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Tuesday, November 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cuddly babywear of Bunnies By The Bay finds its way to Hollywood

Special to The Seattle Times

It's an old chestnut — the overnight sensation years in the making. Sisters Krystal Kirkpatrick and Suzanne Knutson founded their baby business 20 years ago. But thanks to Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie and other trendsetting celebrities, Anacortes-based Bunnies By The Bay is smokin' hot, with a host of upscale retailers carrying its line and the distinction of being one of Hollywood moms' favorite baby-shop stop.

The sisters aren't sure how their baby clothes got into Winfrey's generous hands, but the company's first major exposure came when Winfrey presented new mom Gwyneth Paltrow with a Bunnies By The Bay coat, embroidered with a green apple for her then 3-month-old, Apple. Later, Winfrey gave the company's Quacker Jacket and Croak Coat to Julia Roberts' twins.

Knutson then recalls seeing Angelina Jolie's second child, Zahara, frequently wearing the companies' signature bunny jacket.

"The first time we couldn't believe it. We were watching TV and they were showing Angelina carrying the baby and someone said, 'Hey, isn't that your jacket?' " It was exciting, but also frustrating, because either the media was crediting the coat to someone else, calling the bunny a lamb coat or not mentioning it at all.

"We were trying to get information, to tell people that was our coat! The photos were all over the place, on the Internet, in the tabloids, on TV." Finally, one publication got it right and interest has, um, hopped up.

However those cute coats made it into celebrity hands, it upped the Q-rating of Bunnies By The Bay.

This past April, Bunnies By The Bay's baby clothing line made its appearance at Hollywood Hills' Silver Spoon Dog & Baby Buffet, a complimentary shopping event for celebrities and VIPs. It's a good way to get wares into the hands of stars, Hollywood stylists and meet entertainment media.

"I was surprised at how into the event all of the celebrities were," says Amber Moffitt, Bunnies director of sales and marketing. "I had the mindset that they must do functions like this all the time and therefore wouldn't be too excited. But most of the celebrities that stopped by our area were so thrilled to stop and chat. They kept 'ooohhing' and 'awwwing' and had to feel every blanket and point out all of the details on the outfits."

Some of the celebrities who were personally introduced to Bunnies By The Bay at the Silver Spoon event included Tori Spelling (who picked up a very soft plush blanket for her pug as well as a bib and soft furry slippers), actor Larenz Tate and Melissa Rivers.

Bring joy to others

Sisters Krystal and Suzanne grew up in Anacortes, which they still call home. Daughters of a crab fisherman, they started Bunnies By The Bay as a healing hobby after their father, uncle, cousin and 11 other young men were lost at sea in a 1983 fishing-boat accident in Alaska — ranked among the worst commercial-fishing disasters in U.S. history.

The following year, their brother died, also in a fishing accident. Their grandmother told them the only way to bring joy back into your lives is to bring joy to others. And so the sewing began.

Stitching therapy helped them heal emotionally and planted the seeds for their business. After making many one-of-a-kind bunnies they began selling them, first at craft shows then out of their workshop in Anacortes.

Today, those limited-edition, elaborately dressed bunnies are still hand-sewn by designer Sue Bowles, who has been making them for Bunnies for 15 years. They retail from $175 to $1,000. (The company's other related retail products were locally made until the late 1990s when financial pressure caused them to move production to Taiwan.)

The sisters also have a cottage retail business in — what else? — a 140-year-old cottage with carrot-shaped spindles, which they opened in La Conner in 1991.

"We call it the fairy-tale house, in which we also serve tea, and tell the stories of Bunnies By The Bay through a self-guided tour," says Suzanne.

Boosted by Hallmark

A lucrative five-year deal with Hallmark that ended last year helped position them in the national spotlight, helping boost the company's sales to $5.5 million today.

"We had the fastest-selling card line," says Knutson. There were 112 cards in the line, but the eight baby cards "were by far the most popular and sold tons, it was really fun. Those baby cards were another clue to the new baby line."

The fact that many people were constantly commenting on the cuteness of the clothes on their limited-edition bunnies further supported the sisters' idea that baby clothes were going to be in their future.

Hallmark had the original licensing but opted out of it, and the sisters ran with it, as evidenced by the tremendous popularity.

Even tabloid favorites Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes bought a Bluefrog Bunsie and Flipper Slippers among other items from Petit Trésor, an upscale boutique in Los Angeles. Halle Berry purchased the Croak Coat as a gift, and Jennifer Lopez bought their cuddly Quacker Jacket. "We plan to grow, grow, grow," says Knutson, "Licensing, franchising. Very simply put, we see no boundaries in where we can go, so we're shooting for the moon."

N.F. Mendoza is a writer based in Los Angeles and an occasional contributor to the The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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