Bridget Foley’s Most Exhilarating and Horrifying Moments
The stalwart fashion critic recently announced her departure from WWD after more than 30 years. Across her illustrious career, she has covered runway shows, scandals, and the rise and fall of leading designers. In this 2020 interview, she took us behind the scenes of her work.
It’s a Saturday morning in New York, and Bridget Foley, the executive editor of Women’s Wear Daily, is out shopping. At T.J. Maxx. Yes, T.J. Maxx, home to a find-your-own-size shoe department and the purveyor of off-price knitwear and Le Creuset seconds. Like any savvy New Yorker, Foley is there for the cheap luggage. “I’ve gone through so many suitcases over the years, you wouldn’t believe it!” she says. Today’s find is a dark teal number—“easier to spot on the carousel”—priced at $79. With any luck, it’ll carry her through next year’s couture season.
The high glamour of sitting front row at Chanel crossed with a no-nonsense appreciation for pedestrian-priced Samsonite—this is Bridget Foley. The lead critic for WWD for more than two decades and a formidable writer for the publication since the 1980s, she delivers to industry insiders her sharp, spirited, and deeply informed opinions on major collections, season after season. And in her irregularly published, freewheeling opinion column, “Bridget Foley’s Diary,” she serves as one of the fashion industry’s most influential and provocative voices.
Foley addresses matters both relatively frothy and deadly serious. Many have been taken to task for what Foley perceived as moral failings: John Galliano for his “I love Hitler” rant caught on video in 2011; Donna Karan for her statements defending Harvey Weinstein in 2017; Dolce & Gabbana for its Instagram posts accused of insulting China in 2018. All this Foley offers with her signature blend of wit and seen-it-all wisdom, often with a chatty personal anecdote thrown in.
Despite the openness of her writing, Foley is intensely private. Unlike many of her fellow front-row veterans, she doesn’t spend time before shows air-kissing and posing for pictures.
WWD hired Foley in the mid-1980s. The paper was at the height of its influence, and Foley was a 20-something graduate of Syracuse’s journalism master’s program who was just starting out as a reporter. A native of Troy, New York, she fell into fashion journalism almost by accident: Her brother- in-law introduced her to someone working at the men’s trade journal DNR, who then introduced her to someone at California Apparel News, where she got first and only other job outside of WWD.
With the rise, over the last decade, of social media and competitors like the Business of Fashion, WWD is not the be-all-end-all power it once was. But Foley is arguably as influential as she’s ever been. She’s outlasted many of her contemporaries, including Suzy Menkes (who left the International Herald Tribune in 2014 and has taken on a more relaxed pace of reviewing for Vogue’s international editions) and Cathy Horyn (who left the New York Times in 2014 and now serves as the Cut’s fashion critic at large). “Designers care about Bridget’s opinion because she knows what she’s talking about,” says an industry insider. “When anything happens, we all want to hear what she has to say about it.”
What was the first fashion show you remember attending?
Calvin Klein. This was in the ’80s and it was very different. Back then, it took place in the showroom, but not at the huge ground-floor space where Francisco [Costa] and Raf [Simons] later did shows—it was upstairs, and there were maybe two rows of seats. Very small, very intimate.
And now, there are more fashion shows than ever.
I think it’s a little too much. I got my first pre-fall request when I was still in Paris for the spring shows. There used to be far more of an anticipatory rush when you were approaching Fashion Week. But now, we are never not looking at clothes. That really tempers the excitement. The pre-seasons are endless. Endless! I think it’s really hard on the designers. And if they also do couture and men’s, it’s a lot.
You’re in the minority of fashion people who care about sports. I remember a piece you wrote years ago about how upset you were about missing the Super Bowl because you had to attend a Tuleh show.
Sports have become part of the cultural conversation. Once, in the mid-’90s, we were in Paris when the Yankees were in the [American League] Championship Series. [WWD staffer] Michael Carl found a sports pub where we could watch it. It was called the Beaver Bar. We only went there a couple of times, but it was great fun. And I remember my daughter’s first Yankees game—the sixth game of the 1996 World Series. But Donatella [Versace] was showing Versus in New York that night. I said to Patrick [McCarthy, WWD’s editorial director], “How would you feel if I didn’t go to the show?” He said, “Not good.” But he got me a car to go to the Bronx for the game after Versus, so I did get to see it.
