Animal prints are fashion's plat du jour right now. From the high street to haute couture, boots, bags, coats, dresses are sporting spots and stripes this season. Take a look at the front cover of January's edition of fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar and you'll see what we mean – not only is the model suitably be-spotted but she's also holding a leopard cub. Fashion brand Cartier has dispensed with the model completely; in its advertisements a leopard cub sits alone among leather jewellery boxes.
Where fashion leads, interior design follows. Sales of animal prints for homes are booming. "We are seeing catwalk trends increasingly translate through to interior design, and animal print is a key trend our customers are buying into this season," says John Lewis assistant buyer Holly Birtchnell. "There's been a surge in sales across furniture and home accessories – sales of our leopard print cushions are up 112 per cent compared with last season."
Zebra prints, faux leopard fur, reindeer hides and sheepskin rugs are also making their mark: Debenhams' Star collection by Julien Macdonald sees cheetah print across throws and cushions, House of Fraser has a faux leopard-skin light shade, at M&S you can pick up cowhide rugs, and pay a visit to Next if you're looking for a zebra-print chest of drawers.
Clearly, if going wild is your thing, this is the season for you. But the challenge in the home as on the catwalk is to achieve a look that's sophisticated not slutty – think Out of Africa rather than an Austin Powers Seventies-style shag pad.
According to interior designer Joanna Wood, the secret is to start small. "I love zebra, but it can be a bit too large-scale sometimes. Leopard print is design-friendly and instantly recognisable," she says.
As a general rule, animal prints work best as accents – on cushions, throws, rugs or smaller details such as lampshades. It's probably best to avoid using these prints on larger pieces of furniture such as sofas and cabinets. Apart from anything else, these are investment pieces that should last for many years and a leopard-print sofa is much more likely to date than a cream linen version.
"I would never use leopard print for sofas – they are way too big. Even leopards aren't made that size. Covering a pair of footstools would look much more stylish and elegant in a living room," says Wood.
It's also easiest to use prints in interiors that have a simple colour palette. Used well, animal prints can save a neutral scheme from being dull. If you have a pale sofa, for example, a selection of animal-print cushions in different fabrics such as silk, leather and faux fur will not only add visual interest and a tactile element but will impart a real sense of cosiness, too. Try Debenhams' faux cheetah fur throws, £100, and cushions, £25 (www.debenhams.com, 0844 561 6161) or Next for faux fur leopard-print cushions.
If you're feeling adventurous and want to play with colour, consider using animal prints on fabric or wallpaper. "I love wallpapers and fabrics in leopard print, and choosing a paper in green and magenta rather than the natural colours is a fun option in a room," says Wood. Wallpaperandborders.co.uk has a wide selection of animal-print papers.
In bedrooms, a leopard-print throw or cushions on the bed definitely ups the sex factor, or for a more subtle approach try Marks and Spencer's "animal sequin" bedspread from £69 (www.marksandspencer.com, 0845 302 1234). Less is definitely more here, though. Unless you're aiming to create a Bet Lynch-meets-brothel effect, limit the animal print to accents and keep other colours in the room in neutral shades.
If all this sounds a bit OTT, you can restrict your animal-print urges to the dining table. Lolita leopard spotted wine glasses, £16, from John Lewis (www.johnlewis.com, 0845 604 9049), are an easy way to brighten up a party, as are Joanna Wood's Zenaba platters, from £68 (www.joannawood.co.uk; 020-7730 5064).
Along with prints, animal hides are making a fashion statement at the moment, too. Sheepskin, zebra, cow and reindeer hide are all in evidence in stores. Sheepskin is probably the easiest of these to live with. Cosy, warm and soft under foot, it's a great option for bedrooms or throw it over a sofa for extra warmth. Reindeer hides also work well as sofa throws: they're very tactile (it's almost impossible to resist running your hands over them). Zebra and cowhides make a bigger statement – try them as cushions first if you're not sure how they'll work.
Michael D'Souza, founder of Notting Hill interiors store Mufti, says hides work best in simple, clean and uncluttered schemes and for a dramatic statement he recommends a full zebra hide. "It's effective and impactful," he says. "A cowhide can work well, too, but is more neutral."
D'Souza says hides are a great investment. "Hides are natural and timeless, and, if anything, they become more tactile with age and wear and tear. Also, every hide is individual and most are soothing on the eye as they tend to have muted, natural earth tones."
Try Mufti (www.mufti.co.uk, 020-7243 4444) or Next (www.next.co.uk, 0844 844 8939) for zebra-hide rugs, Toast (www.toast.co.uk, 0844 557 0460) for reindeer and sheepskin hides, London Cows (www.londoncows.co.uk, 0785 822 2841) for cowhide cushions and more – cowhide chaise longue anyone? – and the Rug Company (www.therugcompany.info, 020-7229 5148) or Marks and Spencer (www.marksandspencer.com, 0845 302 1234) for cowhide rugs.
For those of you for whom animal prints are a step too far into the interior design jungle, velvet is a good alternative.
You can start small. Velvet curtains keep out draughts and add a real touch of glamour to a room (www.naturalcurtaincompany.co.uk, 0845 500 0400). Velvet cushions are tactile and sumptuous (try Heals, www.heals.co.uk, 0870 024 0780).
But larger items like sofas look great in velvet, too. Choose shades such as ink, purple, teal or black for a discreetly sophisticated vibe; green, hot pink, silver or citrus yellow for a contemporary feel. Velvet works on traditional shapes – a chaise longue or gentleman's club-style sofa – but also makes an impact on modern styles. Try John Lewis (www.johnlewis. com, 0845 604 9049) and Sofa Workshop (www.sofaworkshop.com, 0844 249 9161) for more traditional pieces, and Ligne Roset (www.ligne-roset.co.uk, 0870 777 7202) for contemporary styles.
If you're after a really plush and opulent effect, take velvet into the bedroom. Cover a headboard in velvet, add a colourful throw or cushions and transform it from a humble sleeping space to boudoir.