I nearly fainted in Beauchamp Place the other night. One moment we were walking along, perfectly normally, and the next moment I glanced into the window of the Caroline Charles shop and the blood rushed to my head.There, in the plain display which belies great expanse, was the ultimate object of desire: stiletto-heeled ankle boots with panels of leopardskin - pounds 195 worth. Just the thing for a girl's stockings this Christmas.

The thing about these gorgeous creations is that they combine two objects of fantasy: a hoary old favourite and a very Nineties one. A pair of drop- dead sexy shoes gets many people's blood pumping, and the wonderful release of being able to wear animal pelts again without fear of paint-bombs is heady stuff.

The streets are currently littered with animal skins: you can hardly move for acrylic zebras, viscose tigers, wool-mix astrakhan, man-made mink and the ubiquitous leopard print. Hennes does a lovely velveteen photoprinted jersey for pounds 14.99. There isn't a chain store worth its salt that doesn't carry a line in death-free bucket bags. And in several of the Emporia of Mayfair and Knightsbridge you can even buy a sofa which yearns for the savannah.

The explosion of leopardskin accessories has put a new complexion on the fur debate. Despite everything - despite hectoring, despite spoilt pop-stars making bonfires of coats, despite Naomi Campbell - we still want to dress in animal skins. Fur is it.

I think the reasons run deep. I have to admit to having owned two real fur coats in my life. One set of beaver lambs died for the pleasure of my grandmother, who probably wasn't, in the Fifties, thinking too hard about animal welfare. The other was a mink I bought in Oxfam for a fiver. Please don't send me firebombs, but I really loved those coats. They were warm, they were gorgeous to touch and they brought a bit of glamour to studenthood.

These are some of the reasons why women have flung themselves on the new alternatives to fur. First, the anti-fur lobby have got it wrong if they really think that people particularly want to wear big cats. What they want is to be big cats. In a world of awkwardness and rule-following, big cats hold out the promise of sleekness, grace, playfulness and, well, the feline qualities. Ask most people what animal they would most like to be, and they would come up with some form of cat. And then again, they feel lovely. The next best thing to stroking a cat is stroking a fake cat-fur coat. Also, when all's said and done, they do represent a fantasy. Most women want to pretend, just for a bit, that they're rich bitches as they head from thankless job to Lean Cuisine.

And there's something even deeper than all that: something so primitive that many urban societies don't want to look it squarely in the face. We're still cave people underneath. Women divide into two types on this. Some want to prove that their man is brave enough and a good enough provider to even bring a sabre-toothed tiger home for her. Or a at least a mill- loomed sabre-toothed tiger. And the rest of us? Well, we just want to look as though we can kill one ourselves.