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Micol Ragni Jordan Hemingway collection Bjork vagina dress
Photography Jordan Hemingway

An interview with Micol Ragni, the creator of Björk’s ‘vagina dress’

The Italian designer talks industrial techno, surprise emails from Erykah Badu, and how McQueen’s designs channelled femininity

“I first noticed designer Micol Ragni on Instagram via a dress she had made for the legendary singer Erykah Badu. I was instantly locked into the magnetic and sculptural world of her creations. Macabre, haunting, but also forward-looking future fashion – an aesthetic that plays upon technological advancement as much as a baroque sensibility” – Mykki Blanco, guest editor of Dazed, August 2018

When Björk emerged onto the stage at Barcelona’s Primavera festival in June, the internet went wild. The Icelandic singer is well-known for her outlandish visuals and avant-garde ensembles, and the look she wore for this particular performance was no exception (to put it lightly). Crafted from shiny, moulded PVC and folding softly about her body, the unique cocoon-shaped piece was quickly dubbed ‘the vagina dress’ across Instagram and Twitter, and Micol Ragni, the designer behind it, suddenly found a spotlight focused in her direction.

It wasn’t the first time Ragni’s work has caught the attention of a prominent female artist, though. The likes of Kelela and Erykah Badu have asserted their status as fans of her subversive designs over the course of the last year, and with good reason. Her darkly feminine designs are both provocative and sensual at the same time, proposing a new and unique definition of what it means to be ‘sexy’ now.

An inherent connection to music is something that’s shaped her vision as a designer. Having moved from rural Italy to east London where she’s now based, Ragni grew up in a musical home. Following in her composer father’s footsteps, her background lies in the production of dark, electronic beats – which, she explains, still inform her work now she’s creating in a different medium. “I’ve always been very musical in the way that I design,” she tells us. “I think that’s where the sculptural element of my work comes from: putting down the foundations, building up the layers. I connect more with people in the music industry than people in the fashion industry, so when all these musicians started wearing my things, it really resonated for me. There’s a deep connection, I think.”

This tendency for sculpture runs throughout Ragni’s work, from the experimental pieces she creates for Björk’s performances, through to the softer robes, slim-fitting trousers, and swathed skirts that make up her ready-to-wear collection. Her influences are much further reaching than just electronic music, too. Throughout our conversation, Ragni references Nine Inch NailsMadonnaGrace Jones, legendary designer Alexander McQueen, and London’s industrial techno scene as influences in terms of who she listens to, who she looks up to, and where she spends her time.  

The wave she’s currently creating with her darkly feminine designs is all the more impressive given her eponymous label is only three years old, and she’s also fiercely independent – working from her tiny studio, Ragni is doing things all by herself. The designer is incredibly proud that she’s creating her own niche: “It’s been a different process for me when it comes to starting a brand,” she explains. “You know, I moved here from Italy and I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t go to Saint Martins or the RCA, or pay anyone to make my clothes – I couldn’t afford to!”

Here, we talk to the designer about her collaborations with Björk, her views on the fashion industry, and what’s next.

How did you get started in fashion?

Micol Ragni: It’s been a different process for me than many other designers out there – you know, I studied in Epsom, I didn’t come from Saint Martins, and I wasn’t being pushed by anyone in particular, I just started presented very small collections at showrooms in Paris and selling a small number of pieces at various boutiques around the world. And then suddenly I got a call from Björk, who had seen my pieces in a magazine and wanted me to create something for her, and it kind of snowballed from there.

So Björk just called you out of the blue? How was that? It must have been a shock!

Micol Ragni: It was! The first time she wore my designs was actually last May at a performance in LA, so we’ve been working together for a while. It was really exciting because her people didn’t tell me what was going on, they just said “we love this dress, can you send it over right now?” And then a couple of days later I woke up in the morning with Björk tagging me on Instagram, and I just started crying, it was so overwhelming! It was the same with Erykah Badu, I just got this email out of the blue, requesting a jacket and some boots, and then throughout 2017 she didn’t stop requesting pieces at all.

What effect did the likes of Björk and Erykah wearing your pieces have in terms of attention on your work?  

Micol Ragni: Well, things have really escalated and started to move forward, for sure. I did my first catwalk show in February, for example, and I’m getting a lot of orders. But I still work by myself, and the work is very avant-garde, and researched, and I’m very much intent on continuing to create completely unique pieces, so there’s only so much it can grow right now. I don’t necessarily want to go down the commercial route, but of course I want more people wearing Micol Ragni! But first, people have to get used to the aesthetic, the design, the style, and it takes time to be perceived and understood. I never imagined it would all happen at once, and I’m happy I’m moving slowly. It’s a lot more organic and a better way of doing things on so many levels.

“I approach design in a sculptural way because I believe that the human body is not confined to our skin and bones and organs – we emanate an energy that is invisible to the eye” – Micol Ragni

You started as a music producer before you got into fashion. What kind of music were you making?

