Sartorially speaking, I’m something of a minimalist. I love fashion. I love clothes. I love admiring the peacocks who strut down the streets of New York City, where I live. But when it comes to my own personal style, I find understatement most compelling. In a city where conveying one’s taste can seem the most important pastime, there’s something gratifying (even subversive) about conveying almost nothing at all. If I could, I would wear a white T-shirt and jeans every day. If it’s the It Bag, I don’t want it. When picking out my engagement ring, I may have been the first woman to select the smallest diamond infinity band in the place, and then ask, “Do you have anything smaller?”
All of which makes my recent fetish for leopard prints deeply incongruous. It started innocently enough, six years ago, with a cardigan from J.Crew. Perhaps I pulled the trigger because, well, it was J.Crew. Buying leopard print there isn’t the same as buying leopard print from, say, Versace; it’s a toe dip, not a swan dive. Or maybe I was in particular need of some flair. I was working at the foreign news desk of The New York Times, and the subject matter—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—was serious to say the least. When I wore the cardigan to the office, over a demure button-up, a female editor perked up from her computer. “Nice sweater!” she said. (It was then that I first took note of a pillow hanging on her cubicle wall. It read: “Life is short. Buy the shoes.”)
In a year’s time I would ramp it up with a leopard clutch from A.P.C., followed six months later by a pair of Dieppa Restrepo leopard loafers. This progressed, naturally, to a desire for something more bold: a leopard coat. Having missed the boat on the Isabel Marant gem of a few seasons ago, I decided mine would have to be vintage. This is a tall order, it turns out. If it had the right cut, the faux fur was too long. If the fur was the right length, the collar was too ’50s.
Then, one day last fall, I found my coat. It was by Emerson Fry, a designer with an eponymous line of relaxed, sophisticated clothes, and it was linen—which felt like an idiosyncratic choice. The cut was simple, almost that of an oversize blazer, falling to the mid-thigh. The linen was heavy and substantial, so that the coat kept its shape and did not wrinkle. The spots were just right. With a thin, black cotton T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans, it felt nonchalant, chic.
I first wore it on a Friday. It was when I ordered my usual morning coffee, from the same barista who’d served me every day for the previous two years, that I first noticed what might be called the Leopard Effect. As I pulled out my wallet, he smiled and held up a hand. “It’s on the house today,” he said, inexplicably. That’s just how it is, I would learn, when you’re wearing a leopard coat. There were looks on the street, on the subway and in the elevator at work.
Does it take a certain kind of person to wear leopard, or does wearing leopard transform you into a certain kind of person? I’m inclined to say it’s a little of the former, and a lot of the latter. The leopard coat might be an analogue of the “famous blue raincoat” Leonard Cohen sang of. That coat, Cohen once told a radio interviewer, is “the opposite of a cloak of invisibility, the garment that would lead you into marvelous adventures.”
Lizzie Garrett Mettler, founder of the blog Tomboy Style, echoes this point. “It adds a pinch of adventure,” she says. My creative director friend Gillian Schwartz goes further. “When you wear leopard, you become the cat,” she says.
Both Gillian and Lizzie, like me, find the need to offset the effect. “I tend to temper my leopard coat with something masculine—brogues, woodsman gloves,” Gillian says. “I’m not sure if that intensifies or dilutes the meow factor.” Lizzie wears leopard only in small doses. “Shoes and belts are my mainstays,” she says. “Worn with neutrals or solids so people around me don’t need to pop a Dramamine.”
This past spring, Gillian and I were in La Jolla, California, for a mutual friend’s wedding. Having planned to walk together to a pre-wedding event, we emerged from our respective hotel rooms, both in leopard coats. We contemplated whether one of us should change—double leopard, we knew, would be double trouble—but decided against it.
When two women wearing leopard coats walk into a room, they elicit amused, slightly confused looks. Everyone does a double take.
Our evening of marked conspicuousness wound down in the lobby bar of our seaside hotel. It was late, and the place was nearly empty. An elderly gentleman in a navy blazer with gold buttons got up from the bar and began to make his way toward the door. As he passed our dark, wood-paneled booth, he said, without looking up, “Good night, leopards.”