The marketing of Mickey Mouse and his friends is getting curiouser and curiouser.
The Walt Disney Co. is taking consumers down the rabbit hole to a land where crystal-studded Mickey Mouse T-shirts cost $1,400, Tinkerbell earrings run $630, and a Cheshire Cat wrap sells for $500 -- and consumers are gladly paying.
Disney's consumer division, better known for peddling kid-oriented fashions at Wal-Mart, has been cashing in on a hot trend in haute couture for vintage art.
The company has sold $200 million in high-end and adult apparel featuring classic images of Mickey Mouse and his cartoon friends since 2003, and says it sees no sign that interest is flagging.
This year, Disney positioned itself for the first time as a fashion player, hosting previews of its "Alice In Wonderland"-inspired lines of clothing, home decor and accessories at two star-studded events during Fashion Week in Los Angeles.
Andy Mooney, chairman of consumer products, started Disney couture about five years ago after walking through the company's archives with Disney historian Dave Smith and finding a treasure trove of images -- some of which have never been seen. He offered licenses for the classic studio art to fashion designers in hopes of adding vogue to the middle-class brand.
"With a lot of the higher-end items, we were trying to spread goodwill," Mooney told Reuters. "We did start this with the notion of it being a brand enhancer but it has turned out to be quite a healthy business."
The key to Disney's success as a luxury brand comes mainly from its association with brands that already have cachet, said Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a research group that focuses on America's wealthy.
"I think it's just a pendulum swinging back to the classics, and Disney is a true American and global classic," Pedraza said. "To the extent they license to other luxury brands they can be successful. Disney alone would not be as powerful."
Designer Jackie Brander was among the first to license vintage Mickey drawings for her chic boutique in the trendy Fred Segal store in Santa Monica, California. Dolce & Gabbana followed with a crystal-studded Mickey T-shirt, which retailed for $1,400 and flew off shelves.
Disney moved into home decor and accessories this year after seeing references to its 1951 animated classic, "Alice In Wonderland," appear in the pages of fashion magazines and on TV -- notably in a Gwen Stefani music video in spring 2005.
"When that begins to happen you just have to pay attention to the call of what's going on in society," Dennis Green, senior vice president of marketing for consumer products, said at the company's Mad Hatter Tea Party Sunday.
The targets of the new campaign, Green said, are luxury-loving teen-agers and young adults in New York, Los Angeles, London and Tokyo who "are driving the fashion industry all over the world."
"If we did national TV ads going after teen-agers, they would turn us off. They would think we were uncool," he said.
"Teen-agers have to discover the product. (Then) they tell their friends and it grows through a grass roots marketing effort" that Disney could never have developed on its own, he noted.
Disney has licensed Alice and other Wonderland characters from studio art done by Mary Blair and David Hall for lines of fabric, tableware, carpet tiles, decorative pillows and throws, jewelry and clothing.
It has hired Kidada Jones, daughter of music legend Quincy Jones to design a line of jewelry, cashmere throws and pillows, and to dress her celebrity friends in the posh items.
The Alice line will appear in high-end stores such as Fred Segal, Drexel Heritage, Zelen, and specialty retailers starting next spring.