IN a large photography studio on the west side of Manhattan there are three tables. The first is groaning under the weight of next season's hot handbags: Marc Jacobs, Fendi, Chanel, Balenciaga. The second boasts 40 pairs of shoes, among them Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, lined up like little soldiers. The third is shining - it's covered in jewellery. Once you finish sizing up the tables, your eyes move to rolling racks beside them dripping coats, dresses, and furs by Gucci, Carolina Herrera, Balenciaga, Valentino and YSL. The place is not Disneyland, but if you love fashion, it feels like it.
Behind a small screen, a model waits half-naked for a moment, then slips into a Nina Ricci green feathered dress and jacket. Suddenly, Brana Wolf, the Australian stylist Forbes listed as one of the eight most powerful fashion editors in America; consultant to Versace, Michael Kors, Zac Posen and previously Louis Vuitton, stylist for advertising campaigns by Valentino and D&G; contributor to Italian Vogue; and editor-at-large at Harper's Bazaar US - the reason she is here - approaches the tables and scans the contents.
Clad in black with her brown hair pulled into a ponytail, her glasses slip on as she concentrates. She selects a pair of shoes, a bag, and delivers them to the model, who minutes later is photographed moving through a series of poses ranging from sexy to dreamy to fierce. Wolf, now watching each (digital) picture flash on to a screen, isn't quite satisfied.
"Can we get a fan?" she calls out. "The dress needs to be clipped at the back. She needs earrings," she says to herself and heads off to select them. Finally, after more than 100 shots, Wolf announces they have the picture. "It's sharp, it's confident, that's it."
After weeks of planning, involving viewing the northern autumn 2007 collections, meetings with Bazaar's editor-in-chief Glenda Bailey, selecting clothes, accessories, model, photographer, hair and make-up, the fiftysomething Wolf will spend the next two days producing 12 pictures. When published, they will arouse a number of reactions in the women gazing at them: lust, inspiration, aspiration, fantasy and the all-important I-want-that factor, which drives them into stores. Wolf's job is to ensure each photograph hits most, if not all, of those marks. It's a tall order, and one predicated on equal parts instinct, taste and experience.
"I know a lot of women shop the pages, but in a magazine I think you must have the inspirational as well," she says, referring to fashion spreads that boast mesmerising locations and/or an artistic story line. "And there, I think, the pages have to speak to the readers' emotions."
There's no question we're a culture in the midst of a fashion explosion. Magazines, the internet, fashion weeks that extend as far as Brazil and Iceland, and the red-carpet frenzy combine to make fashion a serious, competitive, high-stakes enterprise. So people like Wolf, who function behind the scenes as a mix of editor, stylist and prognosticator, have become crucial to the equation.
"Her working with different houses - Versace, Michael Kors - she has a real influence in making trends and moods and colour," says New York designer Posen.
"It makes her one of the most powerful people in fashion, but she doesn't hold herself that way."
Indeed when you ask about stylists now becoming boldface names themselves, Wolf baulks. "When people ask me what I do I always say I'm part of a team that creates these pages you see in fashion. I find all this celebrity styling such utter nonsense."
Wolf is a purist, she wants the clothes to do the talking. But she's also heavily in demand, which suggests there is something about the way she views fashion, call it her aesthetic, that others want to tap into.
"When I think of her, I think of a real industry insider," says Robin Givhan, fashion editor of The Washington Post. "I feel she's more focused on the creativity of the designer and craft of fashion."
In defining her aesthetic, Wolf says: "Supposedly I border on being very minimal, I bring it all down." Her own wardrobe runs to Marc Jacobs, Marni, Lanvin, Helmut Lang, Jil Sander and Prada. "I look at collections in all terms, but subconsciously I think I do choose for shoots what reflects my own taste. I can do a story with romantic clothes but I rarely choose to."
Wolf was born in Eboli, Italy, to parents who left Montenegro after World War II. She arrived in Australia aged three and grew up in Sydney; her first fashion memories are Saturday parades at Grace Bros with her mother.
"She says when she took me shopping for my first heels I automatically went for the most expensive, beautiful leather," Wolf laughs. "She says even then I was already very minimal, I didn't like fussy things, and I liked them to be good quality."
Yet her interest through early adolescence was ballet; design came later. "After 16, I started to get very interested in clothes and go through Vogue patterns and make things, but I never thought about it as a career."
