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 percent of last fall's NYFW models were black, and only 1 percent 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.