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Not-so-average: Rikki Byrd - Writer. Educator. Curator

By Ameera Steward


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Rikki Byrd Credits: Courtesy of Rikki Byrd

Rikki Byrd is a writer, educator, and curator originally from Saint Louis, Missouri, whose work focuses on Black aesthetic practices including fashion, performance, and contemporary art. She is also the founder of Black Fashion Archive - a repository of both Black fashion history and Black people’s experiences to clothing and textiles; as well as a PhD candidate at Northwestern University where she is studying the ways Black people express mourning and grief through clothing and textiles.

About this series

There’s more to the fashion industry than jobs in designing or styling. Like any other sector, fashion is a business so there’s a space and a job for everyone. That includes a person who loves math, a person who solely loves to shop or a business-minded individual.

The word “everyone” doesn’t just refer to those who have different interests or job titles, but also those of a different race or gender. We’ve decided to highlight how diverse the fashion industry is, could be, and should be with a series of stories on Black professionals with not-so-average fashion careers.

How did you get to work in fashion?

Byrd comes from a lineage of women with a knack for fashion. For example, her great grandmother was a quilter in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her grandmother knew how to sew, crochet, and embroider. And Byrd’s mother is a fashion designer. “Those are my earliest memories and knowledge of Black people being creative, and Black people doing things with their hands, and Black people being self taught at what they do,” Byrd explained. She said although she did not pick up the knack of making or designing, she did fall in love with writing.

“From there I was just very invested in pursuing any type of opportunity that allowed me to use my voice, and use my skill set as a writer,” Byrd said. Byrd received her journalism degree from the University of Missouri with the assumption that she would work as a magazine editor. That was until her final year where she began doing the research she does now. “I started looking into when black models started to appear on the cover of mainstream fashion publications and that has led me down this path thus far of being very invested in the representation of the way black people make their own archives and document themselves,” she said.

From there, she went on to receive a Master of Arts in Fashion Studies from Parsons School of Design, and is now finishing her PhD in Black Studies at North Western University. Byrd’s current dissertation “In Loving Memory: Black Performance and the Sartorial Politics of Mourning,” explores the ways in which Black people perform mourning through clothing and textiles. For example, Rest In Peace t-shirts.

What’s your current fashion job?

Byrd refers to herself as a writer, educator, and curator. “Because I work across so many fields and also so many industries in so many places. So, [I’m] not pinned down to one thing.” As a writer her work has appeared in publications such as Teen Vogue and Cultured, as well as exhibition catalogs, academic journals, and books. As an educator Byrd has been teaching at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where she developed new courses on fashion and race. As a curator, her work extends past the fashion industry. She just finished a project as a curatorial research assistant titled “The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century,” a traveling exhibition co-organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Her work with Black Fashion Archive involves a lot of research. Through this platform she is educating her audience on the stories and practices of those who worked within the fashion industry, but also the styling practices of Black people who weren’t in the fashion industry. “There are enslaved seamstresses who were not a part of the fashion industry because the fashion industry didn't exist,” Byrd explained. “But also because the work that they were doing, wasn't considered enough to be written about and documented until someone, an archivist, came along and did it.” She describes Black Fashion Archive as a repository of Black fashion history, of Black people’s experiences to clothing and textiles, and of resources. “It's both. This visual repository that shares information about these nuggets of history. And it's this bibliographic repository where people who are interested in these subjects know where to go, if they want to keep looking into this information,” Byrd said.

What does an average work day look like?

“My primary work day is consumed with all things related to my dissertation that I'm finishing up with Black Studies,” said Byrd. “I graduate next June. So it's a lot of deadlines that I'm working to meet right now. So that preoccupies a lot of my day.” She said that could mean reading, writing, sketching, and thinking. Byrd tries to wake up every morning and write on her dissertation for at least 30 minutes. In addition to working on her dissertation, her day can also consist of “ working on independent curatorial projects or I'm coming up with curatorial ideas and interventions.” Byrd added that “a lot of the work that I do needs support, I need funding and I need support. The also the projects need funding and support. So sometimes my days consist of quite literally searching for grants and fellowships, applying to those grants and fellowships, keeping myself on track,” Byrd continued. She added that there is no easy way to describe her day, “but it’s always very full days.” Nonetheless, “I love what I do.”

“I am invested in black folks,” Byrd explained. “I'm very invested in what we do and how we do it, I'm invested in our innovation and our creativity. I'm invested in continuing this lineage of the women in my life that I come from to be able to be a part of the creation of a history where people like my great grandmother [are] documented, people like my mother [are] documented.”

A word of career advice

“No doesn’t mean never,” Byrd said. She added that if you really believe in it, you just keep going for it. “You keep exploring it,” Byrd continued. “You’re going to pivot, you’re going to get a lot of rejection and at some point you’re going to question, ‘is this the right thing, the thing that I’m supposed to be doing?’ But if your heart is in it, if you let your heart guide you, it’ll work out in due time.”

Not-so-average series