I use fashion as a tool to unpack the daily conversations we have about fashion and race,” says Rikki Byrd, a graduate of Parsons’ MA Fashion Studies program. Byrd always had a passion for writing, fashion, and African-American studies, which she pursued during her years as an undergraduate studying journalism. After a year off, she realized that these topics could be combined into a form of advocacy and began looking for guidance and graduate programs. She says, “The Master of Arts in Fashion Studies was ideal because of its interdisciplinary environment, its open approach to new scholarship, and the innovative research being conducted by its faculty.
Byrd found The New School a perfect place at which to further her inquiry into the representation of Black identity in fashion and was surprised at how quickly she could contribute to the field. While still at Parsons, Byrd organized the Fashion and Diversity Series with fellow Fashion Studies students Carly-Ann Fergus and Jasmine Young. The series of panels — which included discussions on fashion and jazz and on fashion and women in technology — was intended to spark frank conversations about the intersection of fashion and racial diversity and ways to make the industry more inclusive. Building on a panel titled Fashion and Race, Byrd and panelist Kimberly Jenkins, a fellow program alumna and an instructor at Parsons, created the Fashion and Race Syllabus, an online academic resource for students, scholars, and fashion industry professionals.
The Parsons community was pivotal to Byrd’s success. She says, “I was supported by phenomenal faculty and scholars, who were truly at the forefront of fashion studies and directly connected to the New York fashion industry. They believed in the strength and impact that my research could have in the program and beyond — and they pushed me to go there.”
Byrd credits Parsons for being a leading proponent of fashion studies, a relatively new academic discipline in the United States, and an institution defining the shape of the field today. As a university with a rich social science history and home to a top fashion institute, The New School offered her information and perspectives that allowed her to challenge accepted notions of fashion and encouraged her to think critically. Byrd now brings this approach to her writing in media and academia and to public speaking — she has recently published pieces in Teen Vogue, Art.sy, Hyperallergic, Racked, and other digital platforms and written chapters on performance and African-American art for forthcoming academic texts. Shortly before graduating from Parsons, she was invited to serve as guest editor of the International Journal of Fashion Studies, for which she curated a special section on Black fashion studies. Byrd has also lectured and sat on panels at companies and institutions such as Google, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), and the Saint Louis Art Museum.
Most recently, Byrd was a faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis, where she worked in both the Sam Fox School of Visual Art & Design and the African and African American Studies departments to empower students to think critically about the intersection of fashion history and race, gender and sexuality, body politics, art, sustainability, and more. “I asked students to grapple with fashion theory and history contemporaneously. Whatever they’re curious about, barrage it with questions. Research is a creative process just like any other creative field. It can make a practical difference in the world,” says Byrd. “During my two years at Washington University, I was always amazed at the creative research projects and inquiries students pursued throughout the year. I often told students that I learned just as much from them as I hope they learned from me.” Byrd is now a PhD student in African-American studies at Northwestern University, where she plans to continue her research on fashion and the African-American experience, particularly the relationship Black people have had with luxury and leisure.