The Playboy bunny has a new look — and will soon be getting a new place to hop around in.
Ears and noses were a-twitch Friday night when Italian designer Roberto Cavalli (search) showed off his new designs for the world-famous bunny costume in Las Vegas, where Playboy (PLA) is building a casino-and-nightclub complex — its first "club" since the last Playboy Club (search) in the United States closed in Lansing, Mich., in 1988.
"Reinterpreting the Playboy uniform has been an incredible project," Cavalli said in a press release. "Updating something so iconic with my own modern design sensibility has been a challenge — and one that I've really enjoyed."
The Palms Casino and Resort (search), which is partnering with Playboy in creating the new club, is leaning toward one of these costume designs, the one shown here on Playboy founder Hugh Hefner's girlfriend, "Girls Next Door" star Holly Madison, to be worn by bunnies in the new venue, alongside the traditional bunny costume.
This design retains the collar, cuffs, bunny ears and bunny tail of the old costume — but also features some sexy changes, including a sparkly black bodice with an external corset, an S&M-inspired metallic collar and armbands, higher and more streamlined leg lines and a white furry tail. It also leaves little to the imagination on top.
"The future trend is toward classics. More 1980s-ish. I am now doing new outfits for the Playboy rabbits. Yes, bunnies. I am doing them very glamorous," Cavalli told gossip columnist Cindy Adams in June.
Playboy CEO and Hugh's daughter Christie Hefner said it was about time the costume, introduced with the first Playboy Club in Chicago in 1960, got a new look.
"The Bunny Costume has undergone only modest changes over the years so as to maintain its identity and special character,” she said in a statement over the summer. “Cavalli is the perfect designer to reinterpret the magic of the original design as he, too, embraces the good life, inspires an aspirational lifestyle for a jet-set crowd and, of course, celebrates beautiful women."
But the costume change is only one of many recent developments meant to haul Playboy, which has struggled in recent years, into the new millennium.
For example, the Las Vegas venue, set to open in May 2006, is hoped to be just the first of a series of such sites around the globe.
"We're going forward with designing it away from the Playboy Clubs of the '60s and '70s," Christie Hefner told FOXNews.com. "These are not standalone nightclubs; these are multi-faceted entertainment centers with food and beverage, gaming, retail and private party space."
Christie Hefner said they're to be physical presences that will help reacquaint the world with the rejuvenated Playboy lifestyle.
"Anytime you can take a media property and bring it to life so people can experience the lifestyle and excitement, that's a powerful thing," she said.
"Think about how Disney's in the theme-park business: We introduce people to our products, generate revenue from those facilities as entertainment revenue and it gives us the chance of being in the business of living the Playboy lifestyle while it lets you be in a cool Playboy party, which pretty much everyone wants to do," she continued.
Overseas, Playboy has shifted its target focus away from young men and is trying to appeal to young, wealthy women — Playboy boutiques, featuring Playboy-brand clothing and goods, are opening soon in Hong Kong, China, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Christie Hefner makes a point of saying that Playboy isn't the men's-entertainment business — it's geared toward both sexes.
"It's really a fashion-forward trend," she said. "We have more men buying the video games and more women buying lingerie and apparel. One of the things we've discovered is the brand attributes of sexiness and fun resonate with both young men and women."
As Christie Hefner mentioned, the company released a video game this year, "Playboy: The Mansion," in which the player assumes the role of "Hef" and dawdles with Playmates in the infamous grotto.
Among other innovations, Playboy has also jumped on the iPod and cellular-phone trends, offering "iBod" photo galleries for the iPod Photo and partnering with Seattle-based Dwango Wireless to offer adult content for mobile phones.
In April, the company announced that it would be offering content for the popular PlayStation Portable through its Web site.
In September, it worked with Zinio Systems to launch the first issue of a digital edition of the magazine, with features such as "Girls of the PAC 10," a pictorial of video game vixens.
And Hef's been more visible than he has in ages, thanks to Viagra, a trio of bubbly, bleached-blonde girlfriends and a successful cable-TV reality show, "The Girls Next Door," on E!
The fantastic growth of the company's stock prices — until recently — seemed to bear out the Chicago-based company's popularity.
"Our stock prices appreciated 40 percent this year," Christie Hefner said in late October.
That was amazing news for a company in the doldrums for decades, seeing its dominance nibbled away from both ends, from Penthouse's Bob Guccione and Hustler's Larry Flynt, and then free hardcore pornography on the Internet and the astonishing success of the frat-boyish "lad mag" magazines imported from Britain.
Christie Hefner attributed the company's turnaround to its substantial and long-unprofitable investment in Playboy.com — now a source of multiple revenues, including e-commerce, advertising and online gaming — product licensing and a gradual shedding of American inhibitions.
"The evolution of American pop culture has become, frankly, more like the rest of the world in terms of accepting nudity as something that is more mainstream when you're talking about content for adults," she said. "That has helped."
But some observers say the company's spreading itself too thin in its efforts to resurrect itself.
"I don't think they can approach it in this kind of scattershot way," marketing and branding expert Adam Hanft said. "There's a retro-cool quality they could have if the property were managed properly, but they require a self-awareness, and Playboy is so doctrinaire with itself.
"Unless they're able to detach from themselves and look at themselves ironically, they'll never catch on," he added. "Changing the bunny costume? That's like re-wardrobing Mickey Mouse."
Brian Austin, professor of mass media and chairman of the department of communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology, agreed that cosmetic changes probably won't be enough to get the American public to take more than a nibble of the 50-year-old Rabbit’s carrot.
"The Playboy bunny is an icon, but it's an icon of nostalgia now," he said. "I'm not sure it's a beacon for the future."
Unfortunately for the company, the market agreed with the naysayers, especially after Playboy announced a third-quarter performance below what analysts had expected.
On Thursday, reports of mediocre growth had traders selling off their bunny shares, and the company's stock was down 10 percent. By Wednesday, the stock price was slowly creeping back up from its plunge.
Christie Hefner is optimistic.
"There's no doubt we're on a very dramatic growth pass. ... Playboy's in that small category of global brands that have stood the test of time," she said. "We feel very good about the future.”