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It started with Natalie Massenet. The Net-a-Porter founder and British Fashion Council chairman was spotted pairing a leopard print Marc Jacobs skirt with a leopard print Valentino Rockstud clutch at New York Fashion Week; the following week in London Kate Moss was seen front row at Topshop’s show in a pair of black leopard print Hysteric Glamour jeans, then, at Paris Fashion Week, stylist Giovanna Battaglia turned up in a vintage early 1990s leopard print Alaïa dress at the designer’s retrospective opening at the Palais Galliera.
By the time Andrea Mitchell, NBC News’ chief foreign affairs correspondent, wore a black leopard print trench while delivering her nightly report on the Syrian crisis the trend was official: animal spots are big news.
“With the amount of prints women are now dressing in, leopard really is the ‘new black’,” says stylist Isabel Dupré, whose equivalent to the little black dress is an Isabel Marant leopard print number she considers her fail-safe go-to. “There is something that reads expensive and ‘fashion’ in the print when it is worn right,” she adds. “Most of the time it’s as timeless as wearing black.”
“Leopard print really is the new classic,” agrees Colleen Sherin, senior fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Women today should look at leopard as a great investment piece and not something to shy away from because it’s too bold or too old or too young.” Helen David, head of womenswear at Harrods, says that because designers have offered leopard print in paler tones for autumn, it has become a more versatile day-to-evening option. “This season leopard print has firmly established itself,” says David, who bought everything from Roland Mouret’s multicoloured leopard eveningwear to a 3.1 Phillip Lim leather biker jacket with leopard print sleeves for the department store.
She is not the only one. Walk into a Burberry shop anywhere in the world and you will be faced by a plethora of animal spots; leopard print sleeves on a gabardine trench, a pair of metal bow-front patterned pumps, leopard mink trim on a tan drawstring leather bag, a below-the-knee calfskin printed pencil skirt, matching gloves or even an outsized leopard print umbrella.
There is no doubt then, that the preferred print of screen sirens Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor – not to mention 73-year-old Raquel Welch, who wore a leopard print dress at a pre-Emmy awards party last month – is making a roaring comeback. And the responses of designers and retailers suggest that it’s here to stay.
Eva Chen, Lucky magazine editor-in-chief, calls it the “Jenna Lyons effect”, crediting the J Crew president and creative director with “informing women on how to mix and match sailor stripes, animal prints and out-there florals as you would a black or grey T-shirt”.
“It’s a print that real women, not the red carpet divas, have made their own little by little,” says Stefano Gabbana, who recalls that leopard print dresses were considered daring – scandalous, even – when he co-founded Dolce & Gabbana in 1985. “For us, leopard print is universal, irrespective of age or profession,” adds his design partner Domenico Dolce.
Fellow Italian designer Roberto Cavalli has long had a love for these patterns. “Nature created the animal print and I just put my own twist on it,” he says. “What I appreciate most about leopard is its strong graphic identity that also lends itself to interpretation. As long as you wear it with confidence and ease, leopard will always be empowering.”
Empowering it may be, but it is best to tread carefully while wearing the print in a business setting. “The more black you pair it with, the more that it will help mute the print but still allow it to flash,” says Alexandra Lebenthal, president and chief executive of municipal bond dealer Lebenthal & Company, who still counts her 10-year-old Equipment leopard print jacket as a wardrobe staple.
At Saks, Sherin advises the feline-shy to ease into the print with an accessory, such as a loafer or as a treatment on a lapel, in lining or as outerwear. “Wear leopard in a place you want to draw the eyes to,” she says.
But at Net-a-Porter, the current popularity of the print was almost a missed opportunity. Having decided to take a break from the ubiquitous pattern this season, fashion director Holli Rogers dropped her spot-free mandate after seeing designers who normally shy away from leopard – from Stella McCartney to Mother of Pearl – embrace it with fervour: “Leopard print felt fresh again – something I wasn’t expecting this season at all.” And her advice on how to embrace the look? “My number one tip is to have fun with leopard,” she says. “Fearlessly experiment.”
The spot market for men: Get in touch with your inner caveman
“I guess animal prints have always been a classic – just never in menswear,” says Topman’s creative director Gordon Richardson of the animal print phenomenon that is crossing over into men’s wardrobes. “With the explosion of print and pattern we’ve been witnessing in menswear, an animal print suddenly seems like an easy option for men as a way of updating their wardrobes and looking ahead of the curve.”
But leopard print for men is not just about affordable T-shirts and sweatshirts; it is also being touted as an ultra luxurious investment buy, writes David Hayes.
“The ‘snow leopard’ patterned coat is in mink that has been needle-punched through cashmere jacquard,” says Kim Jones, creative director of Louis Vuitton menswear, of the label’s star men’s buy (£5,050). “It’s a brand new technique that we have developed exclusively.”
“I’ve always liked Stephen Sprouse’s leopard print for Louis Vuitton and wanted to make a masculine version of it,” adds Jones.
But will leopard print – however luxurious – sell to men? “Some of our clients are on a constant search for unique, limited edition products to make themselves stand out,” says Jones. “I’m always surprised by some of our top clients’ choices; it challenges us to come up with new developments season after season.”
Another label pioneering leopard for men is British knit trio Sibling, who have made the leopard sweater their own (from £260). “All three of us adore animal prints,” says Cozette McCreery, who teamed up with Sid Bryan and Joe Bates to form Sibling in 2008. “Our wardrobes are like an African dictator’s interior decoration scheme: zebra, leopard spots, tiger stripes, snake print.
“Our very first collection incorporated a leopard pattern on a cashmere base and was a firm favourite with everyone from skater guys to city boys,” adds McCreery. Why leopard? “Because it was always our intention to steal from womenswear. Now it’s what store buyers and consumers expect, and, because it feels timeless to us, we are happy to oblige.”
Have animal prints really become the new neutral for men? Some style insiders are having none of it. “No. It’s a trend, not a classic,” says Mr Porter’s Jeremy Langmead emphatically.
“For autumn we have bought animal prints spread broadly across accessories and clothing,” says Langmead. “From leopard sweaters by Raf Simons (£610) and shirts by Acne (£200) to Chelsea boots (£650) by Burberry Prorsum and scarves (£390) from Saint Laurent. But we also have a great pair of grey suede leopard print slippers by Jimmy Choo (£395) which could easily be worn with a dinner suit and are incredibly elegant.”
“It certainly heralds a new mood for print and texture in menswear. It will be interesting to see how this will evolve,” adds Langmead. “Who knew that men would willingly embrace florals a few years ago, let alone leopard?”