Animal print has long been a staple of the fashion industry and interior design – from accenting “Out of Africa” inspired linens and dungarees to a rock-and-roll-inspired edginess that transcends street wear today. As a southern girl, I grew up with a little bit of animal print in every room. It’s the equivalent of “bling” for the home – just a dab’ll do ya! It slowly worked its way into my wardrobe – first as a thin and demure belt punctuating an all black trouser and turtleneck look in my 20s, to a ladylike blouse under a suit to spice up my 30-something business attire. I’m now at a stage of full-on embracing it, with 14 (yes, 14) pair of animal print shoes in my closet… and counting. Add to this two pair of leopard pants, numerous blouses, a couple jackets, dresses, skirts, and scarves, and it’s a veritable jungle fever in my closet. Oh and I forgot to mention the purses.

So what brought animal print from it’s sassy spot as an accent or accessory, into it full blown own? From that simple skinny belt or hidden lining to a jacket, to the centerpiece of a wardrobe and all the pieces…? All hail Queen of the Jungle Jenna Lyons and her 2013 quote heard round the world, declaring leopard a neutral and bringing it mainstream via JCrew’s mass market. Countless fashion blogs beyond this one, have defended its place among the black, tan, and grey (see below). But what makes it a neutral? I’ve paired it with houndstooth plaid, with floral, with other neutrals like black, grey, ivory, tan, and to balance a bold pop of color like red or emerald. I think it’s the sum of the parts – a neutral background – usually beige or camel – and neutral colored markings – black or chocolate brown. The eye sees these colors as a whole, and balances other color and pattern accordingly.

Embracing the call of the wild takes a little courage, a little panache, and a lot of style. There’s a fine line between Donatella Versace and Peg Bundy, and you don’t want to cross it. Keep the lines classic and let the pattern go wild. Pay attention to color waves that complement or contrast (remember the color wheel in 3rd grade art class?). And don’t be afraid to layer – pattern on pattern is on trend this fall, and can take a look from limp to luxe.

Whether you’re in your comfort zone with a simple cheetah kitten heel, or rocking an over the knee pony hair boot and leopard swing coat – remember that this fashion leopard CAN change its spots – and often does, depending on how you wear it. So what say you? IS cheetah the new black? Or leopard? Or ocelot? Let us know your stance… and happy hunting!