THE GUARDIAN GUIDE TO BURNING MAN: Burner designers move beyond disposable fashion
PLAYA PREP In Miranda Caroligne's Mission District sewing studio, there is a dress dummy covered in used Carhartt remnants that are being reborn as an asymmetrical mini-dress. It's a project that the designer, whose fanciful style has made her a popular check box on pre-Burning Man to-do lists, is working on for Margaret Long, a member of the Flaming Lotus Girls fire art collective. Please note: no fun fur or tribal accents are visible on the soon-to-be-dress.
These are the rush months for Caroligne and other burner designers, like SF-based Silver Lucy and Tammy Hulva of Tamo Design, prime time for helping burners to realize their sartorial fantasies. Caroligne makes form-fitting, whimsically-stitched fleece jackets that hang by the bundle throughout her bright creative space, and one-size-fits-all boot covers made from old suit sleeves. But she says that for her custom-made creations, she prefers a little vision in her clients. In other words, please don't come to her for furry boots and glow sticks.
"I tend to speak out against that," she says of trends towards the homogenization of playa culture. "I only design for people if they have a very clear vision of something they want to express. I consider myself the conduit to making that happen." When people come in for the standard Mad Max raver treatment, she sits them down to clarify what about the look resonates with them.
Burning Man fashions have evolved over the last quarter-century, with the old emphasis on crazy DIY costumes eventually morphing into distinct burner fashion aesthetics, such as the feather-and-leather look popularized by the El Circo camp and the late designer Tiffa Novoa and featured in SF stores such as Five and Diamond.
It is perhaps indicative of the spread of Burning Man culture that Caroligne's potential clients sometimes ask for the same style. It's been popularized by a hundred wholesale websites — fun fur bikinis and (particularly popular in the Bay Area, according to the designer) the "dark leather and feather tribal look that's mass produced in Bali."
Stores from SoMa to San Rafael to New York advertise themselves as one-stop shopping venues for burner-fied fashion, and numerous expos make similar claims here in the Bay Area — Aug. 14's second Prepare for the Playa street fair of the year being one of them.
Independent designers are at creative odds with the uniformity that is developing in some camps — but they're also concerned with the sustainability of the designs, which are often imported and disposable. "That disgusts me," Caroligne says. "A lot of that stuff is very M.O.O.P.-y." (M.O.O.P. being the burner acronym for to-be-avoided-at-all-costs "matter out of place," or any waste that could harm the playa's natural ecosystem).
It wasn't always this way. Before the turn of the 21st century, it would have been difficult to determine the Burning Man uniform. People made clothes for themselves and friends, or they wore regular clothing-redux in the hot Nevadan sun. Ironically nowadays, Caroligne says, "I've heard many people talk about walking into a Burning Man party and feeling judged (because of what they were wearing)."
She's still a little unsure of the implications of working as a for-profit businessperson within a nonprofit culture. But Caroligne tries to mitigate the disconnect by doing pieces for busy artists that contribute to the Burning Man community (she was particularly excited to have costumed Burning Man board member Marian "Maid Marian" Goodell for the ritual burning of The Man one year, and be-suited Glitch Mob's Justin Berreta for another).