Sometimes in the afternoons, they would come to the filing cabinet across from his small beige-paneled cubicle, these fashion girls. This was the sliver of newsroom designated for them to lay out some accessories for upcoming shoots, the python-embossed leather belts and Dalmatian-print fingerless gloves, the diamond-flecked lavender jade earrings and quilted pastel Provençal scarves. They paid no regard to that guy with a weird hairdo and the wrong clothes, finally a straight guy in the office and of course he had to be totally undatable. They stood in front of him, swaying. The refreshing smell of citrus hung in the air.
A journeyman in the world of fashion, Peter Braunstein, 41, had found himself employed at Fairchild Publications, home of W magazine, the most culturally elitist and wealth-driven fashion magazine in the country and, consequently, the stomping ground of some of Manhattan’s most rarefied females. Once a well-regarded Ph.D. candidate in the history department at New York University, Braunstein had thrown over his thesis for the lesser rigors of journalism at W’s sister publication, the fashion-business trade paper Women’s Wear Daily. Braunstein was a media reporter. He was part of a team that reported on the time Gisele was carried into a Balenciaga show because she may have had food poisoning; provided a sneak peek of an all-fur issue of French Vogue, a shock because editor Carine Roitfeld’s only furs were a short Cerruti jacket and a Helmut Lang shearling; and chronicled André Leon Talley’s visit to a Persian nutritionist, who encouraged Talley to eat egg whites and strawberries for breakfast. In longer articles, he wrote sometimes of sexual politics, and these had some nice grace notes. A dispatch on men’s magazines began with a line from H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau—“Are we not men?” He was referring to manhood’s indeterminacy as displayed in titles like Maxim and GQ. He could have asked the same of himself.
The girls who used the filing cabinet in front of Braunstein were market-department girls. At a fashion magazine, the market department is not about creativity—it’s about shopping, and shopping is these girls’ lives. They are mental for clothes. On weekends, they go to Balenciaga to check out the new bags; they save up their meager salaries for what they are not gifted, like a new Louis Vuitton, and daydream about which style they’re going to get. Market is about satisfying the fashion department’s needs. When a stylist asks for topaz-colored slim-fit leather pants, these girls have to know who has the best ones, and these pants must arrive immediately, so that in a few days, a neat rack of 30 topaz pants stands in the closet for the stylist to peruse—and if Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar wants the same pants on the same day, a good market editor can muscle the publicist for first dibs. At Vogue, they say that Anna doesn’t care what you look like unless you’re in the fashion-market department, in which case you’d better look good.
So some days the market girls were working on bangles, and 30 glittering objects would appear on the cabinet; other days there were scarves, or bags, or shoes, and these were the happiest days—the lacy leather matador heels, ostrich-and-crocodile-trimmed snakeskin heels, leather kitten-heel pumps, velvet peep-toe slingbacks, all these size-9 beauties. The only time Braunstein saw better shoes was on one Woman in Market, a striking, brusque thirtysomething with bronzed skin, Dolce & Gabbana blouses, and a thick mane of hair that swung back and forth while she arranged the delicate soles on the countertop by height and color. This woman was dating a man who was a real man, a man who wore pressed oxford shirts and a Rolex on his hairy wrist. This woman only wore stilettos. It seemed like every day she had a new pair. A python with marabou feathers, the laces extending up her slender ankles to muscular thighs that disappeared under a Miu Miu wool miniskirt; patent-leather T-strap stilettos, red-painted toes poking out the front; velvet Christian Louboutin boots, the steely gray heels hitting the carpet with a dull thump as she approached.
It was the shoes that always got him.
Shoes have become the prevailing synecdoche for the powerful New York woman—sexually liberated, sharp, expensive, able to do all a man can do and in those shoes. In his dreams and now reality, Braunstein was surrounded by such women. He had no interest in the weak. Long before he became known as the “fire fiend,” his icons were Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, Jackie Onassis, Jane Fonda, any woman of the postwar era who struck a pose of stylish defiance of societal rank and file. Braunstein’s desire to subvert normative ideals and his taste for mainstream success were deeply in conflict. He had a crippling insecurity and an enormous sense of his own intellect, and was possessed of a desire to court the most powerful New York women and an equal, and then overwhelming, need to destroy them.