"I never met a leopard print I didn't like." There are all kinds of misattributed quotations floating around on the internet, so I cannot say with 100% certainty that this one was actually spoken by Diana Vreeland, but it's been in my head all week. And no matter the originator, I love the sentiment. We have a dose of this pattern every season, because, after all of my education on the ins and out of fashion, animal prints are never, never OUT. And that includes reptiles! Truly CLASSIC in the absolute essence of the word. I mean, who gets tired of looking at a zebra or a cat? I may not like snakes… but safely behind the thick glass at the zoo, they are intriguing. That God had it going on when he whipped up all of those patterns. Living things are always in! All the great interior designers will tell you that a hit of animal print will turn something "too sweet" into something interesting and elevated. Looking back, I guess that could be a metaphor for my own transformation. Nice, naive girl wears leopard print and becomes.. slightly more interesting…?
Outside of dance recital costumes, I was not exposed to a lot of leopard growing up. But Norma Kamali was a major fan of this kitschy-yet-sophisticated print, so it entered my life in a big way in 1984. My first real job in New York was at her boutique on 56th street. I cannot believe that I ended up opening a retail shop 20 years later, because I hated that job. In one 8-hour shift I would cycle between boredom and insecurity and back again. While I had never considered myself shy, I was totally shell-shocked and overwhelmed trying to figure out the city. At every turn it felt like I was making a mistake or trying to catch up to something I should have already known. Every day that summer I would walk to the boutique from the squatting arrangement I shared with a couple of girlfriends from Boulder, above Burger Heaven. Upon arrival, I would change into something off the rack (usually with huge shoulder pads) and do my best to sell the same kinds of things to the women who'd walk in. I really was clueless.
So clueless, in fact, that I made the bad decision to start going by my legal first name, Elizabeth, despite the fact that I had been Ann since birth. When my coworkers would call for me, there was always this momentary pause, when my brain needed an extra few milliseconds to realize that it was ME they were addressing. Luckily the job only lasted three months, so I could ditch my stage name. But during those months, I did pick up a few things from Norma. She was a little weird and intimidating to me, but she had such a style that felt distinctly 'her,' and leopard was a big part of her idea of femininity. It felt bold, cool, a little racy… things I was NOT feeling about myself at the time. But in an attempt to compensate, I bought a leopard print bikini, which I would wear for years and years to come. I felt fantastic every time.
So thank you, Norma, for teaching me not only that I am definitely NOT an Elizabeth, but also just how chic leopard can be. As a print, it truly goes with everything because it matches nothing (except another animal mate of the same species… maybe..?) I love the juxtaposition of our ladylike Buckle Shoes in it and since I wore the heck out of my first pair from a few years back, I have grabbed a replacement pair now that we are running them again this season! Wearing them as I type.
On a sexier note, I am super excited about the animal-print versions of our amazing fine-gauge cashmere funnel-neck sweater… both leopard and zebra. One of these would look amazing dressed up with a pencil skirt, but right now I am loving it around the house with faded jeans, and some sneakers if you have to go out. Instant oomph. The tie-neck ones are slightly more feminine and "fashion" – the colors are more a Walt Disney technicolor version of the animal kingdom. Very very 70s-YSL and chic. I'm imagining myself as Diana Vreeland wearing with a pair of wide-leg trousers, although she would probably have enough style to pull off even more animal print. Maybe even with the leopard buckle shoes. Double leopard… just kooky enough to work! (While she is famously chic, I have an especially soft spot for DV because I cannot look at pictures of her, her long, elegant fingers wrapped around a cigarette, without thinking of my mother. She had no real interest in fashion, but she loved, loved, loved to smoke.) For me, oddly, the colorful ones represent the more sophisticated side of leopard, while the true-to-life colors feel a bit more punk.
But you can do these in a toned-down way. I have had a few pairs of zebra jeans over the years (à la Debbie Harry) as well as some tonal python printed ones over the years. I wear them most often with a crisp white shirt or a black turtleneck and it gives just a slight bit of youth and edge. In fact, my go-to outfit for my first pregnancy was a black sweater and this lycra leopard pencil skirt that I would stretch over my growing stomach – unfortunately I wore it so much that it stretched out permanently and I had to toss it. Shoes are another way to sneak some animal in without feeling too Mrs. Robinson. (Another chic smoker who, now that I think about it, actually looks a lot like my mother - seeing her everywhere I guess.) We really leaned into those this season… python, the zebra, the leopard I mentioned earlier… in both natural AND unnatural colors. One of my favorites is the gold because the leopard print isn't the only thing going on… it just reads as a chic brocade from a distance.
Animal prints just have a way of livening things up. In one of my daughter's rooms at home, there are these amazing, tan and black toile curtains that we inherited with the house. Not so "hip young woman," but there was no way I was ditching $5000 worth of drapery… so I have been trying to make it feel "cooler," to no avail, since we moved in. Just recently, though, I had the idea to throw a zebra cowhide rug in the middle of the room, and you have NO idea how much better it is. Just this one little add, after 7 years of trying this and that and moving things around… it is like a new room. She was wowed. The same goes for getting dressed, I think. Grey cashmere sweater and jeans… becomes WOW with a python bag. White shirt and black pants… add a pair of those leopard shoes and double wow. And I did white jeans with that leopard sweater and felt pretty wow. So I am joining the chorus of designers who say this about interiors… when it comes to your personal exterior, a small bit of animal print might be just what you need. This season and always – I promise!