EARLY THIS YEAR, the buyers at Net-a-porter made an executive decision to clear the site of leopard prints for fall. The feline motif had become too ubiquitous, said fashion director Holli Rogers during a preview of its fall selection at the site's New York office. A clean slate seemed in order.
That spot-free plan, however, was dropped as Ms. Rogers and her team began to attend shows and visit designers' showrooms to see the fall collections. "When Burberry does leopard," remarked Ms. Rogers, "you can't ignore it." So they didn't. The site currently features loads of the pattern—from a Saint Laurent blouse for $1,990 to a Dolce & Gabbana iPhone case for $145.
Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said that leopard as a style statement dates back to 17th-century French aristocrats. Christian Diorincluded leopard-print looks in his famed 1947 "New Look" collection. Yves Saint Laurent used the provocative print in the '80s; in the '90s, Dolce & Gabbana practically adopted the animal as its mascot.
Ms. Steele chalks up the last decade's feline fancy to a proliferation of leopard-print accessories, which let one apply a measured dose of the potentially potent stuff. "It's easy to add a little element of va-va-voom," she said.
But there is also just something about leopard that never fails to drive women (and men), well, wild. Witness the many dyed-in-the-spot fanatics, like Bergdorf Goodman women's fashion director Linda Fargo, shoe designer Charlotte Dellal and stylist Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele. (You'd be hard-pressed to find such ardor when it comes to, say, florals or camouflage.) Ms. Dellal wore leopard pumps with her wedding dress, without giving it a second thought. "I'm always obsessed. It's aclassique!" said Ms. de Dudzeele, who treasures her leopard coats from Azzedine Alaïa, Prada and Junya Watanabe. "It's like jeans and T-shirts."
"When you look at images of women who wore it, they were these great movie stars with a lot of mystique," Ms. Fargo said of leopard's deeply rooted appeal. Still, high glamour is only one role that leopard plays. It's the Meryl Streep of trends. It can suit a rock chick's rebellion; it can be hippie, high-end or hip-hop. Small wonder these spots stubbornly refuse to fade.
New York-based designer Phillip Lim, who paired leopard with bad-girl black leather this season, said he thought the print imbued women with a certain confidence. Since it's so beloved, he always feels confident putting it on store racks. "My sales team tells me they can never get enough of it for every season," he said.