July 23, 2002 10:41pm
Playboy Bunnies Hop Into Tokyo
by: Stuart Grudgings
(TOKYO, JAPAN) -- Hugh Hefner's legendary Playmates have hopped across the Atlantic and into Tokyo to stake their claim in a country with one of the world's most saturated - and kinky - sex industries. Have the Bunnies nibbled off more than they can chew?
Not if you ask Hugh's daughter Christie, who now runs the adult entertainment empire while her septuagenarian father enjoys semi-retirement and a bevy of pin-up girls back at the Playboy mansion.
For one thing, Playboy's new venture in the Japanese capital has more to do with clothes than sex - a spanking new $852,600 fashion store in a trendy Tokyo spot was opened by Christie and two busty Playmates of the Year on Tuesday night.
Apart from the very obvious attributes of Miss 2001 and Miss 2002, any men looking for a Playboy nostalgia trip would have been largely disappointed.
Most of the store is devoted to selling Playboy's brand of cute, revealing clothes with the trademark rabbit's head to a proven money-spinner: the young Japanese female.
"I think in a funny way it makes it more appealing to men," Christie told Reuters in between sips of champagne at the opening party.
"It takes the underlying appeal of the Playmate - which is, 'who knows beautiful women better than the Playboy?' - and turns her into a fashion statement that young attractive women can relate to."
As one reminder that the old Playboy spirit lives on, Hugh Hefner took time out from exertions at his mansion to give a brief welcoming address on a giant screen.
"I'm very excited about the first freestanding Playboy store in Tokyo," the 76-year-old purred.
Christie said her father was now putting his energy into a new film about his life, as well as the seven Playmates he is said to share the mansion with.
"Last time I checked it was seven, but I haven't been there for a month so don't quote me on it," she said.
Playboy's fashion line-up, made in conjunction with Japanese clothing firm Super Lovers, has already been selling with "phenomenal success" in Japan for the last two years, Hefner said, giving the new store a firm grounding.
Besides, the capital for the building was put up by Super Lovers, with Playboy lending the brand pulling power that it hopes will catch on in Japan and beyond.
Hefner will be dreaming of emulating the success of foreign brands such as Louis Vuitton, whose bags have become a near must-have accessory for millions of young Japanese women with plenty of cash to spend despite a decade-long economic slump.
"We think there's an opportunity to leverage the store in terms of further growth both in Japan and because, frankly, Asia looks to Japan and particularly Tokyo for its fashion sensibility," said the bubbly Christie, a youthful 49.
Brand, leverage, market penetration, strategy - the younger Hefner speaks the language of the CEO she is, but it is a far cry from her father's heyday in the 1950s when he put the first Playboy magazine together on his kitchen table.
Approaching its 50th birthday next year, though, the flagship magazine is showing symptoms of a mid-life crisis as competition from trendier men's magazines cripples its circulation.
The sexy money for the Chicago-based Playboy Enterprises Inc. nowadays comes from cable TV networks with racey names such as "Hotzone" and "Vivid," whose popularity is making up for the limp readership.
Analysts are optimistic that could help lift the company's earnings out of the red this year, although they caution that Playboy's attempts to expand its brand in the past - through international Playboy casinos, for example - have flopped.
The focus on TV has also seen Playboy move into the more lucrative world of hard-core pornography and pay-per-view, and Christie has her sights set on expansion in Asia.
"Television for us internationally is our biggest profit center, which we expected when we made the strategic decision to leverage the brand into television rather than expand in print," Christie said.
"The growth of digital is a significant trend all over the world. Even though we already have our networks in 50 countries, we've only hit the tip of the iceberg in terms of penetrating the market."