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London, UK – Ironies abound as the Playboy Bunnies return to Mayfair in baroque style

Advance to Mayfair: Hugh Hefner’s latest Playboy Club brings its post-ironic cocktail of burlesque and baroque to London’s West End

It’s easy to feel despondent when you walk down Park Lane. The tyranny of opulence, seen in a low-mileage Lamborghini for £199,000, or a whiteRange Rover that looks like its been crossed with a Gucci handbag is unspeakable. And I’m escorting my flagging middle-aged mojo for a spot of revitalisation at the newly opened Playboy Club.

Playboy has certainly managed to put a twinkle back in its own eye. ‘Heff’ started out at the kitchen table with a big idea and a naked pin-up of Marilyn Monroe in 1953, and soon was running one of the more radical magazines of an era, which scattered across kooky mansions, aeroplanes and hideaways of rock and roll largesse.

Heff started gaming clubs for everybody who thought he was James Bond (I am of the age where my only slightly older colleagues married Playboy bunnies), and then retired to the surer ground of broadcast media as feminism began to grasp the physically preposterous politics of girls dressed as rabbits.

As I strolled in through the discrete glass portal, full of these imaginings and half memories, I was rather hoping to be met by a buxom playmate who would nuzzle up and sooth my battered ego over several cocktails until I tottered out, temporarily sated, back into the bruising metropolis. So what if it was 5.30 in the afternoon.

How old fashioned I am. I was greeted by half a dozen executives for this and that, including the highly obliging architects from Jestico + Whiles. Thiswas not rumpled suit territory; this was corporate new tomorrow. Playboy is back with a brand stronger than ever in the franchise business. We have Playboy Club Las Vegas, Macau and Miami. There will no doubt be Moscow and Cancun, all franchises under the wing of umbrella casino operations. Playboy now sells style like Lacoste but with no merchandise other than itself.

There was the US representative for Playboy, a man of smart dark suit, white open-necked shirt, who reminded me of those young entrepreneurs who grace the pages of LA Style. The PR representatives for the club and the architects told many stories about this new brand, this new atmosphere, this new experience. There were also plenty of questions that no-one wanted to answer. That is the post-modern business world for you.

The design, which you might be able to detect down into the microfibres of the carpets, bares the theme of heaven and hell, with a slice of Alice in Wonderland (disappearing down a rabbit hole). It is louche, louche, louche and nothing, nothing is left to accident. Cigar smoke curls on the ceiling, but as an effect. There are monograms on the walls and silhouettes in the lifts; there are series of fabulous bar displays. Sumptuous ice buckets descend into tables. It is not the memorabilia store of the Hard Rock Café, and neither is it the sexualised warehouse of Spearmint Rhino.

The architects flexed their muscles just as far as they could, squeezing into every detail, with printed movable translucent fabric screens around the fine dining area, which offers, when in action, rather a nice parody of Maurice Binder’s title sequences to the Bond films. The toilets offer bewildering complexity worthy of Lewis Carroll. There are retro prints on the wall, but only around the neutral staircase linking the two floors. They have resisted the museum; instead this is all about detail, nuance, accent and atmosphere: an architecture that includes the minimum two inch high heels for the bunnies and possibly their perfume too.

So, of course, that restaurant is not serving Bond’s favourite spaghetti bolognaise washed down with a rough Chianti, but it is serving fusion food. Fusion food is what you get in Mayfair. Bond was a phantom of already bygone Britain. International late capitalism replaced him in as many guises as you like, and you will no doubt find them in the Playboy club. To paraphrase AA Gill, you couldn’t be shabby here; you’d let down your car.

What of the burning question; how do we explain the contemporary relevance of those bunnies? The answer could not be easier: with the fashion for the burlesque, what was considered degrading in ancient history is now easily considered rather cool retro chic. Some 4,000 ladies applied for the 82 bunny costumes.

Readers' comments (1)

  • AR tackling ancient feminist conundrums in a sentence? Bit ambitious.

    To quote a more contemporary and relevant critic, Caitlin Moran 'Women who, in a sexist world, pander to sexism to make their fortune are Vichy France with tits'.

    Half those 4000 'ladies' are probably architects fed up with the pay gap, and the career opportunities.

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