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Mim holds up the pink baby tee with the word slut emblazoned on the front in twirly, frilly sky-blue letters and declares it the perfect gift for third-graders trying to establish a distinctive sense of style. Her upbeat tone is relaxed and familiar despite the television crew that�s following her around. The director zooms in on her smiling face as she unselfconsciously hands the tee to the salesclerk of the small NoLita boutique. The image is grainy and stylized and every so often it jumps to a wide shot before lurching back to a close-up, but Mim is unaffected by the frenzied camerawork. Wearing her usual uniform -- Sigerson Morrison flats, Chanel slacks and a crisp white shirt from Ungaro or Prada -- and sporting her customary loose French twist, she seems like typical Mim, archetypal Mim, the Mim you hold up in front of the class as a prime example of standard-issue Mimness. But something is wrong: You don�t give slut-emblazoned T-shirts to girls in elementary school.
While the saleswoman wraps the present in vibrant yellow paper, Mim explains that the slut trend is going to be huge in the coming year. The hip-hop beat that has played with quiet menace throughout the entire segment stops with a comical screech but Mim, unaware of what will happen in postproduction, chats blithely on with her host.
�Lunch boxes, notebooks, pencil cases, stickers, backpacks,� she says as she puts the present, now topped with a pretty pink bow, in her Kate Spade tote. �This is going to be the year that slut merchandising finally breaks through.�
The camera jumps to the next scene, which is equally disastrous -- Mim in the Metropolitan Museum of Art gift shop picking out a reproduction twelfth-century samurai sword for ten-year-old Timmy. The sword, sharp enough to slice effortlessly through a sheath of silk as Mim proudly demonstrates with her own Herm�s scarf, will no doubt make Timmy a superhero in the schoolyard.
�It�s fun but educational,� Mim says to a nodding, confused Harmony Cortez. �It�s never too early for men to learn about honor. The samurai lived by a strict chivalric code called Bushido -- that�s b-u-s-h-i-d-o for those taking notes at home -- which valued honor above life. It�s a worthy goal for everyone.�
Harmony Cortez is a well-known clothing designer. She has a weekly cable television show on which she does fun, off-beat things with her celebrity guests. This year for her holiday special she gathered several of New York�s shopping elite -- the editor in chief of Lucky, the creative director of Barney�s -- and gave them each a portion of her Christmas list. Mim got the nieces and nephews. When she�d been invited on to the show two weeks before, her shopping assignment had seemed like a solid idea. Mim has her own pair of young nieces who can always depend on getting something chic from Bergdorf�s juniors� department. But now the adventure seemed like a disaster.
Mim Warner is known for two things: her unquestionable good taste and the eerie way she can predict the future. As one of the most successful coolhunters in the business -- some would say the most successful -- people rely on her for a clear picture of what�s coming next.
Calling trends is Mim�s thing, and she�s never gotten one wrong: the great Hush Puppy revival of �96, the celebrated tattooing craze of the early zeros, the illustrious terry-cloth fad of �03. She sees what�s coming next so clearly that it sometimes seems as if she lives sixteen months in the future and beams back her image to the present in holographic form. Run your hand over her arm and you�re almost surprised that your fingers don�t pass right through her.
For almost fifteen years, Mim Warner has been at the top of her game -- ever since she broke through with the Potter hightop. She�d been hired by the ailing sneaker company to answer phones for the marketing director, but within a year she�d reinvented the brand. It wasn�t intentional. Mim only took the job to make enough money to return to Asia, where she�d been bouncing around since college. Her life savings finally ran out in the middle of the Gobi Desert -- somewhere near Gurvansaikhan National Park in Mongolia -- forcing her to wire her parents for the airfare home. The plan was simple: Work hard, live cheaply, hop a plane to Bangkok as soon as she had enough cash to cover the flight and several months� worth of pad thai. But then she noticed that the kids at the pizza parlor where she picked up dinner every night were wearing bulky sneakers with thick rubber soles. Potter had a similar model -- the Kong -- which it was in the process of phasing out. Mim, in a flash of intuition that�s become her trademark, realized this was a terrible mistake. Wrestling shoes had been huge for more than a year, but their run was almost over. Teens, tired of the exaggerated sleekness, were looking for something a little unwieldy. That�s what she saw coming -- the backlash against the odd compact daintiness of the wrestling shoe.
Her plans to travel deferred indefinitely, Mim stayed another year at Potter. She struck gold a second time with its square-toed tennis sneaker but decided against heading up the development department. Instead, she hooked up with a friend who had start-up cash and an MBA and opened Pravda, a youth-focused research service that predicts what consumers will be buying in a few months.
