LOS ANGELES — The display windows at Maxfield, a boutique on Robertson Boulevard here, depicted 36-inch chocolate bunnies at a gay wedding during the Easter season. At Patty Faye, which sells contemporary designs in the Silver Lake section, window mannequins were swathed in aluminum foil with a sign reading “Just foiling around.’’

In Los Angeles, epicenter of the car culture, store windows that are whimsical, political or daring are making a comeback that goes beyond the retail bastion of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

The goal is to make the best use of a relatively cheap and potentially effective method of luring customers as a more pedestrian-friendly culture begins to take root in the city and its environs, including outdoor malls such as The Grove in the Fairfax District and the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. In addition, retailers, cafes and other businesses are reinvigorating street life along thoroughfares such as Sunset, Beverly and Robertson Boulevards.

“Your window is your calling card,” said Drea Kadilak, owner of Clover, a contemporary boutique in Silver Lake. “If you can’t advertise, you have to work the windows.’’

While independent boutiques are at the forefront of the window renaissance, major retailers such as Neiman Marcus, which has a tradition of traffic-stopping displays, also recognize their value, though there aren’t statistics to determine if they boost the bottom line.

“We sell straight from the window,” said Martin Pack, visual director of Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills.? “People come in and want to buy the dress that’s in there.”?

The trend is a blast from the past — to the 1930s and 1940s when windows at department stores such as Robinson’s and Bullock’s “were beyond imagination,’’ said Hutton Wilkinson, owner and creative director of Tony Duquette Studios, a design company.

“They were completely lavish,’’ said Wilkinson, who grew up in the city’s Hancock Park section. “On a nice night, we would walk down and look at the windows at I. Magnin and Bullock’s Wilshire. Occasionally, we would drive downtown, park at Pershing Square, and walk around to look at windows.“There was one that I remember in particular at I. Magnin featuring a blue taffeta ballgown in an incredible silver and crystal interior,’’ he said. “It was so magnificent.’’

The decline in the importance of store windows dates to the 1950s and the dominance of cars in the lifestyle of Southern Californians, many of whom would rather drive 20 feet than walk it. Another factor was rioting in Los Angeles after four white police officers were acquitted in 1992 in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, sparking violence that resulted in an estimated $1 billion in property damage and 54 deaths.

The reversal has been boosted partly by merchants who refused to deemphasize their displays.

Gai Gherardi, co-owner and designer of eyewear company L.A. Eyeworks, said her windows have been “one of the main components to our story” since opening the first of the brand’s three California stores in 1979. She has hired Los Angeles-based installation and performance artists such as Jim Reva and Liz Young, as well as photographer Mark Adley, to create tableaux.

“There are little surprises I’ve seen around the city, reflecting a need between a retailer and a shopper to genuinely connect with an idea,” she said.

The eyewear brand is known for cutting-edge depictions, such as an homage to Marilyn Monroe in which a likeness of the late movie star was placed in a coffin. L.A. Eyeworks also has experimented with giant charm bracelets, oversize bras and men’s underwear stuffed with beach balls.

Most stores change their windows every four to eight weeks, and tie in designs with seasonal fashions, current events or social trends. Some hire freelance designers or have visual merchandising teams that develop ideas. Dressing a window usually takes a day.

In front of the Melrose Avenue store of lingerie brand Agent Provocateur, which opened in 2000 and also has shops in New York and London, a Rolling Stones-themed window featuring a trashed hotel room was a traffic-stopper. ?

“L.A. has such talent in set design, I always found it surprising people didn’t do more,” said Serena Rees, co-founder of the company.

Cathy Callahan, who dresses windows for stores such as Patty Faye, Market in Brentwood and Pamela Barsky on Third Street, said they are an effective, low-budget way of getting a message to shoppers.“It might surprise some stores to know that they can get a really fun window for around $500,” she said.

Patty Faye has found that whimsy works best. Co-owner Carla Helmholz hired Callahan to drape mannequins in aluminum foil. “People in the neighborhood walk by and tell us how much they appreciate the windows,” Helmholz said.?“They get attention.’’

She said the correlation between window displays and sales is difficult to quantify, but the store appears busier when a memorable design is featured.

Shoppers have taken notice.

“I can see it in the new, small boutiques along Robertson Boulevard, which seem to be paying more attention to detail in their windows,” said Andrea Freedman, a restaurant publicist. “The windows are more feminine and sophisticated.’’

Academic institutions also recognize the importance of windows. Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles has new students do a window shopping report that assesses a store’s category, image and merchandise based on what appears in its windows.

The displays are “terribly important,’’ said Rosemary Brantley, founding chairman of the Otis school of fashion. “It’s about communicating the point of view of the store, getting people in, conveying what the store is pushing.’’

Chris Jonic, who designs windows for Maxfield on Robertson Boulevard, Savannah in Santa Monica and James Perse on Melrose Avenue, said she is given plenty of leeway at Maxfield. One of her designs featured mannequins wearing gas masks, a statement about terrorism fears.

“They like me to do newsworthy and provocative windows,’’ she said.

The huge inventory at Wasteland, a vintage clothing store on Melrose Avenue, means that finding fashions to work with almost any theme is easy. Wasteland, which also has a store in San Francisco and plans to open in Santa Monica next month, employs San Francisco-based designer Janay Rose to do its windows. Previous efforts have included three-dimensional cityscapes and a Halloween display inspired by the movie “Edward Scissorhands.’’

“We want to focus on the clothes, but it also has to blend in with the background,” said Wasteland manager Grace Dulnuan. “The main thing is to get people’s attention.’’Retailers say the key is to balance showcasing the clothes with a head-turning display, and not allow an extravagant backdrop to detract from the merchandise.

“We definitely try to make the windows the face of Neiman’s,” said Pack.

Last month, Neiman’s displays had chiffon dresses in a scene featuring antique French garden benches, 19th-century columns and statues with feathered headdresses as part of a collaboration with the Los Angeles Design Group and its Los Angeles Antiques Show.

“We’re right on the strip adjacent to Saks and Barneys, so there is some competition to draw the customer inside,” Pack said.

Neiman Marcus on May 15 launched its annual partnership with students at the Otis school who have been working with Los Angeles designers such as Michelle Mason and Henry Duarte. Fifteen outfits created by the students and the designers will be displayed in windows for two weeks.

Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York, said Los Angeles retailers needed to regard their displays as the ultimate billboard.

“You have to make an immediate connection with a driver’’ as well as pedestrians, Doonan said.

At Barneys on Wilshire Boulevard, a recent window showcased the fashions of Lanvin and featured the giant gold letters “Get Luscious in Lanvin.’’

“It was something you could read even if you were flying along in the fast lane in your brand-new hybrid car,’’ Doonan said.

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