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Fashion: It's that rascally rabbit

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Whether you love or hate what it stands for, there's no denying the Playboy Rabbit Head is an American icon, and a pretty cute one, to boot.

And recently, the magazine, its founder, Hugh Hefner, and that funny bunny have a new veneer of cool.

Fashion tributes abound: Stella McCartney put rabbit-head skulls on slashed shirts in her spring Chloe runway show. (Playboy lawyers did block production of the shirts, but imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery.) Bunnies also popped up on T-shirts at Wink and on sweaters by hip-hop designer Marc Ecko.

Paparazzi snapped pop stars Jewel and Lenny Kravitz wearing rabbit T-shirts. Sarah Jessica Parker's character on Sex and the City paired her trademark "Carrie" necklace with a gold rabbit on a chain.

Even the Playboy Mansion is back on the charts, the site of photo shoots by Harper's Bazaar and parties attended by everyone from Cameron Diaz to Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst. And DJ Dmitri from Paris released a CD of groovy '70s remixes called A Night at the Playboy Mansion.

What's more, Hef himself is out and about for the first time in what seems like decades, accompanied by constant companions Mandy, Sandy, Brande and Jessica.

The time is right for a Playboy resurgence, its founder believes.

"I think it's a combination of things," says Mr. Hefner. "It's come together in some degree because I came out of an extended relationship and marriage, but it also has to do with the fascination with retro and a post-feminist embracing of Playboy. I do think it has to do with a changing sexual climate reflected in pop culture."

For Mr. Hefner, the uptight social climate of the late '80s and '90s reminded him of the era before he started the magazine.

"I was a kid that grew up in the early part of the century in the 1930s and the war years, and I looked back at the images of the Jazz Age and felt I missed the party. That's the connection between the creation of Playboy and my lifestyle, and the parties are my own response to that repression.

"Now, a whole new generation has grown up that missed the '70s and related in a very real way to the Playboy man. When I started going out again and having parties again, they were waiting for me to come out and play."

When Hef started socializing, it wasn't long before the up-and-coming-actor set made the mansion its Party Central, says Cindy Rakowitz, Playboy's vice president of public relations and promotions. A meeting called by Ms. Rakowitz for the Playmates to discuss the Internet turned into the first party. Soon, the mansion was hosting regular "disco nights."

"It was very small, and the word got around young Hollywood that these parties were cool and that we would respect their privacy," she says. "Leonardo DiCaprio wanted to know there wouldn't be news cameras aimed at his face, and we gave him that assurance. You see Martin Landau hanging out with Ben Affleck, and it's kind of like they're passing the torch."

While the mansion was regaining lost allure, the product marketing team was working to transform the emblem itself, hiring a team of designers to create clothing and housewares for the company's Web site (www.playboy.com) and catalog (1-800-423-9494 toll free).

Aaron Duncan, product design vice president, says he began by spending several months poring over the magazine's archives. And indeed, although the catalog and Web sites still have some old-style holdovers (such as tacky lace unitards), new Playboy merchandise has a kitschy-cool appeal.

There's '70s-style lingerie designed by Girly NYC's Pamela Atwood. Chunky pimpadelic jewelry with Rabbit Head medallions on thick silver chains. Barware with jitterbugging bunnies. Even a camp shirt in a photo-print collage of classic Playboy covers.

Most of the merchandise is relatively inexpensive: about $25 for T-shirts, $12 for earrings and $60 for a lingerie set. There are some pricey items - a $350,000 cigarette boat (six of which have sold), a $5,000 Gibson guitar (a model of which is used by the band Lit) and a one-of-a-kind original bunny costume for $15,000 - but these are the exceptions.

Even a $1,500 platinum and pave diamond Rabbit Head - recently photographed by Vogue - has a $99 crystal version for sale right alongside it.

Mr. Duncan believes that those who wear the symbol have a certain mind set. "You can be 40 years old and wear the brand," he says. But not everyone wears the symbol the same way: There's a certain irony when Sarah Jessica Parker wears a rabbit necklace that would be completely lost if, say, Pamela Anderson Lee donned a baby T-shirt with the rabbit symbol.

British shop owner Max Karie says the symbol is appealing because "it's just the right amount of retro." He and partners Pippa Brooks and former Bodymap designer Stevie Stewart are currently working on a line of Playboy jewelry and lingerie, and he says that "anything Playboy has been flying out of the shop."

Girly NYC's Ms. Atwood, who creates one or two new Playboy lingerie pieces each season, also notes the icon's retro appeal. "The way the Playboy models looked in the '60s is definitely an inspiration," she says.

"I'm into anything from the '40s to the '60s [that's] cheesecake. Playboy has got these great images, so why not put them out there? They probably get a lot of men who buy the lingerie for gifts, and I tend to get a customer buying them for herself, so it's a great combination. I think it's totally fun."

Mr. Duncan plans to keep expanding the more playful side of Playboy with his upcoming line of clothing and home accessories. This fall will see 1960s-style ski sweaters with matching caps that have - you guessed it - Rabbit Heads knit in, and logo-covered bedding.

He's even working on a line, just for Japanese customers, made by Sanrio - best known for the Hello Kitty line of kid's toys.

Taking the LeRoy Neiman "Femlin" character, which adorns the party jokes page of each issue of Playboy, Sanrio will make a series of jewelry, clothes, makeup and stationery aimed at the 18- to 24-year-old "hip chick" who's graduated from the kitty and is ready for the bunny.

"The Rabbit Head is a choice of a new generation," says Mr. Duncan. "It's like the Ralph Lauren Polo pony."

And we haven't seen the end of it yet. Mr. Hefner says he's going to reopen the first Playboy club in decades next year in swinging London, complete with bunnies in original-style costumes. He's even looking at Las Vegas for a future casino site.

"It's a very exciting time certainly for me as a person and for the company," he says. "The bunny's coming back in a big way."
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