Under Mim�s watchful stewardship, Pravda has flourished. The steady and inexorable rise of youth culture -- the way lust for the teenage dollar dictates most of our consumer choices -- has created a thirst for the kind of information Mim provides. She makes it look effortless, but it�s not. Knowing what to watch for and understanding what you�re seeing -- it�s actually pretty tricky. Sometimes there�s only a hairbreadth between one person�s idiosyncratic taste and the next revolution in embryonic stage. This is the void that Mim stares into every day without flinching.
Or so we all thought.
I arrive at the office to what has become a familiar scene -- all four junior employees of Pravda gathered around Josh�s desk with the New York Times spread open before them.
I drop my tote bag on my chair, walk over to the fridge, take out a can of Coke and lean against the edge of my desk as I flip open the tab.
�What�s the count today?� I ask before taking a sip.
Norah glances up. Her expression is somewhere between a frown and a smile -- a frile, maybe, or a smown. �Two. There are only two.�
�That�s good,� I say. �It�s tapering off.�
Josh turns to me with eyebrows drawn in violent, slashing lines. There�s no doubt about his look -- it�s a scowl, pure and simple. �Not friggin� fast enough. We lost another client this morning -- our fourth. I had the message on my voice mail. Modern Fife is breaking their contract and going back to Young and Younger,� he says, an angry sneer curling his upper lip. Josh can�t mention his former employer without some sort of extreme facial distortion. That he left the fellow trend-forecasting company of his own volition does nothing to soften his anger at the way they treated him.
Unlike Pravda, Young and Younger is a family firm. Josh had known this going in but since the oldest Younger was seven years his junior and still an undergrad, he didn�t worry about the detrimental effects nepotism would have on his career. He didn�t realize that as soon as Hildy Young Younger graduated with a 2.8 from Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, she would be given a corner office and the title of senior account manager. Josh, summa cum laude from Brown, tried to stick it out, but the first time Hildy asked him to fetch her a cup of coffee, he was on the phone with Mim discussing employment possibilities. Mim wasn�t looking to expand her staff, but they worked out a formula -- low base salary plus commission for new business -- that suited them both.
�Still, two is better than three,� I say reasonably. When Josh first started working here, I found him a little hard to take. Part of it was the condition of his employment -- that he didn�t start at the bottom as Mim�s assistant like the rest of us. I was used to being the only fully independent coolhunter in the house; Liz still has to run things by Mim. But it was also his attitude. Josh has been trend-forecasting as long as I have but he hasn�t lost his enthusiasm. Nothing had ever made him question the social usefulness of coolhunting, and he goes after things with an eagerness I used to feel. I think I was jealous.
Josh shakes his head at me now, impatient with my optimistic, glass-half-full rhetoric. As far as he�s concerned, there is no bright side. Perhaps, in the very beginning, Pravda might have been able to squeak through the Harmony Cortez debacle without too much damage. The show typically gets low ratings -- on average, less than a .25 share (around two hundred and fifty thousand viewers) -- and rarely receives mainstream attention. Unfortunately, though, one of the quarter-million viewers who caught the Christmas special that night was an outraged mom from Forrest Hills who had the home telephone number of the Times Metro editor (her husband�s cousin�s first wife). In a vitriolic op-ed piece, Lydia Williamson held Mim personally responsible for the country�s pedophilia problem.
The newswires picked up the story and repeated it over and over until even grandmothers in Edgeley, North Dakota, were raising their voices in shrill condemnation of Mim Warner. Disgusting pervert, depraved maniac, immoral corrupter -- Mim has been called everything in the last week.
Helen Souter wrote a letter to the op-ed pages supporting the sword (�an opportunity to teach children about history�), and the shirt (�a self-consciously ironic statement on today�s permissive culture�), but her defense of Mim only made matters worse. America wasn�t ready yet for porno kitsch, and when readers saw her title, �Chief Operating Officer, Pravda Inc.,� they sent in a fresh new flurry of letters condemning the judgment of Pravda�s entire staff. Helen�s big mistake was identifying herself as a member of the organization. Her opinion would have carried much more weight if she�d pretended to be a concerned citizen from Buffalo.
