on the WILD SIDE Walk with the animals and step into fashion


We were a group of schoolgirls giggling over boys and books. She was handed from the car by her driver. She was dressed in a fitted dark suit with leopard trim at collar and cuffs, and a neat leopard pillbox crowned sleek hair. Her handbag and pumps were of black crocodile,and the steps she took were measured by a longish, narrow skirt.

We gawked and understood -- here was elegance personified. Those sophisticated touches of leopard, which age and expense denied to us, made the look. We hoped that time and fortune would bring us there.

Many decades passed, and that image fell out of fashion, but today a new generation of designers has rediscovered the appeal of animal prints. They're back. Leopard, tiger, cheetah, ocelot, zebra and giraffe are fashionably, ecologically and politically correct again now that these precious creatures are protected and give up only their coat patterns.

Today, the elegant woman can slip into a classic fitted suit with a longish, narrow skirt and accessorize with a smart leopard print beret, a tailored leopard bag or spotted suede pumps. Thank you Adrienne Vittadini, Calvin Klein, Christian Dior et al.

It's about time. Animal prints have suffered, unfairly, from a spotty reputation over the years. They survived mostly as a staple of naughty underwear catalogs and questionable bachelor-pad upholstery. Some early fabrications of fake fur in the '50s led to a run on leopard "glamour" coats which were never accepted by the truly tasteful. They ended up molting in thrift shops because the fashion world was just plain prejudiced against the wild world. Animal spots were fine for Zsa Zsa, Fred Flintstone and Peg Bundy, but not for the woman of style.

This fall designers great and small have reinvented wildness -- from Calvin Klein's refined accessories and Marc Jacobs' total jungle abandon to no-name manufacturers of funky junior wear.

But with stores hot on the jungle trail, it's wise to pull back and think before taking the leap into leopard-skin.

* For maximum fashion mileage, it's best to pair animal prints with neutrals, a natural way to go because blacks, browns and greys are dominant colors this season. Basic black is a good and obvious choice, but off shades of brown such as cream, taupe or khaki can work well with the warmer cat patterns.

To determine the dominant color in a print, squint until the pattern becomes a blur. The color that emerges is the one to match.

* The scale of the print is important. Think of leopard, ocelot and cheetah spots as natural polka dots. If you shy away from oversize dots in other fabrics, apply the same sensibility to natural designs. By the same measure, handsome black and white zebra patterns are nothing more than a large stripe. Be careful how they run -- horizontal directions will add weight in undesirable places.

* Jungle patterns make a strong statement, so the woman who doesn't want to be overpowered by a trend should keep animal motifs down to accessories. A belt, scarf or hatband may be all the jungle feeling she needs.

* Stick to the big cat patterns because they tend to be the best survivors in the fashion jungle. By deep winter, the reptiles will probably be holed up in the closet with last year's patchwork plaid jackets.

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