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The lion, the fish and the wardrobe; From belts to bedding, have a whale of a good time with critter motifs

Not all critters are created equal: Dogs and waterfowl are popular, but cats barely make it onto the radar -- at least when it comes to animals featured on the preppy clothes and accessories that seem synonymous with spring.

You also can't go wrong with a whale or crab; girls love their ponies and butterflies; and boys have a thing for sharks.

This is the season animal friends come out of hibernation and land on belts, bags, polos, chinos, bathing suits, flip-flops and anything else in your closet where an embroidered turtle or fish can be placed.

Other motifs work, too, especially easily shrunken flags, sailboats and palm trees, according to Shep and Ian Murray, the brothers who founded the Vineyard Vines brand that even makes fishbone-decorated collars for dogs.

The best critter candidates are things that have a defined silhouette, explains Jim Hauptman, director of design for L.L. Bean. A sea horse, for example, isn't an animal with a huge, passionate following, but it does really well as an embroidery because it's instantly recognizable from its shape and it can be done in many color combinations. Whales work for the same reason -- there's really no expectation of realism.

Brown and black bears, however, which would seem natural for an outdoorsy brand, are tough because the embroidery can only get down to a certain level of detail. "Bears end up looking like blobs," Hauptman said. A panda is the exception to the bear rule because of its definitive coloring, he adds.

Color can't be underestimated, said Shep Murray. Brights draw in critter fans, while traditional colors, such as navy, khaki and white, suit those less adventurous.

"We find if we put a fish on khaki shorts -- with the simple outline of a navy fish -- most guys will wear it. You can get those people a little less likely to wear a critter to wear it if you don't color it so brightly," he said, "but the guy who is a 'total prep' wants it pink and green."

In the Buffalo area, wildlife of various sorts can be found.

"We do especially well with preppy themes -- whales, lobsters and crabs -- on belts and ties," said Ethan Huber of O'Connell's Clothing, at 3240 Main St., near the University at Buffalo's South Campus.

In spring, colorful critters -- including pink elephants -- also come alive on items such as needlepoint belts and key fobs, he said.

Elsewhere, you'll find seasonal critters for the home as well, including By-the-Sea percale bedding and printed cotton rugs from Garnet Hill (garnethill.com) featuring minnows or lobsters.

Afonso Sugiyama, president of Havaianas, a shoe brand best known for its themed flip-flops, has a theory that shoppers start with more basic colors, then move to bold ones, then ease themselves into mixing patterns with really wild hues.

"It's the search for something to express your feelings," he said.

With flip-flops, you can go for the fruit pattern or peacock-feather print while keeping it mostly hidden because the foot will cover the bulk of it. But, Sugiyama said, it's the woman or girl who wears those that will eventually graduate to embellished straps or seek out glow-in-the-dark designs.

Most customers want a tropical motif as the season shifts to summer, he said, but nature-inspired and exotic patterns like tribal prints are consistently popular.

Owls were all the rage at L.L. Bean during the height of the "Harry Potter" craze, and small woodland animals such as chipmunks were part of an enchanted-forest collection a few years ago, Hauptman said.

Vineyard Vines is launching a new Kentucky Derby line this season, so expect a lot of ponies, horseshoes and mint julep patterns.

"We're putting horses on everything," said Shep Murray, "which is not typical for us, but there are horse people, like dog people and fish people."

He said he's going to revisit cats at some point, since he personally is a cat person, but, again, it's the issue of shape and color.

Ian Murray said he thinks wearers are generally more loyal to their interests and favorite animals than they are to fashion trends. Classic silhouettes really complement the most loved critters, he said.

"If we have something new, it will sell best, but year after year, there are the standbys. And while something like whales may not seem like they'd be popular at Christmas -- you put a Santa hat on him, or on St. Patrick's Day do a whale with a shamrock tail, and it's a sales boom," he said.

Regionally, New Englanders are partial to golden retrievers, boats and bluefish, while Floridians prefer flamingos, marlins, sailfish and palm trees, Ian Murray said. Midwesterners like anything that reminds them of a vacation, he added, so the beach motifs do well there.

Animals are cheerful, lighthearted and rarely worn to the office -- they remind people to have some fun with their wardrobe, Ian Murray said.

And, adds Shep Murray, they're conversation starters, telling you a little bit about whom you are talking to even before the first word comes out.

But you don't want to scream "critter," either.

"I don't know about mixing and matching critters. You should pick one for your outfit. The scale is very small and subdued ... even if it's an all-over print. Have fun but don't make too big a statement with it," Hauptman advised. "The beauty of the critter is the subtlety. You sort of have to be talking to someone to notice. You shouldn't see critters from across the room."

News Home & Style editor Susan Martin contributed to this report.

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