you to the make-up area.

This unusual spa concept is the brainchild of Fatima Sharaf, director of Sharaf Retail, who says it was born out of necessity. “I have a daughter who always wanted to go to the spa with me but there were no treatments available for her. Also each time I took her for a haircut I realised that there were no proper chairs for kids.”

Fatima also worried that products like nail polish and shampoo used in most salons weren’t safe for her daughter. “I decided to do something that would appeal to other parents who are concerned about their kid’s safety – a place where mothers and daughters can bond.”

But why choose Hello Kitty to be the face of the salon? “Because I’m a big fan,” says Fatima.

“Our relationship dates back to the time when I was seven and bought a Hello Kitty pencil set at a shop in Al Ghurair Centre. The eraser had a nice scent – even now whenever I see Kitty products I am reminded of that pencil set and my initiation into the Kitty world.” Fatima’s far from alone in her love for Hello Kitty.

Not just for kids

When Fatima first started out with the spa concept it was targeted at youngsters, but while conducting surveys she realised that adults were crazy about Kitty too. “During the course of the interviews some CEOs pulled out their Hello Kitty products including wallets and key holders and showed them to me. It occurred to me that these are the people who were hooked on Kitty when she was launched almost four decades ago. The interesting thing is that these people who grew up loving Kitty are mothers now and sharing in the fun and ‘Kitty-ness’ with their daughters.”

But how has a cartoon cat with an oversized head made the leap from a child’s toy to the adult areas of fashion, banking and beauty products?

“From a fashion perspective, Hello Kitty has been immensely popular in the last few years with quirky style icons like Gwen Stefani and singer Nicki Minaj professing their love for all things Japanese and Harajuku-inspired stuff,” says style guru Zoe Brown, managing director of Dubai-based fashion consultancy, ASN Services. “I also think Hello Kitty captures a playful spirit that is really appealing to people of all ages. What’s not to like about a little white cat with no mouth? I think the bottom line is she’s cute, fun, and the products are functional. Also it reminds adult fans of their childhood.”

Since the spa’s opening at the end of April news has spread through word of mouth and clients have come from as far as Ras Al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi to enjoy treatments and the amazing Hello Kitty world. The most popular treatments among children are mani-pedis and hair dos, in which the hair is tied up into the shape of a Hello Kitty bow. Most adults book themselves in for make-up – both day make-up and to glam up for special occasions – and hair-repair treatments.

There is a party hall, where groups of up to 20 can have hen parties, celebrate birthdays or just enjoy a day or night out with the girls. “We have karaoke, and people can come in, hang out and enjoy Kitty treats from the café. We have yummy Kitty cupcakes, cookies, Catwalk Cow Brownie Pops, fruit juices, tea and coffee,” says Fatima.

Kitty in Dubai

The spa is set to attract both residents and tourists. Since Dubai is synonymous with luxury, Miyuki believes that the spa will attract tourists who will jet in “to lap it all up and connect with Kitty.”

Fatima adds, “We want to provide services to all ‘princesses’, irrespective of age or social status, hence our prices are moderate so everyone can afford them. A Hello Kitty Bow and Kitty Mani-Pedi Combo for the young princess are very reasonably priced.”

With its wealth of entertainment options, Dubai is often referred to as an adult playground, making it the natural home for this sort of character-branded spa.

Annie Crookes, head of psychology at Heriot-Watt University’s Dubai campus, believes that the Hello Kitty Spa also comes as a breath of fresh air “in a city that has grown technologically at such a fast rate. Hello Kitty gives people in Dubai a chance to slow down, be indulgent and silly. Similar to the Japanese culture, there may be a tendency here to be drawn to the childishness, innocence and simplicity of the character”.

With Kitty mania still spreading like wildfire – a store dedicated to the Milan-designed high-end fashion brand of Hello Kitty, Pynkiss, has just opened an outlet on the second floor of Dubai Mall – Fatima is planning to open more branches in Dubai and to franchise the enterprise in other countries.

For a character who, according to her ‘biography’, is as tall as a stack of five apples, weighs about as much as three and was born in the suburbs of London in a house that she shares with her parents and twin sister Mimmy, little Kitty White has come far. Whatever your opinion, love her, or hate her, there’s no doubt this is one cat who got the cream.

Why do adults refuse to say goodbye to Hello Kitty?

“Isn’t the Hello Kitty craze among adults a little bit, well, crazy?” you might be wondering. Annie Crookes, head of psychology at Heriot-Watt University’s Dubai campus says it could reflect the drive to remember and relive childhood, when life was simple. “We all wish life was straightforward and stress free at times, especially when we’re facing difficulties like financial problems and life transitions – and for some this may lead to an interest in the world of Hello Kitty and the time of life she represents,” she says.

Annie also sees Kitty’s popularity as part of a general zeitgeist. “Another boost for Kitty is the parallel phenomenon around us – the interest in comic book characters and the acceptance of geek chic in things like ComiCon, which allow teens and adults to dress up like fantasy characters, including cutesy ones.

“The huge influence of celebrities in fashion and marketing products is also fuelling the Kitty phenomenon. For instance, when someone like Paris Hilton wears Hello Kitty to propagate her childlike/ innocent persona it influences other adults to seek out such branded clothes or accessories.”

Psychologists point out that adults could be drawn to Hello Kitty because the character is designed to be ‘cute’ with big round features similar to those in baby faces. “People tend to be instinctively drawn to such features and to view them positively and protectively as a parent would feel towards her newborn,” says Annie.

For Dr. Omar Hefni, president of the University of Dubai, Hello Kitty connects generations. “It’s a way for mothers, daughters, sisters and friends to enjoy a common bond. They have products in almost every category to further appeal to a broad range of followers. Not to mention the appeal to collectors around the world.”

Another interesting feature about Hello Kitty is that the character doesn’t have facial expressions; essentially she’s a blank canvas for people – and products – to put their own personalities on, says Annie. “We are drawn in as we can create our own versions of the character and personalise them.”