Back in 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart took an old colloquial expression and turned it into a one of the most famous phrases ever uttered from the bench when he failed at specifically defining his threshold test for obscenity, but claimed, “I know it when I see it.” That’s sort of exactly the way I feel about style.
I love fashion—reading about it, looking at photographs and catalogs, admiring ladies and gents who pass by on the street, collecting handbags and antique jewelry, and shopping for as much as my closets will hold. I can’t quite define my idea of style, but I always think I know it when I see it.
I write crime novels. I was a prosecutor in Manhattan for 30 years, during which time I was exposed to a dark underbelly of the naked city. When I started to pen murder mysteries, I chose to set each one in some sort of landmark location, which I then layered back to reveal a crime scene. There actually had been, after all, a homicide at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1980—a violinist killed backstage, in between acts, during a performance of the Berlin Ballet. And it’s true that in the tunnels beneath Grand Central—originally built as the centerpiece of an underground metropolis called Terminal City—there are hundreds of homeless people, known as moles, who populate the deserted infrastructure. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to use real sites as fictional crime scenes.
Killer Look is the 18th novel in my series, which features Manhattan Special Victims’ prosecutor Alex Cooper and her lover, NYPD homicide detective Mike Chapman. This time, I wanted to explore the part of the city known as the Garment District, one square mile of real estate that helped secure New York City’s claim as America’s “fashion capital.” The district was once famed for its dense concentration of manufacturing and production—much of which has now been outsourced to cheaper markets overseas—although it remains home to many showrooms and executive offices.
I am meticulous about the research that goes into my story-telling. My career in the law keeps me up to speed on legal decisions and cutting-edge forensics. My fashion instincts are purely amateur, so I began by clipping articles by writers who nailed the industry itself as well as the runway looks they often featured. Vanessa Friedman and Nicholas Coleridge and Kate Betts unknowingly gave me angles, ideas, and plot twists. WWD and all the world’s Vogues and the Wall Street Journal’s business pages were full of motives for murder, both in ready-to-wear and thanks to the surprising global trends in haute couture.
Then it was time for more in-depth research, so I cut right to the chase. My favorite form of serious scholarship is the insider interview, if one is lucky enough to get to make the right contact. I have enjoyed a long friendship with Fern Mallis. Known to many as the former executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Fern created New York Fashion Week as we know it today.
Nailing the brilliant fashionista down for a luncheon date to get to the heart of the business was tough, but once we sat down at the table (at Fred’s, in Barney’s, of course), it was like having a lecture delivered to a freshman philosophy student by the head of the university’s department. I asked one or two questions about whether there were any nefarious goings-on in the industry that could work their way into a mystery, and before our salads hit the table, Fern helped me fill a Moleskine with enough facts for an entire mini-series of cut-throat designer misdeeds.
I didn’t want my entry to be another thriller featuring a model who is assaulted during a photo shoot or felled by a date-rape drug. I had seen enough of that in my prosecutorial days. I wanted to show that this glamorous fashion world that is based on fantasy and illusion fronts a business that is now valued at close to four trillion dollars worldwide. The mechanics of getting a product from the drawing board to the factory to the catwalk to the showroom to the retail outlet is as difficult to manage as the most rough-and-tumble kind of enterprise. Fern helped me find my way through the maze, and gave me the confidence to write as though I’d been born with a miniature polo pony stamped on my chest.
Then it comes down to how to kill someone. Eighteen books into Coop’s capers, my fictional victims have come to the end of the road in a great variety of ways. Shootings, stabbings, drownings, defenestration, and the full variety of what a medical examiner sees in the morgue have all been tested in my narrative pages. For some guidance in this direction, I reached out to my favorite retired NYPD lieutenant, Jimmy West. I didn’t expect an immediate answer when I asked, “What’s new?” in the homicide squad, but I got one. Jimmy had an idea about how to stage the perfect murder—too much of a spoiler for me to tell you here.
One of the more difficult aspects of focusing the action in the Garment District is how greatly it has shrunk in the last two decades. Its dramatic growth was originally made possible in the 1850s with the invention of the sewing machine and the practicality of the mass production of clothing. I’d long thought the original impact of that timing was a result of the Civil War, and the fact that soldiers’ uniforms for both the blue and gray put the tiny patch of real estate on the map. Again, my research turned up an ugly fact. The Garment District was established because Southern plantation owners realized that it was cheaper to have slave uniforms manufactured in New York than hand-sewn by the workers themselves. Cotton was picked by slaves and shipped north to be turned into the clothes they wore in houses and in the fields. The slave trade gave the Garment District its first success.
My search for related territory led me to a few obvious locations. Fashion Week has outgrown the tented area of Bryant Park, with a mushrooming number of events and venues all over town. The 31,000-piece collection of what was once called the Costume Institute has now become the Anna Wintour Costume Center, a wing of the great Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And really, how could there be any book about fashion without working Ms. Wintour’s name into the story? That collection—and the Met’s spectacular Temple of Dendur (think of a model who can “Walk like an Egytptian”)—made it simple to transition the murderous action from Fashion Avenue in the West 30s to the Upper East Side.
It was great fun to live in a fictional world of such fashionable detail—from fabrics and zippers and the unique detail of buttons to the secrets kept by executive men and women whose talent and ambition drive a global industry. “I don’t design clothing,” Ralph Lauren once said. “I design dreams.”
A killer look is a lot like style. I can’t always define it, but I know it when I see it.