The timeless ubiquity of kitsch and how East influences West

The timeless ubiquity of kitsch and how East influences West
“Rising sales of our kitsch lines already support signs of a growing appeal worldwide” - Tiger

The UK retail scene might currently be groaning under the weight of novelty items shaped like cacti and flamingos but a quick glance at the Asian market reveals a taste for kitsch that is even more developed than the pink and pistachio-flavoured kind we’ve been indulging in lately.

While “kitsch” is a trend that has reached its peak over here (with John Lewis reporting that flamingo-related sales are up 40% year-on-year), in South Korea, Japan and China it isn’t a trend at all — it’s a way of life. In the West the deeply kitsch might be (finally) having a trendy 15 minutes decades on from the 1950s when it first made an appearance. But in the East it is wholly acceptable at all times to invest in pink, fluffy and/or animal-shaped household and personal items. It has been for decades.

Who wouldn’t want to spend their hard-earned Won on a toilet seat cover with a cat’s face on it? Not to mention the matching floor mat with its paws on. Walk down any street in Seoul, the South Korean capital, and you’ll see how the internet’s love for all things kittenish has translated into a wealth of novelty items including cat-shaped plates, jewellery, clocks and even cutlery. Evidence of the cat craze continues to greater and lesser extents in gift shops in Japan, Hong Kong and even Beijing, China.

Paws for thought

The source of this cat fetish could arguably be traced to Japan’s maneki-neko, the mechanical cat statues with a waving paw. The popularity of these maniacally gesticulating cats stretches across the world. But it isn’t just their cuteness that makes them desirable gifts. These kitsch kittens are culturally important in the East as they are a way for the gift giver to bestow good luck on the house or business of the recipient. They are also incorrectly known as “Chinese lucky cats” due to their popularity and ubiquitousness in the region.

Trend forecasters often look to the East to see what crazes might travel West. The influences of anime, emojis and video game-culture are already being felt over here and the evidence is in the sales spike of silly stuff. Objects shaped like food are a huge deal currently in Japan and South Korea — something that Europe is already picking up.

“As the demand for kitsch products grow in popularity worldwide, Flying Tiger is excited to be part of the trend,” says Chris Wan, Visual Merchandising & Marketing Manager at Danish design store Tiger, recently rebranded as Flying Tiger.

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“Rising sales of our kitsch lines already support signs of a growing appeal worldwide. Across the UK, our top-rated products include mini shopping trolleys, a rabbit design mood lamp, a banana pencil case and chocolate bar-shaped notebooks that are almost good enough to bite into.”

Selling silly

In Britain watermelon wallpaper, earrings in the shape of fruit and brightly-coloured animal (mostly bird-emblazoned) prints are everywhere from the high street to the high end. You’ll find cactus-shaped vases in both Zara Home and The Conran Shop.

But why is kitsch suddenly so popular? Louise Healy, a trend forecaster, thinks we have an emotional response to kitsch and that’s what makes us buy. “Novelty objects make us feel happy. If you can include a bit of fun in your interior it boosts your mood — plus, people live so transiently these days that they may not be able to paint or decorate a rented apartment and you can take a novelty object with you when you leave.”

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We might have thought we’d left flamingos behind in 2016 but their predominance in summer 2017 stock shows that once a retailer has found a winning formula they can repeat buy it. Currently one in five products sold in John Lewis’ summer party department has a flamingo on it.

So, what should retailers be stocking up on for next year? Anything that looks edible but isn’t. Oh, and anything with cats on it – even toilet accessories.

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