Even the "Closed" sign at Kawaii NOLA (3512 Magazine St., 504-899-2426; www.kawaiinola.com) is cute: The cartoon face telling customers to come back tomorrow is a puppy with bubble eyes and adorably disconcerted brows.
The sign embodies the mission of Kawaii culture: to make life's harsh realities seem meaningless in the face of the adorable. Kawaii means "cute" in Japanese, and the grand opening of Kawaii NOLA last month was the latest leg of the movement's global assimilation.
Outside, Kawaii NOLA looks like many other upscale Magazine Street boutiques. Inside, its walls are bright shades of purple and pink, and various incarnations of Hello Kitty (plastered on leggings, backpacks and lip balms) peer out from shelves and tables.
Owner Kanako Asai Richard says when she's having a bad day, the store's cheery atmosphere makes her feel better. "It's so happy and cute, and my customers are so sweet," she says. "It makes me happy to spread this around. We squeal and laugh all day. It doesn't even feel like work."
Kawaii NOLA has a wide range of clothing, school supplies, gifts, costumes and home decor items, and everything is bubbly, colorful and Japanese.
Richard's top sellers are hand-painted nail sets designed by a friend in Japan. Some customers come in weekly for the faux nails, which can be applied with glue or tape. Another step in Kawaii's cultural adaptation: this Carnival season, Richard's friend will decal the nails with purple, green and gold.
New Orleans has proved to be receptive to the influx of Eastern cute culture. There's a following of cosplay in the city (cosplay is short for costume play, in which people wear costumes to represent characters from works of fiction), and a group reached out to Richard via Facebook before she opened her store. Also alive in the New Orleans area is a branch of Lolitas, the prim and proper Victorian-themed fashion group that emphasizes doll-like features and ruffled pink dresses. Kawaii NOLA has everything Lolitas need to complete their ensembles: long, flowing wigs, pink dresses and matching accessories. The group, which has more than 300 members, also reached out to Richard via social media. It hosts monthly tea parties and other events open to the public via the website Meetup.com. Though it's inspired by the Nabokov novel from which it takes its name, Lolita culture is more cute than sexy, fitting in Kawaii NOLA's more general trend.
Richard says Kawaii culture has a lot in common with the cultural whims of New Orleans. "The whole thing with Kawaii culture is that you create your own style," she says. "It's OK to be different. In New Orleans, I see that parallel. In the Big Easy, it's OK to be yourself. You dress up and go to a lot of festivals. In Japan, we love to eat and give gifts. It's very similar."
Richard says Kawaii has caught on worldwide because of a global infatuation with Japanese culture, and that it's not just women donning bows and pink clothing. "In the Lolita group here in New Orleans, men like to participate," Richards says. "They have friends associated with it, and they're taken aback at first by the pink, but they have fun with it."
A first-generation American, Richard was born in New Jersey and has spent the last 11 years in New Orleans, where she attended Tulane University and married native Louisianian Adam Richard. Her parents have moved back to Nagoya, Japan, and the couple visits often.
"When you're [in Japan], you're surrounded by Japanese cute culture," she says. "We said, 'What a shame it is that we can't buy these things at home in New Orleans.'"
Now that the store is open, the couple are ambassadors of cute culture. Adam sports a Hello Kitty tie to his job as a high school math teacher every day, a move that lightens up calculus tenfold, Kanako says.
"It's something about your inner child. It just comes out," she says. "And in Kawaii culture, it's OK."