The roar power of leopard print
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Leopard print. It’s complicated. Just on the male side of things, the cultural payload is heavy. I think of it like one of those very elaborate fragrances with top notes of Tarzan and Brian Eno, heart notes of Rod Stewart in his high-camp pomp and base notes of cultural appropriation.
It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway: for a long time it has been about the print rather than the leopard. The idea of killing a big cat, skinning it and then wearing the pelt is so anachronistic and unsettling as to make pictures of Lady Docker sorting through skins for upholstering and trimming the interior of her Daimler, or Anne Bancroft seducing the young Dustin Hoffman in a fur coat that just happens to be falling off her shoulders, seem almost antediluvian. If it comes to mind at all today, it is via the contextualised safety of a piece of period television, like smoking in the offices of Mad Men.
And yet, rather like the oxymoronic existence of “vegan chicken”, the enduring popularity of leopard print shows that wearing even a facsimile still packs a punch. The motif is in fashion again, as seen at Jil Sander, Versace or Dior. But to say that is to suggest that there are times when it is out of fashion – and leopard print never really goes away. It is always there hovering, or should I say prowling, waiting to pounce on the catwalk; and, thanks to the get-out-of-jail‑free card that you are “dressing with irony”, it is never wrong.
The staying power of leopard resides in its versatility – its split personality, in fact. It has the capacity to make diametrically opposed statements, something that I discovered when I was at boarding school. We used to muster outside our boarding houses around 1pm for lunch parade and then march to the hangar-sized dining hall to the strains of a military-style band in which the drummers used to wear leopard-skin aprons, which they slipped like a poncho over the head – I suppose tabard is a more accurate description of the style.
I had nothing against the band but, nevertheless, I was keen to set myself apart from what I saw as establishment orthodoxy, and one of the ways in which I did so was with leopard print too. Instead of the aprons, though, I opted for blue leopard-print drainpipe jeans, which I accessorised with a studded belt and blue baseball boots, topped with a pink string vest. (If I recall, there was a sleeveless leather jerkin festooned with chains and studs involved as well.) As teenage badassery went, even by the strange standards of the time, this was a strong look. Or so my teenage self thought.
And therein lies the appeal, which is the same whether you are the cougar Mrs Robinson or the military drummer clobbering the sides of the big bass drum harnessed to your taxidermied tabard: this print is a talisman of strength. Whether it is a yodelling Tarzan beating his fists gorilla-style on his ribcage (while preserving his modesty with a leopard-skin loincloth), or the circus strongman with handlebar moustache, barbells and pre-Borat mankini in leopard print, the circumstantial anthropological evidence still suggests that by wearing its pelt we imbibe the animal’s characteristics. And it’s a sufficiently strong impression to survive the transition from real fur to fake.
Perhaps the merest glimpse of black spots against a golden backdrop, even on a nylon shirt, is sufficient to awaken long-dormant hunter-gatherer memories. Maybe there is some leftover belief buried deep, deep in the limbic brain that tells us that by wearing the big cat, even in the mediated form of a Tom Ford tuxedo, a Dior bomber and beret or a Dolce overcoat, we will somehow acquire the grace, speed, power and virility of the leopard. That, and even if it doesn’t impart the sleek magnificence of an apex predator, a splash of this print is guaranteed to cheer you up.
Model, James Porter at Chapter. Casting, Keva Legault. Hair, Maki Tanaka using Bouclème. Make-up, Kazuhiro Takenaka using Boy de Chanel. Set design, Gemma Geraghty. Photographer’s assistant, Tom Ortiz. Stylist’s assistant, Timothy Brooks