Micol Ragni: I did, and I grew up in a very creative family when it came to music. My dad has a recording studio and is a musician himself. In the 70s and 80s he worked with artists like Vangelis and Chet Baker, so it was also about progressive work and jazz, and experimental music. To start with, I played piano, and then got more into electronic music and developed my own style of that. I don’t know exactly how to describe it. It was just quite dark and glitchy, basically.

Your designs go way beyond ‘garment’ and into sculptural, artistic territory. Is this something you’ve always been interested in doing?   

Micol Ragni: The reason I approach design in a more sculptural way is because I believe that the human body is not confined to our skin and bones and organs – we emanate an energy that is invisible to the eye, which goes well beyond the confines of our physicalities, and so I wanted to create designs that visually describe this energy. What’s interesting is I read this quote by Bjork a while ago, when she said “Sometimes I feel like I’m born into the wrong body. Wrong Face. I look into a mirror and question if that girl is really who I am. I imagine myself a little closer to an animal or a textural...monstrous…’thing’, not just a being. If my soul had a form, I feel it would be huge...purple...gross...slimy. Like liquid crystal.” It really resonated with me, because that’s also how I perceive myself.

I think that as women, we are really trained and educated to emphasise our body in a way that’s perceived as sexy, and that attracts the eyes, but in my work I am more interested in emphasising the whole being in this a way, not just the body – that's mainly why I approach designing in a sculptural way.

When you worked with Björk on ‘the vagina dress’, was it a collaborative process or did she trust you to create it on your own?

Micol Ragni: I think that one of the beautiful things about Björk is that she picks her collaborators in such a way that she can trust them to do what they want. I had some directions on colour and on certain shapes and silhouettes, but it was totally my own intuition and vision and that's what made the process even more beautiful.

Can you tell me a little more about the dress itself, and where the inspiration for it came from?

Micol Ragni: The volumes, the shapes, and the silhouette of this dress were all based on things I’ve been developing for the last five years. I started with a similar design which featured a similar cut and I’ve been developing it more every season. At the beginning. I focused on the Fibonacci sequences, which are considered the mathematical formula of nature – all the flowers and all the vegetables in nature grow in this mathematical order, which is also what is used to describe fractals. I decided to use this formula in my design, and so all the shapes and the cut of it adhere to this natural organic harmony and order. I made many different versions of it, and people were looking at me in the street saying ‘that's a vagina!’ when I wore it, but until Björk wore it, I didn’t connect it directly. I guess if you go down the road of this organic inspiration, it also relates to the human body, and so I kind of developed that more and made it into something that was a triumph of the female energy.

Where do you find inspiration? Are there places in London that you hang out at when you’re in search of it, for example?

Micol Ragni: I’m quite eclectic as a person, and I really like exploring different scenes. Lately I’ve been going to Electrowerkz in Angel quite a lot, to a night called Kaos that plays heavy, industrial techno. There are some incredible looks there: these people have been dedicating their whole lives to creating this visual identity, and it’s really inspiring because they belong to this totally unique world, this dark, cold, metal scene. It’s inspiring from a fashion point of view because they really make an effort to be different and avant-garde, whereas in other communities, there can be a sense that everyone is following everyone else, rather than having their own point of view.  

Your Instagram account really helped people like Erykah and Björk engage with your work. What do you think of social media’s effect on the fashion industry?

Micol Ragni: I think it’s a really exciting time because of the internet and Instagram, as it gives people a lot of power to show what they do and to express themselves in the way they want to. I think it’s a very powerful tool for independent designers, and can be a really good thing, but at the same time there is a danger that this cultivated image is taking attention away from the actual clothes. Fashion East put out a manifesto last season saying it’s not about the clothing any more, it’s about the posts on Instagram. I don’t believe that people don’t see the value behind the garments, but we can all be blinded by charisma and someone that knows how to sell themselves but doesn’t necessarily have the talent to back this up, which is something that’s obviously a little concerning.

Were there any designers you were particularly inspired by when you were thinking about going into fashion?  

Micol Ragni: Alexander McQueen was someone that inspired me in the way that he approached fashion. I think it’s impossible not to be fascinated by the aesthetic, but mainly what inspired me was the way in which he really utilised the medium of clothing to express what women were feeling and hiding inside. For me personally, that’s a really powerful thing, and something I hope to achieve through my own work. My truest dream is to give this attention back to women through my designs and really allow them to express themselves without filters, without expectation, and without being manipulated by what other people want us to look like.

“What inspired me (about McQueen) was the way in which he really utilised the medium of clothing to express what women were feeling and hiding inside” – Micol Ragni

What’s next for you?

Micol Ragni: I really hope to be able to do another show in September. I’m working towards my next collection, and hopefully putting that into a show will allow me to really put across my vision much more than I have been able to so far. Obviously I want to expand, and to be able to sustain myself. And I’d also really love to keep collaborating with artists I admire. It’s something very fulfilling to me, for whatever reason, and gives me the chance to embrace my more creative side.

So now Erykah and Björk have worn your designs, who’s next on the list?

Micol Ragni: Grace Jones, for sure. That would be a dream come true.