He is the creative mind behind the runway shows of some of the most important fashion brands. He is, moreover, the creative mind behind the most spectacular, unforgettable and magnificent designs from the best fashion brands. As if by magic, he gives life to everything we never thought possible of seeing on a catwalk. But for Alexandre de Betak the Frenchman who set up a 1600-feet pink carpet in the middle of a lavender field, in Provence, there is no such thing as impossible.
Whoever had the idea of calling him “the Houdini of Fashion” was not making a mistake. Nor who decided to call him “the Fellini of runway shows”. The man of seductive voice who answers the phone, in the midst of Paris Fashion Week bustle, is a kind of magician. He was the one who, as stated by Business of Fashion website, “turned fashion shows into multi-sensory events.” In other words, he was the one who helped expanding the concept of periodic presentations, for decades organized by brands themselves in-house, converting them into elaborate super productions, seen by millions of people - which owe nothing to the emotion provoked by a play or a feature film. Born in France (the accent still scratches his English), he is a man of the world who lives between his native country, New York, and airports on five continents, in a constant urge to do more and better. That means unfolding creatively into endless facilities, private events, fashion shows, exhibitions, and everything that revolves around ingenuity and art. Revolutionary, as great thinkers always are, he recently launched, via Bureau Betak (the agency he founded in 1990), a sustainability plan called Ten Commandments that aims to make the industry greener - and to convince many of his costumers, like Saint Laurent, Dior, Rodarte, Jacquemus, Viktor & Rolf, Michael Kors to assume a more responsible attitude when it comes to environmental practices.
Your first foray into fashion was in Madrid, with Spanish designer Sybilla. How did it all happen?It all began when I was very young and started taking pictures. I continued to do so as a teenager and, in the meantime, I started selling those pictures to travel guides and other magazines. This helped me come across some people in the fashion industry. But the truth, I think, is that fashion worked as an alibi. I was more interested, and still am, in the creative needs of the fashion world, and in the artistic freedom that it could, and can, give me. I think the fashion world has a real need to be inspired by everything and anything other than… fashion. I believe this is the reason why I remain in it. It’s a reality that allows me to pursue all of my interests and to feed it with them.
When you started, runway shows were produced in-house. Your job basically did not exist. Do you consider yourself a pioneer?I was lucky to be a free spirit, because I never studied anything, and I didn’t know anything about fashion. And, to some extent, I consider it luck, because it allowed me to enter this world without preconceived ideas and without any sense of how things should be done. I was a pioneer by chance. I was a pioneer because of that freedom. I didn’t know anything about fashion shows, I hadn’t gone to a fashion school, I hadn’t even interned in any brand. One thing led to another: the photographs, the collaboration with Sybilla… First it was just in terms of global ideas, image and art direction, then she wanted to do runway shows, and I had never done a runway show… But none of this was planned. Things just happened. Up until today, I think that I am here by chance. In retrospect, I think I always saw runway shows as a medium, a creative medium, that allowed me to express my creativity. And the reason I’m here, and the reason I still enjoy it, is because I realized early on that it was a creative medium that needed all disciplines - it is a medium that mixes design, lighting, music, technology, special effects, anything. It is probably one of the broadest creative field.
You have produced more than a thousand runway shows. What is it that makes one more spectacular than the other? Is it the money?In fact, money is not the most important thing. I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot by saying this [laughs] but to be honest some of the best shows I produced were not the ones where there was a lot of money involved. Money is certainly important, but the most important thing is when money can exceed expectations. We can do ultra-creative shows with less money, but the condition for these, and I do a lot of them, is total creative freedom. In a way, this is the trick of not having money - as long as you find a great idea and a great solution.
When you start a new project, do you bring your aesthetic to it, or do you prefer to follow the costumer’s point of view
It’s all about respect, of course. Everything is based on respecting the costumer’s point of view. In fact, it’s not so much the point of view, it’s the message. I think when we started working with a client [that means] we speak the same language, we agree on how he should present his point of view, we agree on the language to use. Of course, when we propose an idea for a runway show, that idea is for the client. We bring what we believe to be the answer that best fits his point of view.
Can we affirm that you bring your client’s imagination to life?
I think so. It is part of our role, no doubt.
Where would you like to do a show? Would you accept making one in, say, Mars?
Totally. I would consider that, no doubt. I would like to be the one producing a show in space, somewhere, and Mars is a beautiful place to start [laughs]. But I don’t want to be too greedy, I could start in the atmosphere, or on the Moon. But beyond space, and Mars, I would consider a million other places where the fashion industry hasn’t been yet. At Bureau Betak we are working on a very important and eco-conscious project, Ten Commandments, which contains the guideline of our sustainability policy. We will be the first agency worldwide specializing in the fashion luxury sector to be certified by the United Nations - and to receive ISO 20121 certification for sustainable event management. In recent years we’ve been trying to reduce our carbon footprint, including travel, and one of the ways I propose to do this is by drastically reducing the amount of media that travels to shows, and to replace them by local people, in more exotic places, where the creativity of the show, along with great technology, will be enough to spread it.
Will it ever be possible for a show to be totally carbon neutral?
It’s impossible. As I mentioned, in recent years we have been trying to find the tools so that customers can reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible. For instance, we try to offset carbon emissions [a practice known as carbon offset]. But it is not a total thing. It is as good as it can be, because some carbon will always be emitted. Returning to the question of the ideal place to do a show, I think that we will, more and more, do shows in extraordinary places where no one has ever been before. And [we will] try not to ‘transport’ so many people, because that is no longer justifies. There is phenomenal technology to help spread images, they spread very quickly. We did it with Jacquemus last year [that event in lavender fields] and it worked. There was an ultra-reduced amount of fashion media in the audience and a huge number or ‘ordinary people’, friends, family. And that show became viral. So, where would I like to do a fashion show? In Portugal! Portugal is a place where I would love to do a show.
