LONDON, Sep 17 (Reuters) Playboy opens its largest store in the world this week confident the London fashion boutique can ride out the storm in a nervous retail market that could be hit by the worldwide credit crunch.
''Confidence is very, very high,'' Playboy spokeswoman Lisa Hagendorf told Reuters as workmen put the finishing touches to the three-storey store on bustling Oxford Street, the shopping heart of the British capital.
''I think the brand is going to do phenomenally well here,'' Hagendorf said as plush purple carpets were laid down, chandeliers hung and the bunny logo took centre stage for Thursday's opening.
''There is a real understanding of the heritage,'' she said as Playboy returned to London for the first time in more than a quarter of a century.
The Playboy Club on Park Lane, known affectionately as the Bunny Hutch, was one of the most enduring symbols of the Swinging Sixties in London and founder Hugh Hefner a prime mover in the sexual revolution.
Its casino, closed in 1981, also ranked as the most profitable in the world at that time.
With London now a magnet for Russian and Arab billionaires as well as wealthy Europeans, Playboy is following other US retailers like Abercrombie&Fitch into the British capital's retail market.
Offering everything from a new range of fitness gear to an eveningwear collection for men and women, Playboy has timed its launch to coincide with London Fashion Week, the perfect international shop window for British designers.
MAJOR EXPANSION Location, location, location is all important and Hagendorf said: ''If you are going to open up a store in London, Oxford Street is the premier location.
''It's convenient not only for London residents; we are expecting a huge tourist footfall as well.'' Andrew Wade, a retail industry analyst with Seymour Pierce, told Reuters he believes the Playboy store is bound for success in London and by offering something that is one of kind it will be shielded from any downturn in consumer spending.
Playboy has launched a major expansion effort in a bid to offset the loss of money and readers from its 54-year-old Playboy magazine to online competition, launching shops, casinos and even an Internet social networking site to rival Facebook.
Its Chief Executive Christie Hefner, daughter of Hugh, who has expanded Playboy Enterprises Inc into an 800 million dollars empire, announced in June the development of Playboy Mansion Macao, a 40,000-square-foot entertainment venue due to open in 2009.
Christie Hefner told Reuters in a telephone interview: ''We are very excited that there have never been more Playboy fans around the world than there are today.'' Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and Snoop Dogg have been among stars spotted wearing Playboy clothes, now sold in nine stores around the world from Tokyo and Las Vegas to Melbourne and Bangkok.
REUTERS SKB KP1721