�Well, I think it�s a good sign,� Wendy says, brushing her auburn bangs out of her eyes. She�s long past due for a haircut but refuses to get one until she receives a much-deserved raise. Her one-year review is only five weeks away, and she�s confident she�ll be nicely compensated for her fortitude. Wendy is Helen�s first assistant to last a full year. It�s symptomatic of the position -- menial, demanding, isolated -- that its occupants rarely stay. The revolving door rotates so quickly that I usually don�t learn the name of the new employee until his or her four o�clock goodbye cake in the conference room. I only found out recently that Wendy is Canadian and performs stand-up comedy every Tuesday at the Comedy Cellar. �With Christmas two days away people finally have something better to worry about,� she says. �I bet there won�t even be a letter about Mim on tomorrow�s op-ed page.�
Josh sighs heavily. This is precisely the sort of upbeat thinking he�s been trying to squash for days. His co-workers just don�t get it -- Pravda is now the byword for sex and violence. That�s not something current and potential clients are likely to forget.
We all ignore Josh�s theatrics. He�s not the only one who�s had a tough week.
The elevator dings and Mim enters the office. She�s wearing wide brown sunglasses, a parti-colored scarf and a leather jacket she bought at a charity fashion auction last spring. Her cheeks are rosy from the chilly air, and her blond hair, usually tightly gathered in a sleek twist, is loose and windswept. The bracing weather has undermined her customarily pristine look, but it doesn�t matter -- even at her most disheveled, Mim�s still quite sheveled.
Seeing us huddled over the newspaper, she raises an eyebrow for the count.
�Two,� Norah says quickly. As Mim�s admin, she�s used to supplying all the answers.
�Only two?� she asks. There is disappointment in her voice, a tiny amount but detectable.
�Only two, but one is particularly vicious,� Norah says in a rush to offer consolation. �You were called a wicked degenerate by a man from North Salem. He says someone should take a samurai sword and Bushido you.�
Mim nods and then turns away with a cynical half smile. When the Harmony Cortez piece first aired -- on December 15, two days after the disastrous shopping segment was filmed -- Mim seemed as surprised as the rest of us by her performance. For two days she walked around the office with a mystified look on her face while her poor-judgment gaffe was turned into a major brouhaha by the national media. She didn�t talk about it to any of us, but we could all tell she was deeply disturbed and losing sleep. By day three, however, the disconcerted expression was gone, replaced by a cheerful outlook, and she announced soon after -- on morning number four, when six letters and articles about her appeared in the Times -- that all publicity was good publicity. Putting on a brave face is how Mim responds to all setbacks, but I was particularly impressed with how effortless she made it seem. Since then she�s been getting some perverse enjoyment out of her notoriety. She knows it will fade soon enough. Josh�s prediction, that Pravda will have to fold within two months, doesn�t worry her one bit. She knows we�re not going to lose four clients every week.
Norah straightens up, stretches her back and announces she has a ton of work to do. Mim, in the act of pouring coffee, nods and says she left some memos for her to type up.
Wendy, realizing playtime is over, makes dutiful noises. Liz also returns to her desk, but not before getting my attention and rolling her eyes at Josh�s back. Although she didn�t have the same adjustment issues with him as I did, Liz had her own list of grievances about Pravda�s new employee and many lunch hours were devoted to the scrutiny of his most irritating traits: the way he turns molehills into mountains, the way he makes up nicknames for his clients, the way he talks loudly on the phone, the way he chortles at his own jokes, the way he chortles. In recent months, the Josh bashing had tapered off completely and Liz had returned to her favorite lunchtime activity -- shopping -- but with this new spate of mountain building, her wardrobe is once again suffering. Women�s Wear Daily ran an article almost two weeks ago about the popularity of reindeer-skin Viking boots, but Liz is still wearing her mukluks.
Smiling at Liz, I swing around my desk, put my tote on the floor and sit down. I switch on my computer and wait for it to boot. Everyone has returned to the usual morning routine except Josh. His eyes are trained on Mim. Whatever she does -- takes the milk out of the fridge, opens the sugar, stirs her coffee -- he watches. He�s been like this for days. Sometimes it seems as if he�s afraid to let her out of his sight.
�He�s got to calm down,� Liz says softly to me a few minutes later as she reapplies lipstick in the bathroom mirror. Despite the out-of-date Uggs, she looks sleek and hip. Tall, boyish, thin -- Liz has the ideal shape for today�s fashions. I�m shorter and rounder. My frame is thicker, and although often draped in some seemingly unsuitable style -- lace, fringe, ruffles -- I always manage to pull it off with a sort of Mim-like elegance. �The way he stares all the time is starting to creep me out. He hardly ever blinks.�
The image this statement immediately brings to mind -- Liz watching Josh watching Mim -- is so absurd it makes me smile. I hide it by bending down to readjust my new Sven ankle boots.
Copyright � 2005 Lynn Messina