In some ways, Julie Ragolia’s career is a rebuttal.
As with many successful creatives, Ragolia dealt with outside apprehension about her abilities — a college roommate telling her she’d never make it in fashion — that led her to pursue a career in the industry. “If someone tells me I can’t do something, I’m going to say, ‘Screw you,’ and try to prove them wrong,” she said.
Today, after over a decade in the industry, she’s working closely as an advisor to Ermenegildo Zegna’s artistic director Alessandro Sartori, helping to style the brand’s campaigns and runway shows to appeal to a younger audience. (The brand’s typical customer is in his 40s or 50s.) Her work is also regularly featured in publications like L’Uomo Vogue, W and The Last Magazine. Known mostly for her menswear work, even her women’s styling has a touch of the masculine: always unfussy, with a focus on tailoring.
As she sees it, another thread throughout her work is “a sense of wrongness,” she said. Never having studied fashion properly, everything she learned was on the job. “I don’t know why a pant is supposed to fit a certain way — I just know that I need it to look a certain way to be visually appealing,” she said.
Ragolia and Sartori working on a Zegna collection in January 2017
The self-described Brooklyn street kid, who studied philosophy and the aesthetics of art in college, calls her path “pure happenstance.” After briefly attending NYU at the early age of 16, Ragolia dropped out due to high tuition and applied to study at Brooklyn College in the hopes of taking a course with the lauded poet Allen Ginsberg. As luck would have it, she ended up taking the last class he taught before he died.
Ginsberg told her that her view of the world was childlike, with a naiveté and sense of wonderment, she said. Ragolia believes those qualities helped her score her first gigs: styling at MTV and working as an assistant to W’s stylist and creative director Alex White, both in the early 2000s.
The portfolio that got her there — a hodgepodge of work done with that bitchy former roommate, a budding photographer — didn’t have much thought put into it, she said. But curiosity, paired with the diverse Brooklyn landscape — “it’s like traveling without going anywhere,” she said — allowed her to pick up and unite a bunch of unique references, from hip-hop to rave culture, that made her work stand out.
“Suddenly I was front row at fashion shows and playing with full Chanel collections, and Blondie remembered who I was,” she said, still a bit in awe.
Joey Bada$$ styled by Ragolia for L’Uomo Vogue’s May/June 2016 issue
However, the real lightbulb moment came for her while she was working under White, who left W in 2011: “I realized then that fashion really was an art form, and suddenly all I could think about was being part of its creation.”
She went on to style full-time for The Fader during its prime. A few years later, in 2015, she consulted for the menswear brand Berluti. At the time, Sartori was creative director. When he decamped in 2016 for Zegna, he brought her along.
Although it wasn’t the path she’d planned on, she’s pretty pleased with the results, going so far as to call them fateful. “I’m a spiritual person,” she said. “I’ve always believed that there are guides watching, and if you’re nice and stay focused, good things will happen.”
For Ragolia, at least, that idea holds. When Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist, one of the original street style photography outlets, published his first book in 2009 with an image of her on the cover, Ragolia became known for her personal style, too. “All I did was get up one morning of NYFW, exhausted and wearing a T-shirt I had slept in the night before. Suddenly, I’m on the cover of a book, and people are starting to recognize me,” she said.
The image of Ragolia used on the cover of Scott Schuman’s first book
That period was a definitive moment for stylists across the industry, she said, as it initiated the attention paid today to everyone’s personal brand (whether they work behind the scenes or not).
“It really changed how people viewed your work,” said Ragolia, who called her personal style a second portfolio of sorts. “It’s no longer about just carting around a traditional portfolio and explaining what was inside; it’s something much bigger.”
But despite the added pressure brought on by that trend and the endless access to “her brand” that’s afforded by social media, it’s the styling itself that Ragolia said she loves most.
“I still have this youthful giddiness about what I do,” she said. “I sit in the Zegna atelier, and I’m like, ‘Holy shit! Fashion is so huge, and I get to play a big part in it.”