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How 'Visionaire' Became Much More Than a Traditional Print Magazine

We chatted with "Visionaire" Creative Director Greg Foley about the magazine's 25-year history and its offshoot, "V" magazine.
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Photo: Greg Foley

Photo: Greg Foley

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Sticking to neither a particular medium nor a standard publishing schedule, 25-year-old Visionaire — a luxury art and fashion publication founded by Cecilia Dean, Stephen Gan and James Kaliardos — has gained a reputation for blurring the lines between fashion and art by releasing issues like 2011's "Larger Than Life," an outsize magazine that stood seven feet tall. 

Having interned for Stephen Gan at Details during college, Visionaire's longtime Designer and Creative Director Greg Foley contributed to the publication's first issue while still a student at Rhode Island School of Design. Since then, Foley has continued to oversee the design direction of Visionaire, with a 400-plus page 25th anniversary book in the works. From 1999 to 2009, Foley oversaw the creative direction of V and V Man as designer, remaining on the masthead under the title "contributing creative and design direction." And in 2011, Foley helped Julie Anne Quay start VFiles, acting as its creative and design director. Foley also works as an adjunct professor at Parsons, co-teaching a class with Cecilia Dean and Donald Hearn, and has published several children's books, including one titled "Thank You Bear." 

On a recent Friday, we chatted with Foley about Visionaire’s early days, the work that goes into producing an issue, shaping the visual identity of V and the importance of closing the gap between idea and action.

You contributed to Visionaire’s first issue while you were still at Rhode Island School of Design — how did that come about?

I became friends with a classmate of mine. Karen [Park-Goude] had interned with Stephen Gan at Details when it was an independent magazine. She recommended that I intern for him, so I sent pictures of my RISD Innovative, this project where you make an outfit out of something that’s not traditionally made into clothing. Stephen loved those and had me intern for him when I was a sophomore, and we became friends. By the time I was about to graduate, Details was acquired by Condé Nast and he was like, "Well, I want to start my own independent magazine now. It'll be pure creative freedom and you've got to help." So by the time I graduated and came into the city, we were already making issue number two.

Tell us about Visionaire’s early days. How big was the staff? What was your role?

It wasn't a staff; just a handful of friends and contributors. We would just meet on a given weekend and put it together. It was pre-computer layouts, too — Xerox, board paste-ups and hand-painted silhouettes. We would gather together at the printer and as a group we would hand-collate about a thousand issues and number them. At that point, I just dove right in and was doing graphic layouts as needed, and then slowly started doing the cover and the package design.

Visionaire is known for combining several different mediums into one. Did that come about pretty organically?

Absolutely. It's so interesting to see that it started by being unbound, and that word goes a long way to describing Visionaire. The sheets were loose so that the viewer could put them in whatever preferred order or pull a page out without difficulty. And then the shape started changing. There's nothing that has broken with convention of form in publishing as much. It's not just fashion [or] design; it's also always been waist-deep in art, architecture and film. We're trying to find creative theses to bring those things together.

Issue No. 42 'Scent.' Photo: 'Visionaire'

Issue No. 42 'Scent.' Photo: 'Visionaire'

What's an issue you enjoyed working on in particular?

One would be the "Scent" issue. For me, it was always interesting that Visionaire seemed to be attacking all of the senses. And we had the opportunity to actually work with fragrances and some of their noses, the perfumers who develop the scents. We got to do abstract things like, what is the smell of cold, the smell of sadness, David Bowie: the smell of success.

I know Visionaire tends to be very expensive, and I'd imagine an issue like "Scent" would be difficult to produce.

It is for the most part difficult to produce because we study these different techniques, whether it's embossed metal or, as I mentioned before, creating and distributing a publication that's made up of fragrances. When we get to manufacturing objects and special techniques, we have to become quick experts and sometimes it takes over a year to manufacture one particular issue. And that sort of dictates how many of them we make and how much that issue is going to cost. And we leave all that expertise behind for the most part because we're not going to make an embossed metal [issue] or fragrances for the next one. It's time-consuming, but I think creatively, it's worthwhile. 

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It's been quarterly, biannually and occasionally, annually — it's not on anybody's particular schedule.

Could you expound on its collaborative sponsors? Has Visionaire not taken on advertisers?

There are no advertisers; there never have been. And I think it's a really challenging thing to do and that's why I don't think anybody else really does it. Our agreement and decision to work with very select sponsors is that they are fully behind the creative thesis and that they want to support the arts.

I think one of the most interesting moments for us was the 18th issue, the "Fashion Special." It was one of the first times that I think that editorially, a publication pushed art and fashion together. We had all kinds of visual artists team up with fashion houses and they photographed and interpreted them in an artistic manner. Now it's quite common to see, but back then, it was kind of new.

Jumping to 1999, what was the impetus behind starting V Magazine?

V Magazine was really the opportunity to open up to even more contributors and to feature interesting material that we could never justify putting in Visionaire because it had become so groundbreaking and focused on a visual theme. If Visionaire was the couture, then V was the ready-to-wear.

Covers of 'V' Magazine. Photo: Greg Foley

Covers of 'V' Magazine. Photo: Greg Foley

Take us through the process of shaping V's visual identity.

I thought [the visual identity] came in the form of a typeface, a display font. And so I designed a custom display font and then we changed it. The early issues of V, you can see the display font and the typography, which is a large part of the visual identity, changing from issue to issue. I always had an interest in newsprint, and so we were playing on one particular issue with the Champion family of fonts, these bold condensed things. We redesigned V and sort of stuck with that for over 10 years. Taking essentially Champion Bantam weight and then restyling it [and] redressing it from issue to issue. And in that way, settle on a shape and a compositional form, but still change the color or have collaborative people decorate the font. 

And could you tell us about your role at VFiles?

I helped [former executive editor of V Magazine] Julie Anne Quay start it. After she left, she had this notion to start something digital and asked me to help. My role was to kind of help conceptualize the overall brand ethic and the visual identity. They wanted to have this digital platform and I thought it was very important to instigate [fashion] competition and try and support the next round of talent.

So, what's an average day like for you?

Thankfully, my schedule changes daily. On a great day, I would start by working on one of my children's books or pitches for The New Yorker, whether that's for a cover or a cartoon. And I will go and do office visits to give some direction whether it's Visionaire, V or V Files.

And what advice do you have for those who want to make it in this industry?

I would say try to find your community. It's ultimately everything. The other thing would be to try and close the gap between idea and action. Everybody has ideas, [but] it's really a matter of executing those ideas and making a thing, even if it's small [or] cheap. Just make a version of the thing you want. That's the best place to start.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Note: We regret the following error in regards to Greg Foley's title at "V" and "V Man." His title did not change to "consulting creative & design direction" until 2009.