Yubin Kwon

In recent years, there has been a cultural shift in the luxury industry due to the influence of Millennials and Gen Z. Increasing exposure to Asian popular trends, such as K-pop, Chinese street fashion, and Japanese kawaii culture, have been transforming and shaping societal tastes and approaches to style. According to Jiaqi Luo and Glyn Atwal, this change is the “cute movement” now infiltrating media, fashion, and other realms.[1] In an attempt to address society’s youthful preferences, many high-end brands are actively promoting cuteness by collaborating with various Asian animation companies, toy companies, artists, and more, despite cute historically being considered a “cheap” aesthetic associated with childishness and sentimentality (see Figure 1). Capitalizing on cute objects has become an important aspect of success in a competitive retail world; cuteness is regularly used to market products to children, who are susceptible to its charms. This article will explore the consumption behind Medicom’s Be@rbricks to analyze the cultural tendency and global trend to view cuteness as the new luxury and explore whether cuteness is moving beyond its subculture status. 

Figure 1. Artwork by Gray Sorrenti for Jonathan Anderson and his Loewe x Totoro Capsule. Sorrenti, Gray. 2022. Photograph. Vogue.

Created in 2001 by Japanese brand Medicom, Be@rbricks are stylized plastic figures that resemble the minimalist design of a Lego brick bear. The Be@rbrick figure’s cartoonish and “illogical” representation of a teddy bear is believed to have influenced the “@” symbol in its name, considering the “@” provides a more eccentric and toy-like essence. While Be@rbricks range in size from two to twenty-seven inches, many people favor those of the largest size due to their higher value and upscale design. Be@rbricks were originally created for children and younger adults to collect, as the teddy bear figure and Lego-like designs were intended to attract them. However, since the early 2000s, Be@rbricks have become extremely popular among global fashion enthusiasts due to the release of limited-edition and collaboration products with luxury brands like Chanel and Lancôme as well as prominent artists, including Brian Donnelly (see Figure 2). Through these collaborations, Be@rbricks have become exclusive and valuable, making it more difficult for ordinary people to acquire them compared to celebrities and the wealthy. To draw a parallel to the popular Barbie doll, Ann duCille notes that “‘Barbie’s body is consumer object itself, a vehicle for the display of clothing and the spectacular trappings of a wealthy teenage fantasy life,’” where the body is an example of “‘a commodity vehicle itself whose form seduces the beholder and sells accessories, the real source of corporate profit.’”[2] In other words, Barbie is not just a toy but a consumer object in itself, which is also meant to serve as a vehicle for displaying the clothing and accessories that are the sources of corporate profit for the creator. She is designed to seduce the consumer into purchasing not just the doll, but everything associated with it. Similarly, Be@rbricks have become objects of desire since they began to be used as tools for luxury brands to generate profit for the corporations that create and market them. This captures how current consumer culture is not only about buying products, but also about the ways in which products are marketed and sold. Interestingly, something that was considered simple and cute has become a symbol of luxury highly sought after by the upper classes. 

Luxury can be used as a tool to express, confirm, or enhance one’s ideal self. Typically, the connection between luxury brands and the individual’s ideal self is based on the positive characteristics associated with luxury, such as success, authority, and wealth, and consumers perceive luxury brands as more suitable for expressing their ideal self than “ordinary” brands. According to Wenting Feng et al., brand autonomy, or the external image embodied by the brand, such as style, concept, or personality, is highly associated with individual autonomy, the degree to which people follow their own motivations, personalities, or expectations. Therefore, “the higher the autonomy of the brand, the more it can help consumers express their autonomy.”[3] Unlike luxury, the ordinary does not allow individuals to express their autonomy in a unique way because it does not offer exclusivity, prestige, and status. By choosing to purchase luxury items that are not accessible to everyone, individuals can assert their autonomy and feel distinguished from the ordinary. Because ordinary items are widely accessible and affordable, they are also often associated with cuteness or cute objects that are “weaker in intensity than the strong positive or negative feelings of pleasure/displeasure that ground the concepts of the beautiful and sublime,” or the luxury.[4] However, the cuteness is not actually weaker in intensity but simply perceived as weaker and lacking seriousness since most people readily have “aesthetic relations to entities of the artfully designed, packaged, and advertised merchandise,” but not to high art.[5] Of course, there is more value and desire placed on highly exclusive, unique, expensive, and thus luxury objects. Be@rbricks exemplify this phenomenon since their ordinary essence has been lost due to their now being perceived as stronger in aesthetic intensity. A once-ordinary object has become a luxury item through various marketing and branding strategies, replacing the perception of being weak or less serious with a sense of exclusivity and distinction and being a highly coveted, valuable commodity for collectors and enthusiasts. Thus, the current consumer culture of Be@rbricks blurs the line between high and low art, for it has altered a traditional aesthetic understanding. 

