TOKYO, Japan — It's like American Girl meets Hello, Kitty.
Cats in kimono. Cats dressed in red curls like Anne of Green Gables. Cats posing in Napoleon hats. Cats in tiaras. Cats in black lace.
Cat costumes created and sold by Takako Iwasa of Tokyo are creative, clever and catastrophically funny.
"First, dress her up," instructs Iwasa-san, as she is known in Japan, to her website visitors. "Cheer or yell. Do whatever you like to enjoy the moment with your family. Second, after you are enough with your joy, take a photo!
"And third, remove her clothes and give her a hug, say 'Thank you!' "
Prin featured on the front of a catalog.
(Courtesy Junko Suzuki)
In a culture where the word "cute," or "kawaii," is exclaimed like a siren, reactions to costumes for cats reach a new decibel. Fans line up to meet Iwasa-san and her pets. They are photographed and filmed. Posters are available.
You think you've seen funnier photos of cats before. But only a sourpuss could breeze through the catalog of hats, wigs, dresses, suits and bling for cats without grinning like a Cheshire cat.
A modest Iwasa-san said she was not always cut out for tailoring. "I was not good at needlework or drawing. I didn't have any sense of art either," she says. But that changed when Prin — the site's eponym and one if its two fashionista models — padded into her life.
Iwasa-san was struck with a desire to clothe her pure white cat. She found some outfits in a teddy bear shop, but Prin outgrew the outfits in a year, and seemed destined to return to a life of nakedness.
Until Iwasa-san heard the voice.
"Take action this year."
The inspirational direction was so loud, she looked around for its source, she said.
"I went outside and looked at other people, wondering if they heard the same voice," Iwasa-san says. "But they didn’t seem to hear."
By her own admission, Iwasa-san almost missed her calling. She ruminated for a week after she heard the voice.
"Costumes for dogs have been popular for 20 years," she said. "But we didn't have costumes for cats because we believed cats groom themselves and don't like to wear clothes. But, I met my cat, Prin, and suddenly thought, ' I want to dress her up!' "
Her eyes fell upon a coat her mother had made for Prin, and a lightbulb flashed inside her head. After consulting six psychics — all who predicted a successful business — she finally launched her website in December 2000.
"I had a computer and Prin in my home. These were everything I needed to start the business," she says. By the next month, Cat Prin received positive feedback from a handful of Web surfers — and two orders.
Flick through her catalog and you will see pictures of Prin and her companion, Kotara, dressed as Anne of Green Gables or adorned in lacy Victorian-style hats and cloaks. They are dressed as Hogwarts students and samurai warriors, and wear jaunty straw boaters. They dress in rabbit ears, leopard spots, frog costumes and as cows. She even designed one soft helmet that makes Prin look like a mouse.
And, yes, there is a Puss in Boots costume, too.
"Without costumes, Prin is just an ordinary cat. But if she wears costumes, she becomes an alien from another planet," she says.
While many of the costumes render the cats other-worldly, it's Prin's and Koutaro's deadpan stares that lend the catalog an extra dimension. Neither toy nor fop, the cats maintain their dignity among the felt, satin and lace.
Prin's breed — Scottish Fold — is named for the feline's folded ears, giving them an owl-like appearance. Her large unblinking eyes and penetrating stare anchors photo after photo, allowing Prin a dignity whether she's wearing the the curly brown locks of Robbespierre or a Tartan tam o'shanter.
While Cat Prin enjoys a status as popular sensation in Japan, you don't see many costumed cats paraded in the streets of Tokyo. "My clients don’t take their cats out with costumes," Iwasa-san says. "They usually enjoy dressing up cats in their homes." Popular occasions include parties and photo shoots for birthday cards and blog posts.
Although humans seem to love CatPrin, feline reaction has been finicky.
"If we tried to put these outfits on our cat, Stormy, we’d have to go to the ER afterwords!" said blogger Michelle Lamar on MyGloss.com.
"I think about a half of my customers fail to dress up their cats because cats refuse to wear" the costumes, Iwasa-san says.
She slowly built up a customer base through word-of-mouth online.
In 2001, Iwasa-san began to sell her costumes at the Parisian Printemps department store in the tony Ginza commercial center in Tokyo. "It was like I was shot by thunder," one customer told her. "I have been waiting for these products for a long time."
Today, Iwasa-san's online store has recorded 100,000 hits in a day, and the average outfit costs 3,800 yen ($40). Since that modest beginning, Cat Prin has seen both feedback and sales surge.
But profit is not her motive.
"I don’t make big money with the business. It is just enough to eat and enjoy my life with Prin," she says.
Iwasa-san said she is happy to be a cat tailor. "With the business, my dream has been realized."
And beside Prin, she has "the voice" to thank.
"I always get my ideas for designs," she says, "with inspirations caused by the voice from the sky."
This report comes from a journalist in our Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project training the next generation of foreign correspondents while they study abroad. Student Editor Ben Schreckinger (Brown University) contributed to this article. The student who reported the story has recently been hired professionally and asked that her name be removed from the byline.