Alexandre de Betak – the inimitable Parisian show producer – talks his brand new book and adapting runway shows for the digital age
Fashion month is officially over today, leaving thousands of exulted and exhausted industry insiders in its wake. But of all these worn-out souls it’s hard to imagine that many are more tired than Alexandre de Betak, the inimitable runway show producer, who has now pulled off over a thousand catwalk spectacles in his almost 30-year career, and shows no signs of slowing down. Indeed, when we speak to him amid the frenzy of Paris Fashion Week – bearing in mind that he’s been working non-stop since New York – he sounds remarkably sprightly and unnecessarily apologetic. “Sorry it’s taken you a while to get hold of me,” he laughs. “It’s been a bit of a crazy time.” His new book, Betak: Fashion Show Revolution, is set to launch at colette that same night, alongside a special merch capsule collaboration with the soon-to-close retailer, dubbed “fashion show tools and survival gear” and spanning everything from headphones and a Fuji Instax camera to socks. One might think that adding another big event to an already overflowing schedule might be off-putting, but de Betak is a man who excels at multi-tasking; he is also a furniture designer and art director, among other things, while his feted company, Bureau Betak – which he founded in Paris in 1990 – produces around 80 to 100 fashion shows a year.
The book, published by Phaidon, serves as a visually stunning showcase of some of de Betak’s most memorable runway moments from across the decades, revealing his immeasurable impact on shaping the fashion show as we now know it: an art form all of its own. The New York Times once described de Betak as “the Fellini of fashion and the Cecil B. DeMille of the runways” and indeed the parallels between his practice and that of cinema’s most innovative auteurs are many; a fact highlighted by the book’s four chapters, divided according to location, set, lighting and performance – the key components of the producer’s oeuvre. But unlike a filmmaker, de Betak’s job entails not only the realisation of his own distinct vision, but that of the house and/or designer with whom he is working, taking into account both the themes of their current collection and the ongoing narrative of the brand at large.
“My duty (is) to create a means of expression that will help translate the creations of the fashion designers: to make them be understood and memorised in a moving manner, not just intellectually or conceptually, but also emotionally,” he writes in the book’s accompanying text. “In order to do that, I need to design a language, I need to design a visual identity, and to carry (them) throughout the seasons to come so that you talk about the present but you also talk about the history of the designer or of one brand.” This holistic approach has led to countless long-term collaborations, from shows for Hussein Chalayan and Alexander Wang to his ongoing work with Dior.
What is perhaps most impressive to note while flicking through Betak: Fashion Show Revolution is de Betak’s ceaseless versatility: for instance, his ability to embrace all-out maximalism (think: his 59-foot mountain of blue delphiniums in the Louvre’s courtyard for Raf Simons’ final Dior show) as readily as refined austerity, à la his “minimal and androgynous non-sets” for Helmut Lang’s 1990s shows. Similarly, he is just as at ease constructing “an abandoned, once-decadent early-20th-century garden” in a Paris polo club, as he did for Galliano’s Dior Couture AW05 collection, as he is conjuring a vast scaffolded structure on a concrete pier in Monaco, as per Simons’ show for Dior Cruise 2014. The connecting thread between all de Betak’s projects, aside from his expansive imagination and originality, is his pristine attention to detail. “I was always a perfectionist and a control freak right from the very beginning,” he says with a chuckle. “I seek to use every single detail to convey a set message, and that’s really what makes a show in the end.”
Here, in celebration of the book’s launch, we sit down with the pioneer to talk fashion’s past, present and future, as well as his favourite shows to date.
Why did now feel like the right moment to publish this book?
Alexandre de Betak: Partly because we’ve just done over a thousand fashion shows and I wanted to mark that. But most interestingly because a new fashion show revolution is coming – the developments in technology and social media are rapidly changing brand communication, and fashion shows in particular, very drastically. The book is called Fashion Show Revolution because it talks about my part in revolutionising the fashion industry since I started over two decades ago, when the runway show was a much less grand affair and usually done in-house. I thought it was good to celebrate this cycle, now that the next chapter has begun.
How do you feel about the new revolution?
Alexandre de Betak: Excited! I don’t just want to accept the changes, I want to shape them in same way I did all those years ago when I first started in this career. Back then my job didn’t really exist but now this occupation has evolved into a very important, large affair. It’s a bigger game, a bigger industry, with bigger budgets; there are bigger challenges, and one of the biggest of all is that there’s so much information. There are so many fashion shows which are so widely, and instantaneously, spread across social media immediately, and therefore there is so much competition. It’s more important than ever to help designers and brands create shows that are memorable and relevant – ones which will continue to shape their image.
“I think that the fashion show as a live event will last a very long time, because people always want to be inspired and encouraged to dream, and there is no limit to all the elements you can employ in a live show – the potential for creativity is boundless” – Alexandre de Betak
How do you envisage the fashion shows of the future?
Alexandre de Betak: I respect and admire the fact that most of the fashion world comprises of people that have been here for a very long time, including myself (laughs), but for that reason, everybody’s ready for a change and we need to accept that it’s happening. For me, that entails breaking the codes and rules of fashion weeks as we know them – as events that are scheduled and regimented by the industry for the industry – because what matters most to those creating the shows now is the social media response. Hopefully, this means that designers and houses will be keen to start showing differently – at different times, in different places and eventually to different people – because the spread of information is only going to grow bigger and go faster. That said I think that the fashion show as a live event will last a very long time because people always want to be inspired and encouraged to dream, and there is no limit to all the elements you can employ in a live show – the potential for creativity is boundless.
How do your relationships differ from client to client?
Alexandre de Betak: I try to work with designers and houses whose talents I respect and admire, of course, but also ones who are very different from one another; who have their own unique worlds. Once you forge your reputation, people come to you for what they think you do. I am often approached by houses or designers who believe in our mutual compatibility. Sometimes being on the same wavelength is great because your connection makes for a very easy process, but sometimes the exact opposite is true, which is the case with John Galliano and myself. We are very different, and those differences become somehow perfectly complementary.
What has been your favourite show to date?
Alexandre de Betak: There are just so many! Of course, I have very strong memories from working with Dior – of my shows with Raf Simons, and before that with John Galliano, and now with Maria Grazia. I also have amazing memories of the challenges and successes of the shows I created for Hussein Chalayan back ten, twelve years ago, and those I did with Viktor&Rolf and with Rodarte. I also like working with younger designers, like Anthony Vaccarello or Simon Porte Jacquemus. But mainly I’m always looking forward. As proud as I am of a lot of the shows I’ve done, I really don’t think that I’ve done my best one yet and that’s what keeps me pushing forward.
Betak: Fashion Show Revolution is out now, published by Phaidon.