Figure 2. One of the most expensive Be@rbricks on the market. BE@RBRICK, Coco Chanel. Photograph. Artsy.

The aesthetics of cuteness are a reflection of social and cultural dynamics, and Be@rbricks should be understood within a larger context beyond personal preference. According to Lori Merish, the significance of the aesthetics of cuteness is attached to a “sociology of taste” as “cuteness is an aesthetic category saturated with racial, as well as class, meanings.”[6] In other words, besides Be@rbricks’ cute qualities of simplicity and roundness, their cuteness is primarily based on the meanings and associations connected with the social and cultural dynamics of consumerism and status through their exclusivity and luxury collaborations. Although the price of Be@rbricks was originally set to be relatively affordable, the limited editions and collaborations have made the figures more valuable and desirable only to those who can afford them, marginalizing people who cannot and limiting accessibility in general. Moreover, the release of limited-edition Be@rbricks in small quantities creates a sense of scarcity that increases the products' perceived value. As a result, the consumption of Be@rbricks has become a part of the broader dynamics of consumerism, in which products are valued for their utility and their symbolic value and afforded status. Similar to other cute cultural objects such as anime and Hello Kitty and their influence on everything from children’s toys to luxury clothes and handbags, Be@rbricks have transitioned from affordable toys to high-end collectibles, moving across different markets and prices and changing the dynamics of consumer culture. 

Moreover, like Harajuku Decora fashion, Be@rbricks are highly influenced by the “do-it-yourself” approach of many artists who design them, which can be seen as a form of consumption related to self-expression (see Figure 3).[7] Through purchasing power and displaying these figures, customizers and consumers signal materialistic values surrounding wealth and status, using Be@rbricks as a tool for expressing personal or group identity and aesthetic preferences while displaying social and economic status. While Decora fashion’s focus on cuteness, playfulness, and self-expression creates a sense of community and belonging among its participants, there is also a shared identity and a means of participating in the broader social and cultural trend toward affective assemblages through Be@rbrick’s exclusivity that regulates the boundaries between “selves and others, cultural ‘insiders’ and cultural ‘outsiders.’”[8]

Figure 3. A visual poem illustrating a Be@rbrick figure with words and phrases associated with socially constructed concepts related to luxury and cuteness.

In exploring the public consumption of Be@rbricks, the increasing international familiarity with cute culture through the combination of luxury and cuteness evidently adds to Asia’s (and particularly Japan’s) reputation for trendsetting and “cool.”[9] As Be@rbricks are gradually becoming globalized through global collaborations with foreign institutions and individuals, the Japanese concept of mukokuseki is becoming more relevant, as the figures are being designed to appeal to a wide range of international consumers. While the figures are often associated with Japanese popular culture and design aesthetics, it is becoming more difficult to explicitly discern Japanese influence due to the globalized nature of a contemporary culture that is constantly evolving and becoming more “cool.” By becoming more globalized, Be@rbricks are being read as luxury fashion accessories rather than simple toys. Due to this change, many people are claiming that cute is no longer a subculture. Yet, the desirability and value placed on cuteness compared to luxury is still a topic of debate, since whether or not cute objects can ever be as desirable, valuable, and exclusive without the influence of luxury is an ongoing question. However, one thing remains clear: cuteness holds great power. Although cute objects may be perceived as immature and holding less weight, they allow the creation of something beyond mere luxury luxury cuteness. Cuteness fosters greater creativity and a higher level of aesthetics and emotion, making it nearly impossible for other desirable factors, even luxury, to dismiss it.

Published: 6/30/2023


[1] Jiaqi Luo and Glyn Atwal, “Why Luxury Brands Must Jump on China's Cute ‘Meng’ Trend,” Jing Daily, June 24, 2021,

[2] Ann duCille, “Dyes and Dolls: Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandising of Difference,” differences 6, no. 1 (1994): 46–68.

[3] Wenting Feng et al. “Kawai vs. Whimsical: The influence of cuteness types of luxury brands on consumers’ preferences,” Acta Psychologica Sinica 54, no. 3 (2022): 313-330. 

[4] Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant‐Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 811.

[5] Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” 812.

[6] Lori Merish, “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple,” in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 187.

[7] Megan Catherine Rose, Haruka Kurebayashi, and Rei Saionji, “Kawaii Affective Assemblages,” M/C Journal 25, no. 4 (2022),

[8] Merish, “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics,” 188.

[9] Nancy K. Stalker, “‘Cool’ Japan as Cultural Superpower: 1980s–2010s,” in Japan: History and Culture from Classical to Cool (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018): 394.