Flat, Cute, Adored

By Mao Shan Wang

When I mistakenly asked if Craftholic characters are as mouthless as the epitome of Nippon cuteness Hello Kitty, the brand’s designer Ikuko Yamamoto quickly pointed, unsmiling, to the ‘mouths’ of the two indescribable life-size creatures prancing around us on the third-floor atrium of Raffles City. For a moment, I wished I was mouthless.

Ms Yamamoto was here to participate in the opening of the Craftholic pop-up in Raffles City, which has themed its Yuletide celebrations “The Whims and Wonders of Christmas”. Craftholic may be whimsical but it’s hardly wondrous. Still, its popularity cannot be underestimated. As I left Raffles City that evening, I overheard a loud teenager in the standard, outside-of-school uniform of slip top and shredded denim cut-offs telling her companion, “I already have nine of them. There’s no space on my bed for me to sleep.”

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Craftholic’s phenomenal rise is unprecedented. According to the telling of Ros Lee, a Tokyo-based Singaporean product designer behind the ceramic brand Polkaros (available at K+ Curatorial Space at Scotts Square) and photographer who has shot the merchandise of Craftholic’s parent company Accent Corporation, Ms Yamomoto “created a series of characters… that became a big hit in Japan overnight. What was meant to be a print design for a blanket became a series of popular home furnishing characters.”

These characters, recognisable by their basic shapes and nearly expressionless faces, generated massive interest when “a very influential model in Japan” purchased one of them and posted it on her blog page. Her followers went crazy and thronged the Craftholic flagship store to buy the stuffed creatures. In two days, they were sold out. “People were bidding for it online and the prices went berserk!”

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Ms Yamomoto was less fervent in her version of what led to the birth of Craftholic. Through an interpreter, she said that she’s always been interested in designing and craft. I asked her if this has any similarity to a rag doll in terms of how it came about, and she said she does not know what a rag doll is. Her interpreter whipped out a smartphone and Googled it. She was shown a picture of a rag doll and she said, “no.”

I then wondered what accounts for Craftholic’s popularity and her reply sounded totally blasé: “Because it’s simple and fashionable and it can fit any interior and lifestyle.” Are women more impartial to kawaii than men? “Both men and women can accept it.” What’s fashionable about Craftholic? “For example, every season, we have different pattern; every season we launch a new collection.”

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Seasonal collections, thus, give Craftholic edge over, say, Hello Kitty and co, but do people buy dolls the way they buy clothes: with seasonal needs and quirks. That question, I kept to myself, fearing I would have digressed. Instead, I asked her if she has considered making a film of her motley characters (at the same time remembering seeing paper cut-outs of the Craftholic family). Ms Yamamoto smiled for the first time, visibly lightening up.

“I have never thought of it,” she said, betraying a mere hint of amusement. Bent on pursuing the Studio Ghibli track since the two prancing persons-in-a-doll-suit on the grounds of the pop-up store showed the character’s potential as action figures, I asked her who she’ll pick to direct a Craftholic movie if one were in the offing. “No one in particular,” she replied, and then added that it would probably be a female director since “anime is dominated by men.”

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Fortunately, the world of Craftholic, as Ms Yamamoto said earlier, shows no gender divide. The characters themselves, too, seem genderless although their flatness is, to me, oddly masculine. Some people call Craftholic “hug cushions” even when you’d think that huggable means fully-formed. To me, they’re pillows given arms and legs and facial features, and they remind me of a no-particular-use teddy bear that was given to me when I was a child. It was in the shape of the traditional English teddy; even the colour was traditional, but it was unbelievably flat, and it went by the unsurprising name Pancake.

Flatness is also thinness, which may explain Craftholic’s appeal among young women. Craftholic characters are rather flaccid too, which, could downplay potential sexuality that may be ascribed to the creatures, even when, unendowed, the likelihood is diminished. The tameness can, therefore, be made to appeal to all age groups, and can spawn applications beyond zakka goods (a uniquely Japanese reference to those that enhance one’s home and life). Girls in Japan are reported to sport their favourite Craftholic character (or characters) on their nails. As we know, the Japanese can make kawaii go very far.

Craftholic pop-up store is at Raffles City Level 3 Atrium till 27 December. Photos by Zhao Xiangji

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