She trained as a school teacher but says she wasn't suited to it. "My mother always said everything was better in Europe, so my main thing was to get out and go to Europe. At 20 I ended up marrying a German and moved to Munich."
When the marriage dissolved Wolf took a job as a fact checker at a women's magazine, eventually becoming beauty editor.
She later worked in the magazine's fashion section, moved to London, then Paris, working as a freelance fashion editor alongside photographers Andre Rau, Bill King and Albert Watson. In the late '80s, Wolf began working with photographer Steven Meisel for Italian Vogue. The collaboration would forge her reputation. "I did my best work with him," she reflects.
After more than 15 years in Europe, Wolf decamped to New York. "For a man," she says, smiling broadly. Currently single, she has no children. Though her work diary reads like a jet-setter's dream: Peru, Vietnam, Kenya, the Caribbean, Europe, plus Sydney twice a year to visit, New York - an apartment in Manhattan and a cottage in Sag Harbor - is now home.
A few days after the shoot, we meet in her Bazaar office, where she is clad in Marni, and the decor consists of corkboards covered in looks and a view of the Manhattan skyline. At work, she is firm, decisive and nurturing - on set she was making sure the pregnant make-up artist was comfortable - away from it she is thoughtful, good-humoured and opinionated.
"People that aren't genuine, she doesn't have much time for that," says Nicole Colovos, a former Wolf assistant who is now co-design director (with husband Michael) at Helmut Lang. "She has this drive you don't see in a lot of people. Brana can walk into a room and dress 14 models at the drop of a hat. Then when the photographer wants to do something different, she switches instantly."
One thing curious about Wolf is her relationship to celebrities as subjects. While many editors would kill to dress the A-list, Wolf isn't fussed. "I like styling some celebrities," she says. "But I will only do the ones I really like and am interested in."
"I wanted to do JLo and Jennifer Aniston." (Wolf has also styled Lindsay Lohan, Madonna, Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz, Christina Aguilera, Sean Penn, Warren Beatty to name a few)
Madonna? "Fantastic. She knows what she wants, what she looks good in. If she has an idea she tells you." This is evidenced by an ad campaign Wolf styled for Versace that portrayed Madonna as a CEO. "That was her idea. She said 'Women work, let's do it in an office."'
When booking models, Wolf's checklist is "tall and well proportioned, shapely within a small frame". Of the old guard Kate Moss, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista draw her highest praise, "Linda was a chameleon, she gave so much. Kate is extraordinary. In a photograph you feel the strength of her, the beauty of her". Of the new guard she likes Gemma Ward, Lily Donaldson, Raquel Zimmerman and Coco Rocha. But if you wonder about experiences with strung-out models, she waves you off.
"It happens so rarely today. In my world, the people who work in fashion are so busy and so professional they can't afford to be on drugs, they wouldn't last for two seconds. I had those problems in the '90s in New York. Everyone in the studio would be on coke and I was really naive and didn't understand why everyone kept running to the bathroom, but those days are long gone, everyone has cleaned up."
Ten years ago Wolf's job expanded when she was invited to consult with designers and style their shows. Today, few put a frock on the runway without such consultancy. "When designing a collection it's good to have someone come in and have a fresh perspective," says Colovos.
"I think it's bad when a stylist takes over," says Wolf. "I feel it's my job to get into these worlds of designers and help them make the best of who they are. I have to leave my aesthetic behind."
Exhibit A: Versace. Wolf, the minimalist, was brought in three seasons ago to consult with Versace, a label famed for excess and baroque flamboyance. Crazy or genius? "Donatella Versace asked what I thought, and I said 'I think you need more daywear'. She had wanted to do that anyway."
Today, Wolf goes to Milan at the beginning of the design cycle to discuss everything from fabrics to fit. "We were consciously scaling back, to make it more modern, find the younger Versace customer."
Says critic Givhan: "I would say the last three seasons, that collection blossomed."
With Wolf there's the distinct impression that fashion is a vocation - a passionate creative outlet - but there's a line. It's not her drug. "I take about three months a year off and then I don't think about fashion at all," she admits quite readily. "I'm with family, friends and I switch off. I don't live, eat and drink it, I never have." Maybe that keeps her fresh? "I guess it does."