When did you start to have this concern with sustainability? Do you think people will agree with these changes you have in mind? I am thinking of influencers, who are used to traveling constantly for every fashion event.
Yes. In fact, I think influencers will probably be the ones who will respond best. As long as the system works, of course, as long as they are invited, because they are the ones who spread the message faster and more widely… Some people will be upset, but there are so many fashion shows every year, all over the world, that not everyone needs to go to all of them. That’s just what I’m saying. There are too many shows, we should try to reduce them in quantity, make everyone happy that there are fewer, and happy that we get to watch some of them. That would open the door, in my view, to creative freedom, because we could do different things, in different places.
Do you feel you have a responsibility with your work? That, in a way, it educates people?
Yes, totally. I think so. Thousands of people see the shows, so we have a responsibility to raise awareness and to educate people - in the way shows are produced and in the message they convey. That is exactly what we are going to do with the program we announced [last month]. Now all of our events will be produced according to these solutions. We are testing these things, mainly in big shows, like Dior and Saint Laurent, but also in smaller ones.
The shows have a huge impact, but the vast majority of them lasts 10. 15 minutes. However, it takes a huge amount of work to make them happen. Do you think this is a contradiction? Do you like working on something that seems to exist only for an instant?
I don’t know if it’s so much the case of liking it or not, it’s the world we live in. I agree that there is a contradiction, mainly because they are so ‘gigantic’ and, at the same time, so short, but I think that quantity doesn’t mean quality. We can spread an incredibly well done-message, a respect and artistic message, in five minutes. It’s possible. It is often a little rushed and frustrating for us, to be honest. But I realize that it works like that. The world we live in, the technology, the smartphones, Instagram, the amount of information, it all influences our attention span, which is very reduced. So now, when we create content, we sometimes look at things that should last 20 seconds and do them in two [seconds].
You mentioned the predominant role of technology. How does it influence your work?
Everything changed. The atmosphere changed - when I started everything was live. Then we started to have television, from television we went to computer screens, then to smartphones in the palms of our hands. There is no way to go against modernization. I don’t love it, sometimes I wish that things I spend so much time working on, that I invested so much energy on, were appreciated a little more. But the truth is that it is so. We have to be efficient in a few seconds. And I think it encourages creativity - to be different and sometimes better. My goal, today, is to create something that people want to see, and know, more. Because if a two-second thing, broadcast on Instagram, is efficient, people will want to see more and appreciate it more.
Do you agree that technology has been the biggest revolution in the industry since you started, more than 25 years ago?
There have been many changes. As I mentioned, we went from live to television to the web to smartphones. The second biggest change was the importance of the fashion industry itself. It became bigger, it became richer, it became more international, it became more immediate. More global. A number of new markets appeared, such as the Middle East, Russia, South America, China. All of these were huge changes in the way we perceive our work. And since everything became bigger, the budget of the shows also increased - and so did the responsibility.
In your opinion, does an unlimited budget make everything possible?
Yes and no. Yes, in so far that there is so much money, and so much freedom, that there are almost no limits. But sometimes bigger budgets mean bigger constraints. The shows take place in a row, very close to each other, at hours that we can’t control, and they can only have a certain duration. All this means that there is not so much freedom. And the budget, even when it’s big, is never big enough [laughs]! There is no such thing as ‘too much money’. Because most of the money is spent on things that are not seen. It is a very technical job - practical things like technical procedures, security, bureaucracy…
Some people say runway shows will end. Do you agree with this?
I don’t think so. I think Fashion Weeks can end, or change, and they need to. Fashion Weeks do not fit into today’s world and this new technology. They belong to an old system, where everything happens at the same time, in the same place, with many collections… And then, for some part of the world it is summer, for the other part it’s winter, and everyone has to deal with the constraints of a series of shows that don’t [always] interest us. The industry is global, the timing is global, the seasons themselves don’t exist, ant the traditional media is gone. Based on that, I think we should free the calendar, we don’t need so much public, and then we would have the possibility to do shows anywhere, seen by everyone. But I think fashion shows will continue, because brands need this communication tool, and people need to dream. And to some extent we need a ‘real event’ to make it possible. But we don’t need to do big events and fly a lot of people back and forth all the time.
Apart from runway shows, what kind of events do you enjoy producing?
I think it’s the combination of all of them. I never subtract anything, I just add! I have done exhibitions, furniture design, installation design, house design - I love to design houses - I think it is a way of doing something more permanent than everything else I normally do.
Is there anything in particular that you would like to experience?
I would love to try everything I haven’t done yet. And I believe that everything I did before, I could [now] do better. That is one of the reasons I continue. I am willing to try everything, any mediums. And I think that certain things that I did before, I could redo them, with new tools. I love high contrasts, I love high and low, I love simplicity, I love luxury, I love detail, I love great gestures.
This issue is about art. Can we say that fashion is itself art?
First of all, it is important to stress that I am not a fashion designer, so I cannot talk about what I don’t do. But I think that the definition of art itself has evolved, and it continues to evolve. The word itself is old fashioned. Fashion is an artistic and creative medium and, in addition, it is a commercial medium - it is totally a commercial medium, because it’s something we buy and use, and in that sense fashion is not art. On the other hand, I think that art, nowadays, is also a commercial medium, something that we buy and… hang. It’s the same thing! So I guess that, according to the classic definition fashion is not art. But art, for its part, is fashion. Deep down, maybe it’s the same…
This article was originally published in Vogue Portugal's Art issue, from March 2020.
Para ler este artigo em português, veja a edição de Arte da Vogue Portugal.