Your most memorable columns take on a strong editorial point of view, such as with Donna Karan, when she was asked about Harvey Weinstein and shocked everyone by saying women were asking for “trouble” by dressing the way they do. You called her out for seeming to blame the victims.
I love Donna. She’s amazing and she’s done so much for the industry. I don’t know what she was thinking there. She has been so pro-women throughout her entire career. Donna is a very willing talker and it ran away with her. So it was important for her to state her case, but it was important for me not to let her just smooth it over.
Are you ever encouraged to rein it in?
I feel very free. That’s one of the things I hope people associate with me—that I’m responsible. I think about what I write, and I think about what I say before I speak.
Is it difficult to remain honest when writing about designers you know well.
When my daughter was six years old, she took Irish step-dancing classes after school. I went to her performance and she asked, “How was I?” I said, “Honey, you were great.” She said, “But I wasn’t the best, was I?” I said, “No, you weren’t.” She went to pieces. I said, “You have got to get over yourself. Don’t expect me to tell you that you’re the best at everything. Because I’m not going to.”
But there are certain designers you’re particularly close with, right?
Are you talking about Marc [Jacobs]? Tell me, who is better than Marc in New York? Do I like Marc? Yes. Do I go out to dinner with Marc? No! But he made my daughter a baby sweater. So, yes, I have a strong relationship with him. That does not color my opinion of his talent.
What are some of the most groundbreaking shows you’ve seen?
I’m not going to be able to give you a definitive list. But I would say Marc Jacobs’s 1992 grunge show for Perry Ellis. Alexander McQueen’s chessboard show in 2004, and his Sarabande show in 2006. And so many of John Galliano’s shows for himself and for others—like his very small 1994 show at the Schlumberger apartment and that 1996 season of couture for Givenchy. There were so many others!
In 2017, [Miuccia] Prada did this amazing show in collaboration with women illustrators. And early on she did what I call the “ugly prints” show—you know, the green and brown? It was a very different take on minimalism, very austere and polished. Oh, and when Helmut Lang introduced a new take on minimalism in the ’90s, that was incredible. Did I mention Tom Ford?
More recently, the 2019 Dries Van Noten show with Christian Lacroix was one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen. As was Rei Kawakubo’s 2D show that she did in 2012, where she had a bunch of models who looked like paper dolls. It was incredible. I have one of those dresses.
What about truly terrible shows?
Most shows tend to be forgettable, or the person has gone away. The only epic fail I can think of was when Lindsay Lohan was signed on as an artistic adviser by Emanuel Ungaro. That was a blatant attempt to speak to the celebrity moment. And it was one of the most vulgar collections I’ve ever seen. There may have been pasties, I think? It was beyond.
I’m sure you’ve seen other shocking runway moments, too.
There was a period when PETA was everywhere, protesting very audaciously against designers who used fur. There was a Gaultier show where a protester managed to get up on the runway. Gaultier’s team was ready and got up and threw a huge fur blanket on the protester. It all felt so violent that it stunned me. And then there was Galliano’s 2000 “homeless couture” collection. Couture inspired by homeless people! I actually thought the clothes themselves were beautiful, and I gave them a positive review. But later I remember thinking, “Did I really think this through?”
Who would you say is the center of fashion right now?
There’s not a single center of fashion, but there are people who are very influential. Look at Demna [Gvasalia], the creative director at Balenciaga. Those broad shoulders ran through fashion, and now everybody’s got to have an ugly sneaker. In couture, there’s an undisputed leader: creative director Pierpaolo [Piccioli] at Valentino. Other designers doing interesting work are Marine Serre, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Stella McCartney, and Eileen Fisher. Stella and Eileen have been way ahead of their time.
What advice do you give to younger writers reviewing shows?
Don’t take the designers’ explanation of their inspirations at face value. They’ll say their inspiration was their grandmother’s attic. Or the deep blue sea! The inspirations are narrower and narrower these days, because everyone is afraid of things like cultural appropriation. But whatever it is, it’s important to relate the inspiration to what you saw. Make sure that it tracks, and that you’re saying something.
This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To be first to experience the complete issue subscribe here.