This time last year, I covered two of the most memorable events of my life as a photographer back-to-back: Burning Man festival and New York Fashion Week. With the interval between the two so short that I still had Nevada desert dust coating my shoes when I showed up in Midtown to shoot street style, it was hard not to compare the two. So I did—and my mental Venn diagramming yielded more similarities between the free-spirited arts festival in the wilderness and the corporation-backed urban fashion extravaganza than I expected.
For starters, the two events both celebrate unique forms of self-expression by way of clothing. Fashion people might channel a street style star or high-profile fashion editor, while the average Burner’s mood board is more likely to include Mad Max; but either way, the final result is usually outlandish and often delightful. Of course, extraordinary outfits look best against backdrops that similarly transcend the quotidian, and in this respect BM and NYFW both deliver. Whether in the form of a fire-spouting snake sculpture or an installation of 15,000 flowers, spectacle abounds on the playa and runway alike.
This ability to integrate artistry and life is perhaps the greatest strength of both events. An art museum may be beautiful, but it’s usually a look-don’t-touch environment where an artist delivers their vision without any room for dialogue with the viewer. NYFW and BM, on the other hand, both offer chances to go beyond merely looking. Whether it’s an interactive sculpture guests are invited to climb on the playa or a designer coat that can be remixed with Goodwill finds later in the season, both events offer ways for attendees to more fully immerse themselves in the creative work they admire. Besides resulting in a more engaging experience for viewers, this creates a kind of ongoing conversation between creator and viewer rarely possible in a gallery setting. In short, creativity begets creativity.
Of course, the overlap between the two isn’t all rosy. The events share some problems, too. Both have been criticized for inadequate racial diversity, especially when it comes to blackness: only 10.7% of last fall’s NYFW models were black, and only 1% of Burners last year were black. Accessibility is an issue, too. BM’s $390 tickets, plus the extensive costs associated with being completely self-sufficient in the desert for a week, are prohibitive to many—and the harsh physical conditions make it particularly difficult for any but the robustly healthy. And while the rise of digital influencers has democratized many aspects of fashion week, the majority of brands (except for a select few who have opened shows to the public) are still invite-only.
What fashion week could learn from Burning Man
But perhaps the most interesting part of the BM/NYFW Venn diagram are the parts that look like they should overlap, but don’t. Take for example the crazy outfits again: both Burners and NYFW-goers love to dress up, mix DIY and designer duds and laud originality when they see it in others. But the attitude guiding NYC peacocks often functions differently than that of their Black Rock City counterparts.
When I photographed people outside the shows at NYFW, they often posed and then passed along their name and Instagram handle to make sure they got credited. Since a good street style reputation can be a boon to the careers of those who work in the industry, it’s hard to blame them. But this contrasted sharply with my experience at BM, where subjects were more likely to be photographed candidly, use “playa names” that kept them anonymous, and rarely even carried their phones. The result is that the elaborate costuming at BM felt like it was more about participating in the creative milieu than about creating a lasting digital impression or trying to move up an industry hierarchy.
Not only that, but Burners seemed genuinely willing to celebrate original and creative garb on whomever was wearing it, regardless of their age or body type. In my experience, the playa community was just as willing to celebrate a 60-year-old potbellied man in a homemade tutu as it was to celebrate a scantily clad Candice Swanepoel lookalike. And while Burners love to see other Burners in crazy getups (or sometimes very little getup at all), there’s no shade thrown at people who look more “normal.” In contrast, the fashion community still overwhelmingly prizes the young, thin and traditionally beautiful, even if “advanced style” icons like Iris Apfel or Grace Coddington do exist. And yes, you will absolutely feel like an outsider at a NYFW event if you show up not looking the part.
Burning Man and New York Fashion Week are always going to be apples and oranges on some level, and that has to temper any comparison of the two. Some of the biggest differences that affect the underlying spirit of the two weeks—like the relentless product-pushing and branding that can feel so aggressive at NYFW, versus the de-commodification efforts and gifting culture at BM—will remain, considering that one exists to sell stuff and the other exists to build art and community.
But even so, I’m going to be looking for ways to bring a little more Burning Man to my own experience of fashion week this year. I may not be coming straight from the playa this time around, but I want to remember what I learned in the desert about why we dress up and whose fashion choices we celebrate. After all, what could be better than bringing together the best of two pretty fantastic worlds?
All photos © Whitney Bauck, 2015.