THE SURPRISING SIMILARITIES BETWEEN FASHION WEEK AND BURNING MAN

2016-8-31 fashion Fashion

Burning Man 2015. Photo: Whitney Bauck
This time last year, I covered two of the most memorable events of my life as  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  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.

SELF-EXPRESSION

Burning Man 2015. Photo: Whitney Bauck
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.

ENGAGEMENT

Street Style from NYFW spring 2016. Photo: Imaxtree
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

ACCESSIBILITY

Street Style from NYFW spring 2016. Photo: Imaxtree
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, 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

Street Style from NYFW spring 2016. Photo: Imaxtree
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.

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?

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